Do you remember when, back in early 2020, media outlets would report that we were heading into some “new normal” in which suddenly everything was different than before? What did you think back then?
I knew that, while this state of things would keep going for quite some time, we would be able to do more or less the same as before after some time passes. To co-opt that dubious term, we would again shift from some “new normal” back to “normal”.
So here we are: In the spring of 2022, and the world is gradually shifting back from a state of heightened excitement to a more regular process. Regular here means: Events gradually start to be in-person only, Zoom meetings very slowly decline, and in general the movement of people increases. Many countries are lifting restrictions and switch to a mode of “take care for yourself; be vaccinated” rather than trying to protect the community with harsh regulations.
This also means that we as individuals now have to take up habits again that we had to stop in early 2020. And with habits I mean very basic stuff. Like getting a coffee habitually at that one café on your way to work. Or commuting to some office-space. Or visiting conferences.
The latter is the real reason for today’s article. I have been relatively quiet in the past weeks, and that had to do with both a lot of work on my desk, and having to get back into planning conference visits.
As academics, we are expected to travel large distances quite often. It is common to go from continent to continent just to present at a conference, get feedback, improve the work and finally publish it. In the past two years, we didn’t do that. Conferences were online-only and easily accessible. I was even able to visit a summer school in New York without ever touching North American soil. Now all of that is changing (again/back to “normal”).
I remember my very first conference vividly. It was in May 2019 in Athens, Greece. Since I was not affiliated with a University back then I paid for everything myself, but it was an amazing experience. It really gave me that reassurance that research is precisely what I want to do for the rest of my life.
When I finally landed a PhD position, Corona hit. So while previously I could visit conferences but lacked the institutional backing, I had the institutional backing but lacked the ability to (really) visit conferences. The first 1.5 years of my PhD consisted of me sitting in front of a computer at home without ever leaving the house.
The first six weeks of my PhD-journey consisted of me staring at the wallpaper in the kitchen of my very first apartment here. We even developed that running joke inside the department of discovering new holes in the wallpaper every time I looked up from my computer screen.
Today the world is gradually awakening again. Don’t get me wrong, we still have a pandemic and it will take a few more months until we get it over with. But the risks associated with it since the beginning of 2020 are waning. At least in Europe we have a wide availability of free vaccinations, so if I should ever contract that piece of s*** chances are good that nothing bad will happen.
Institutions and universities are also reflecting this change in affairs. On March 1st, the university declared the end of all pandemic-related restrictions and as such we can now enjoy the benefits of a paid-for office including, but not limited to, a god-send coffee machine. (My supervisor once commented my addiction to that coffee way too truthful.)
However, not everything goes smooth during this transition phase, and one of the reasons why I’m not writing here as regularly as I used to is that suddenly there are a lot more things on my plate than before. While in the last two years the only thing I needed to care for was work itself, I now have to take care of everything around that work as well. Specifically, while last year I just had to wake up and get in front of my computer, I now actually have to go places.
And that turns out to be more difficult than expected. In a few weeks, a course at Stockholm University begins — physically. That means, I have to go there. Booking those train tickets turned out to be much more mentally exhausting than expected. It took me a full work day just to plan my itinerary to and from Stockholm, taking into account when I had to wake up, planning for some delays, and also making sure to simply stay in Stockholm when two sessions of the course happen on consecutive days.
It turns out that, when you don’t travel around often, planning such travels is actually a mentally exhausting experience. And it doesn’t stop there: In the end of May, there is a conference at the other end of Europe where I also have to travel to. And if I want to see my family in between for a few weeks, the itinerary hell is complete.
All of this begs the question: How did we manage these things before 2020? Currently my suspicion is that it all boils down to routine. I certainly was right that “existing” as a human being, as a social being, is like riding a bicycle, but I was wrong in assuming that it would feel natural to do all these things after a two year hiatus. And it is incredible to witness how we, even though we were traveling all the time before, could become so clumsy at doing the most basic things.
It’s not just me who has to regain the routine in traveling or doing other relatively simple things. This also holds true for everyone else. That conference I mentioned in the end of May? It’s kind of the go-to conference for my whole discipline, and so most of my department will be attending.
Scheduling a whole bunch of people to go some place at a given date and time is a logistical master piece. And it is very amusing to see how we are all, collectively, struggling to get things right. There are so many eventualities whose existence we simply forgot over the past two years that it makes you appreciate how good we were at traveling to begin with.
That conference in Athens 2019 was extremely daunting for me. It was my first international flight in years, the first time booking accommodation in a country I never had been before, and trying to get along with people I have never met. But I managed this quite well. And now, even though accommodation is being taken care of by my department and I won’t be going alone, planning this conference feels … heavier than before.
It will be certainly just as amazing to attend that conference as it was to attend the conference in Athens. And I — we, collectively — will get back into all of these habits we developed over the years.
When I left the conference in Athens I had a layover at Bologna airport. I visited the city and got some lunch before boarding the plane back to Germany. And now, in May, I will again be traveling via Bologna to my first conference after the storm. It does feel like closing a circle.