On The Road Again

This time last week, I was in Camber, a tiny village on the English coast. After two weeks of mostly vacation, including all the meteorological delights that you get for free when you holiday on the south coast of England, I was catching up on emails and looking at the next few months and beginning to, maybe, make some tentative plans around some in-person events and travel before the end of the year.

Then I got an email out of the blue from the folks at SaltPay – they were opening a new tech hub in Porto, and would I be able to give a talk? We set up a Zoom call, and after chatting for a few minutes I realised what they were proposing… “whoa, hang on a second, you mean in person? You’re inviting me to fly to Portugal on Monday?” Yes, that’s exactly what they were inviting me to do – and, it turns out that’s actually possible right now, thanks to SCIENCE! I’ve had both my COVID vaccinations, and Portugal is one of the European countries that recognises the UK vaccination certificate, which means I can travel without having to quarantine at either end, and TAP are flying direct from Gatwick to Porto a few times a week.

Now, on one hand, travel is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Between COVID and Brexit, the days when you could book a flight or Eurostar and be in Europe in time for dinner probably aren’t coming back any time soon. But on the other hand, it’s still a lot easier and cheaper than going to, say, Russia or Tanzania. The European Union is a wonderful anomaly; for most of the folks on this planet, travel is an expensive mess of visas, paperwork, bureaucracy - and vaccinations. Big deal. You sign the forms, you get the jabs, you pay the fees, and off you go.

The logistics are a bit complicated, partly because so much of this is time-sensitive, and partly because the rules and procedures keep changing. There are the lateral flow tests you do at home which aren’t valid for travel; there’s the old-style PCR tests that are valid for travel but results take 24 hours, and there’s the new lateral flow tests which are valid for travel if you get them done at a clinic or get a lab to certify the results… PCR tests have to be done within 72 hours before departure, LFD tests within 48, and there are passenger locator forms to fill out in both directions. Mainland Portugal is on the UK’s “amber list”, so to re-enter the UK you need to have booked (and paid for!) another COVID test that you’ll take within 2 days of arriving home - and, you guessed it, it can’t be a free NHS one.

I had to show my test result and vaccination certificate when I checked in for my flight, and again at passport control on arrival in Porto. although at no point did anybody ask me to remove my mask to check my face matched my passport photo, which I thought was a little incongruous. There was also a slight entertaining moment when the airline stewardess doing the safety demonstration reminded people to take off your COVID mask before you put on your oxygen mask, but apart from that, it was really nothing remarkable. Gatwick Airport is much the same - everything’s flying out of North Terminal at the moment, and South is completely closed while they’re doing some sort of building work. Porto’s much the same as it was when I was last here in January 2020, albeit a lot warmer and full of British holidaymakers.

One thing I hadn’t expected which really stood out for me was the sense of anticipation. Even with the best tech and the best organisation in the world, online events just sort of blur into the ennui of lockdown life. I’ve done dozens of online talks over the last 18 months, and the night before an online talk, I’m not thinking about the talk; I’m thinking about the tech; all the various cables and devices that need to work flawlessly for the presentation to work. But on Sunday evening, I was out in Porto having a francesinha and a Super Bock and I realised that for the first time in over a year, all I was thinking about was what I was actually going to talk about. I wasn’t worrying about microphones and screen-sharing and whether I’d be able to read the questions in the chat; I was thinking about the stories I wanted to tell. You know what? It felt great.

The event was excellent, and an interesting insight for me into what in-person events look like in the post-COVID world. Everybody wearing masks, everybody taking lateral flow tests on arrival, colour-coded wristbands showing how comfortable you were with social proximity.

SaltPay’s new tech hub is fantastic – and did I mention this was my first in-person talk since March 2020? ACTUAL AUDIENCE! IN THE ROOM! Well, mostly; it was a hybrid event – some folks joined remotely over Zoom, some folks had flown in specially to be there in person; some speakers were there in person, some were there online, and of course being a brand new venue this was the first time the AV tech had really been put through its paces and there was the odd technical glitch, but on the whole, it all worked beautifully.

I should probably mention that SaltPay are hiring for all kinds of tech and tech-adjacent roles in Porto, Prague, London, Lisbon and all over Europe. They’re a great bunch of people, doing some very interesting stuff with payment systems – if you’re interested, check out saltpay.co/about.html#jobs)

And now I’m at Armazem, a wonderful “barely converted warehouse” down by the river, opposite the old customs warehouse (which you might know as the venue we use for NDC Porto when that’s in town). It’s a weird mashup of a bar, a cafe, an art gallery and an antiques shop, and it’s absolutely delightful. They have wifi, they have cold beer, and believe me, after walking the long way round from Castelo do Queijo, down the coast to Foz and back into town along the Douro, the cold beer is very much necessary. But it definitely feels like things are slowly returning to some semblance of normality.

Of course, the caveat to all of this is that daily COVID tests are just fine unless one of them comes back positive. So far, so good, but if one of those little indicator strips suddenly shows a second red line, all bets are off and instead of catching my flight home I’m suddenly working out what’s involved in self-isolating in Portugal for 10 days. I keep repeating that line from the agile manifesto about “responding to change over following a plan”, because if there’s one thing we’ve all learned over the last 18 months, it’s that COVID-19 couldn’t give a toss about anybody’s plans. At the moment it definitely feels like things are opening up again; I’m hoping to make it over to Antwerp next month to spend a few days with the folks from Axxes, DDD East Midlands is still on track for an in-person conference in Nottingham in October, and November sees the return of GOTO Copenhagen, BuildStuff and NDC Oslo.

I’m sure that there are going to be some bumps on the road back to something approaching normality - all the event organisers I know are taking COVID very seriously indeed, but I won’t be surprised if one or two events find themselves having to improvise in a hurry if travel restrictions change or somebody reports a positive test at a speaker hotel or something. But, y’know, the unpredictability is part of what makes international travel exciting, and I have to say, the rest of 2021 is looking pretty damn exciting right now.