Safely back home

Published in World Architecture Festival Q3 2021

If you have yet to make your first post-Covid visit to another country, let me forewarn you: from start to finish you will be challenged. There’s no doubt of course that we had become accustomed to easy inter-country and inter-city movement, but what I have just been through in preparation for, and during, my first foray into mainland Europe since my December 2019 visit to WAF ‘Amsterdam’ has served only to reinforce my memories of those halcyon days, pre-Brexit and pre-Covid, when travel was as simple as it was cheap, and as hassle-free as it was pleasurable.

I had been invited to join a two-city workshop organised by Design Intelligence which started in Rome and rolled on to Venice….

First, I had to obtain a so-called NHS ‘Covid Vaccination’ Certificate. This involved an application to the NHS which, with laudable efficiency, sent the document electronically. Herein of course lies the first real problem: if you are anything less than IT savvy, stay at home – you won’t make it. Indeed, the level of IT knowledge and competence now required for travel renders most of our older folk severely disadvantaged: SAGA be aware; many of your 2.7 million customers – and certainly those without a smart phone, or the like, will need nursing all the way through this one! And you will need patience in abundance. I was just about IT-savvy enough to fight my way through this IT roller-coaster, but I certainly lacked the patience which led to many a stumble, and occasionally heavy falls as, short of the ability to show the right information in the right form (electronic or paper) my road ahead was blocked…..

……. Yes, blocked, and non-negotiable. Show the necessary document or stay there, stay out, or go back. Anything except go on. I kid you not: I have seen couples separated; the elderly left behind; and siblings split between parents who made it ‘through’ and those that didn’t.

When my NHS Covid Certificate arrived, I printed a copy for incorporation into my newly prepared ‘hard-copy’ travel file, and duly transferred an electronic copy to my i Phone ‘wallet’ (remember that you have done this – I forgot; more of that later). This strange little form, issued under our wonderful NHS logo, contains the simplest of information: name; date of birth; period of validity; dosage status (one jab or two!) date of ‘Dose 2’; vaccination product; and, of critical importance, the ‘Bar Code’. The NHS use a two-dimensional barcode called a QR code which is supplied by the Denso Corporation. Better than the old linear one-dimensional versions used in retail, it can carry much more information. However, be careful: if you print a copy, the paper version often fails to register with the mobile scanners used in airports. It is therefore essential that you always carry your electronic version with you on your Smart Phone. Oh, the trials of modern post-pandemic life…. things will never be the same again.

Next, and before I travelled, I had to arrange my Covid Tests which must be carried out within 48 hours of travel and certified by a registered laboratory. These are not cheap at £110 per test: you also need proof of a pre-booked test scheduled for within two days of your return….so that’s another £90. Think about it: that’s £400 for a couple’s holiday abroad. Good-bye cheap travel!

In my case it was a knife-edge as to whether I would travel or not on the allotted Sunday. Tested on the preceding Friday morning at the local pharmacy my certificate, which was due to be issued electronically on the Friday afternoon, had still not arrived on the Saturday morning. Multiple phone-calls to the chemist led to investigations which initially suggested my test had been lost (and it was too late to do another). But mercifully, around 5pm on Saturday evening, success; sample found, and the certificate arrived: I was good to go.

I arrived uncharacteristically early at Stansted: I had layered in contingency time for every possible ‘hiccup’ along the way. But no, all was easy….no queue at check in, and I was able to quickly produce i) my passport, ii) my RyanAir electronic flight ticket iii) my Passenger Locator Form and iv) my PCR Test Certificate as issued by the laboratory. Each of these carried my very own QR Code and again, I kid you not, if any one of these goes missing, you’re going nowhere. But all mine was in order, so I whizzed on through passports and security, and all was good until I was stopped by one of their grim eateries: no access without my Covid Vaccination Certificate. Easy: I produced once more my electronic version and I was in.  

The remainder of the journey was without incident, and no real problems at Rome arrivals except, on my first trip out of the UK since Brexit, I was saddened to be split from my European ‘family’ and channelled into the non-EU line. And it took forever: as other European travellers joined the fast-moving EU queues, I shuffled slowly forward with seemingly everyone in my queue being subjected to lengthy questioning. It took me one and a half hours just to get through passport control.

All the certificates had to be produced again at the hotel check-in late that Sunday evening but no hassle, I dropped my bags and made off to a restaurant. There I was again required to show my vaccination certificate; a ritual that is currently required pretty-well everywhere in Italy.

The conference was great: more meals, regular proof of Covid status being required, but all good, then off to Venice by train. Here again, serious documentation protocols: identity and Covid status certificates to get into the station, and again through the ticket barriers, and again on the train itself. My electronic version often didn’t work with their hand-held scanner, so frequently much rummaging in my case, and then my briefcase, until I found the appropriate paper version.

And on and on all this went as we progressed through the Venice protocols of hotel check-in and entry to restaurants. And my word weren’t they strict on the River Buses: no mask, no boarding. No argument.

All this is of course for our individual safety and our collective good, but it reminded me of a trip I took to China way back in 1978. At that time the country was pretty-well closed to foreigners and very different from the China I recently lived in for three pre Covid years. Whilst Europe remained very colourful (the Chinese back in that immediate post Mao Tse Tung era wore only blue denim jackets and trousers irrespective of age and sex) I remember that the Chinese nationals needed a special pass to travel by train from city to city. Indeed, without that travel within China was barred. Courtesy of Covid 19 that situation now pertains across Europe: no pass, no train travel, and no movement across national boundaries without a ‘Passenger Locator Form’. I know this is as wise as it is necessary for the common good, but it certainly gives governments a very clear grasp on where we all are.

Indeed, nothing like it has been witnessed since the Nazi machine swept across Europe….

Per chance, as I travelled across Italy on this latest trip, I was reading a biography on that most evil of the Nazis, Reinhard Heydrich. His killing apparatus was efficient to chilling effect and all without any of our modern-day computerised paraphernalia. All by paper the SS ‘machine’, with its incredible administrative efficiency, established and maintained the most sophisticated human data base ever hitherto seen which was all too often, for vast swathes of the population, ruthlessly effective from the point of invasion to their execution or extermination. There, of course, all comparison ends because, whatever the irritations, we fully understand that the benign governments of Europe are gathering and maintaining this information in the interests of its citizens. That fact affirmed; we are nevertheless being monitored in terms of our movement as never before in peacetime Europe.

Those ultimately responsible for the Nazi atrocities were of course brought to trial at Nuremburg and the worst of them were sentenced to death by hanging. Sadly, for them that process was carried out with a bungling incompetence and inefficiency that contrasted starkly with the ruthless and efficient competency of their evil regime, all due to the Americans. For it was they who insisted that ‘their’ hangman be charged with responsibility for the first 10 top-level Nazi executions.

And so it was that Master Sergeant John C Woods was to deliver justice. Sadly, for those that he executed, he had neither the training nor the experience of his British counterpart, the infamous Albert Pierrepoint, who used to carefully assess the weight of his charges to calculate the rope length, and thus a ‘drop’ sufficient to break the neck causing virtually instant death, without severing the head. Unlike Pierrepoint who carried out over 400 executions in his 25-year career, Woods was clueless: he was also an imposter….

Abandoned by his parents shortly after birth, he had dropped out of school in Kansas to join the US Navy. Finding that career unsuitable, he deserted, only to be caught and tried. He was then assessed as a ‘constitutional psychotic’ and dismissed, thereafter bouncing from one job to another until, at the outbreak of World War 2, he was drafted into the US Army as a combat engineer, eventually arriving in Normandy following the D-Day landings. There, death sentences of its own military for grievous crimes such as rape and murder were effected to maintain discipline, and Woods answered the US Army’s call for a hangman during the invasion’s advance across Europe, apparently bungling a number of executions along the way.

Regrettably, he had lied about his experience at interview claiming to have been an executioner in his home state of Oklahoma. Thus, it was that Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister who went to the gallows first (Hermann Goring having committed suicide) would take fourteen minutes to die. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel would choke for nearly twice as long. And so on….

There was of course a cruel irony in the fact that the leaders of such an efficient killing apparatus should be executed with such bungling inefficiency, but this is an episode for which the allied victors can draw no pride….And so, however tempting it might be to liken the current frustrating paperwork and bureaucracy that frustrates our movements through and around Europe in these Covid charged times with the likes of Europe under occupation, never forget that behind the current initiatives lie Governments who ultimately care for their people’s wellbeing, one and all. These are indeed good times….and it was very nice to be back ‘in Europe’.