What I gained from two coronavirus outbreaks

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Riley Palmer, Special to the Oak Leaf

Getting on a plane from Florence, Italy back to San Francisco wearing dish gloves was not how I thought my study abroad experience would end.

At 4 a.m March 11, I arrived at the Florence airport with my roommate, sweaty from wearing a multicolored Patagonia sweater and a cream cardigan I wasn’t able to stuff in my checked bag and mindful of the so-called “coronavirus climate” at the airport. The fear in the air was palpable. Italy had decided to close down the entire country the night before. Social distancing had just started in Florence, and it would begin in the United States about two weeks later. 

At the start of my month-long journey, I remember getting off the plane at my layover in Frankfurt, the grayest place in Northern Europe, and mingling with people I thought I would spend the next three months with. It was mind-numbing, and I had grown so comfortable with my social life at home that it felt like I was faking an orgasm when discussing how we were all going to become the bestest of friends. Admittedly, I was dragging my heels to the study abroad experience starting at hour six. 

Months before I made the decision to fly to Europe with a scholastic cape on my back, I pondered what I was going to do with my semester off. I had graduated from Santa Rosa Junior College in the fall, and as I tend to load a ridiculous amount of pressure onto my back, I was adamant about leaving Santa Rosa. The only time I had been out of the country was to visit my grandparents in Vancouver when I was 18. My family and I didn’t travel when I was a kid, so traveling in my adulthood was and still is a big priority in my life. The study abroad experience was a fruitful decision for every past study abroad student I had spoken with. “Life changing” was the terminology often used. 

I had saved up roughly $10,000 and didn’t know what to do with it. My mom convinced me to change my life and go to Italy. I convinced myself of that, too. Paying the down payment almost gave me a heart attack due to my frugal nature, but I constructed a narrative of my European travels in my head to calm down. I had applied for numerous scholarships which turned out to be successful, and family and friends were gracious enough to help me finance the trip. Having the backing of those I hold dear meant everything to me. 

February brought a crisis of the psyche. It dawned on me the second I had moved all my belongings into my cute Italian apartment that I had made it. And it wasn’t that hard. I was so scared of making the solo journey for fear that I would fail, that I didn’t realize how, with even a little faith, I could have done it alone. I was ashamed that I had discovered this only after spending a ludicrous amount of my own money, as well as that of those who supported me. So I set off to make it work, getting my shovel and burying this secret by drinking bottle after bottle of wine for nights on end and excusing my encroaching cigarette habit as “a European thing.”

I did FaceTime with my boyfriend at home every day, and that wasn’t healthy for me, but I didn’t care. I would wait to talk to my mom on WhatsApp until darkness had fallen on Florence and the sun had risen in California, crying along the cobblestone. I remember one time I was having a crying fit via WhatsApp, and I recognized one of my classmates walking by. Florence is a small city. My classmate and I never talked about it.

I saw some beautiful places, but by the end of February, I was exhausted. I was exhausted from being in class from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Exhausted from partying that didn’t fulfill me. Exhausted from getting on trains every Friday and spending the entire day sightseeing with structure I realized I didn’t actually need. My program and I went to Carnival for a day trip, and I quickly lost the group I had arrived in. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t get many opportunities to be alone, so I decided to capitalize on the state of being. I bought a mask at carnival, which I ironically realized afterwards was a Black Death plague mask, and spent the day incognito. I felt like I was in a different place than all my peers. 

I had planned a solo trip to France towards the end of February so I could explore Europe in my own way, on my own time. But I got strep throat a couple of days before. I was devastated, but it’s not like I didn’t see it coming. I had partied so hard after spending a night in Rome’s Trastevere party district roaming streets, kissing strangers and slumping into taxis I didn’t remember the next day that I had a drunken breakdown at 4 a.m. I smoked so many cigarettes that night that my voice had completely vanished the next day; I physically could not speak.

When I woke up, I was relieved that I didn’t piss myself from drinking too much. In any case, I walked halfway across Florence in the rain to a British doctor to get some antibiotics. He was a pleasant man, and we had a chatty conversation about a new virus that had aggressively occupied Northern Italy.  He initially thought that I had come in due to coronavirus concerns, and we both agreed COVID-19 was bizarre in how fast it was spreading. After our initial coronavirus briefing, we talked about the trip I intended to go on and then he wrote my prescription.

I did not end up going to France. My body was too decimated from the life I was living in Italy; I felt like a cardboard cutout of myself that had been run over by an SUV. I knew if I made the 6-mile walk to the bus station at 5 a.m. I would spend the trip in agony, my aching body, stretched out on the coast of Nice. I woke up that morning with my bag packed but not an ounce of motivation to get my foot out of the door. I lost a lot of money. That day I laid in my twin bed alone with the blinds closed, as my roommate had left for a trip to Vienna, Austria. 

I felt my silver lining would be fast approaching in March. I had planned a solo trip to Budapest and Prague, and in late March my friends from home would be visiting. I felt strongly that my mood would turn around; maybe this opportunity would prove itself to be rewarding and the angst I let consume me in February would dissipate.

The next day, I got out of bed and walked to a panini shop to get a classic Tuscan sandwich. I spotted the rather hard-to-miss yellow sign screaming “Pino’s” and pushed the door open to the smell of fresh-baked focaccia bread, homemade pesto sauce and fear wafting off a group of American students. The pleasant conversation I had with Dr. Stephen Kerr had only been a day before, but international students were already packing their bags and making the journey back to the states. I sat by the Arno river for hours in the gleaming sun, analyzing the cornerstone I had reached within myself, while also simultaneously feeling the climate in Florence change from arrogance to fear. 

As I failed to meet my own expectations that weekend, I ironically had more fun being on my lonesome in Florence than I probably would have if I had gone to Nice. My boyfriend was on a trip in California and all of my roommates were busy, so I got a moment of silence, the deafening halt in the chain of daily activities. 

Coronavirus concerns started to become more prevalent, but the Italians saw it as something akin to the flu. The ones I spoke with were confident in their ability to fight it and saw it as propaganda. As did the students. We all scoffed at the students who were sent home and decried the fact that some stupid virus that only affected old people would be the reason we were being punished. I didn’t think it was serious, and after being away from the people I loved for a month, I sure as hell wasn’t going to self-isolate for 14 days if forced to return home.

At 3 a.m. on March 3, I got an email from my study abroad program informing me that we were being sent home. My first emotion was happiness. It felt like a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be in school and that my place was back home. The second emotion was skepticism at the program. They had been telling students for weeks we weren’t getting sent home — it was just the flu — and saying that if we chose to leave on our own merit they would look down upon us. Other confusing feelings emerged. I wanted to travel so badly that the best part about being there was being there.

The program asked us when we’d like to leave. I bonded with some people from the program and in a moment of peer pressure, I decided to leave on the last day possible, March 11. That was one of the most stressful decisions I could have made. I had trouble sleeping because during each remaining night in Italy, as American officials announced more and more restrictions on travel. I answered texts at all hours and took FaceTime calls at 4 a.m. most days. Every single conversation I had with my peers for a week straight was about what people were going to do, if they were going to stay or go. I ate amazing food to deal with the stress, and most days my roommate and I didn’t leave the house, pseudo-quarantining before there was a need for it. There was nothing to do, and I didn’t care anymore. 

On March 9, my roommate and I spent another day doing nothing, aside from going back and forth between our apartment and our school building and deciding what to pack. I got a Snapchat from a girl in my program that said something along the lines of “Italy is shut down, guess we’re never leaving guys.” Shortly after, my roommate discovered her flight home was canceled. I began reading news articles on my phone saying Italy had declared a country-wide lockdown. The tears began to roll down my cheek slowly at first, and then I couldn’t contain myself nor could I hide them from my roommates. I called my mom in a panic while simultaneously looking at other flight options in case my flight got canceled, too. 

The next day my roommate was able to get a seat on my flight for March 11. When the day came, we woke up at 3 a.m. and got in a taxi headed for the Florence airport. The airport was a madhouse, with long lines heading for Germany and newly instated social distancing precautions that had yet to be rolled out in America. I wore dish gloves to the flight, as gloves and sanitizer were hot commodities I was never lucky enough to find. An airport check-in employee yelled at me for not maintaining my distance, but personally, I think she was rude. 

The second we landed in Frankfurt I felt relieved; the kind of militant procedures under practice in Italy had not yet reached Germany. Things were normal for the most part. I ran to make my San Francisco flight, which was filled with wine, an edible and plenty of naps.

I got off the plane and into my boyfriend’s truck, and from there for the next three weeks we roamed the North Coast, rebelling against precautions and absorbing the beauty of the coast and one another. 

After those three weeks, when the United States shut down, I wasn’t fazed. I knew it was coming. I had been through it before and understood that it meant a halt to everything normal. I had seen Italian culture change so rapidly within the course of days, that in my heart I knew our American culture would never look the exact same. 

I was excited to come home, but during this months-long quarantine, I’ve been dreaming about when I can return to Europe and where I want to go. It’s my top priority. I don’t regret my decision to study abroad. I wanted it to be a different experience, and in truth, I didn’t feel like myself there and was trying too hard to make it work. I know I’m lucky to have had the experience, but I can’t say that I didn’t struggle deeply with making the right decision for myself. 

Maybe there is no lesson to be learned from this. Of course it’s been eye opening, but to be frank, I believe as we decline globally, every event will be something we never could have planned for. Never even imagined. The future is ripe with bags of shit that will be left on our doorsteps. The only things I know for sure is that living for yourself and chasing genuine freedom to attain your goals is more important than ever. The world might only become more erratic, and we can’t let fear or insecurity squander our potential.

Do what you want. Seize your moment, even if it’s scary. That is the pledge I’m making to myself.