In the last six weeks I have attended two conferences, one in Germany and one in Belgium. Prior to the lockdown I was a very frequent traveller with conferences, expert groups and other academic meetings taking me to all corners of the globe with regularity. Travelling was just part of my norm. Of course, all that stopped suddenly in March 2020 and I have been surprised by how well I have coped without travel. However, a multitude of on-line events filled the gap, until these recent opportunities to give lectures at real live academic events came along.

The idea of returning to international travel and to face-to-face conferences was a bit daunting – I had a feeling of uncertainty –what would it be like meeting real people again in those sorts of settings? I needn’t have worried. The travelling itself was pretty straightforward, despite the necessary added levels of bureaucracy, and the familiarity of it all was rather relaxing. But the conferences themselves reminded me of what we have missed over this period of endless on-line experiences.

Like me, for almost everyone, the German conference in early November was their first face-to-face conference for at least 19 months, if not longer for many. And everyone was just happy to be there. The conference was fairly small with attendees from across Europe. It was held at a hotel in Frankfurt; everyone was staying at the hotel and the hotel required that we ate all our meals together and did not mix with other guests. There was a great sense of camaraderie. It was wonderful seeing old friends and catching up and even more wonderful meeting new, often younger, researchers and talking with them about what they were working on. It was all rather gentle and, well, just nice. The conference itself was pretty good in its content and in the quality of the presentations and discussions. It was also very good humoured, I think because everyone was just enjoying being part of a conference again and being able to talk science face to face once more. What struck me was how quickly people got back into their conference mode. Those who used to be performers, were still performers. Those who were not performers, were still not performers. The people who used to ask the short, barbed questions, still asked short, barbed questions; the ones who used to ask the long meandering questions where they seem to forget what it was they actually meant to ask about, still asked the long … well you get the picture. I thought a lot about this afterwards.

Despite the pandemic and the undoubted hardships it has wrought on all of us, one way or another, we, as scholars, remain unchanged in our joy of companionship, our sense of curiosity and our need to get as close to the truth as we can (and for some at least, our need to make the last point!). It felt remarkably like old times…….     

The return of the familiar …by Professor Philip Calder

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