On February 29th, 2020, I woke up in my Airbnb alone in Naples.
I had arrived yesterday and had seen quite a lot of the city before returning to my accommodations in the heart of the Historic District. It was my first real solo trip. I’ve been traveling alone to New York and Washington DC and The Netherlands since I was 13, yes, but that was always to visit a family member or a friend. This was the first time I felt comfortable enough with myself to travel somewhere completely new.
I woke up earlier than usual that Saturday morning, about 8:30am. I was puzzled. I thought a vespa must have zoomed past the front door (this kept me up a lot of the night). Then I looked at my phone and saw I had 79 missed text messages. Apparently, our study abroad program in Rome had been canceled. We had to leave by Wednesday.
At first, a bloom of anger came over me. Confusion. Then fear. Panic. And then buckets of tears. Everyone back home was sleep (the time difference was 6 hours). I felt trapped in that Naples apartment, like the world was caving in on me.
Once I got back to Rome, people started disappearing. Each day I would wake up to find a new person gone. Some left for America, others went to safer parts of Europe. The night before I left Rome, my apartment and our neighbors planned a surprise birthday party for a good friend I had met studying abroad. She was bound for Seattle the next morning, I was bound for Amsterdam. I was torn apart, unsure when I’d ever see these wonderful sisters I had made.
I felt numb, leaving Rome, this new home.
I was grateful to have a second home to evacuate to: the Netherlands. Throughout my time in Italy, my cousins and Oma would frequently text me and ask how I was doing. It felt extraordinarily special to feel so close to them. My Oma, Opa, Aunt, Uncle, and cousins took such good care of me.
The last time I had flown to The Netherlands, it was January 29th. This was the day COVID-19 had first been reported in Rome. There was a pair of tourists that had come from Milan, who got sick in their hotel near the Colosseum. They were now in the hospital. All Americans staying in Rome got an email notifying them to be careful, and many people decided to wear masks. I planned to buy a mask at the airport but was surprised to find nowhere selling them. From this, I determined, the virus was under control and not a real threat yet.
A month later, my new home was being consumed by the virus starting in the North, moving South. I was in Venice the day Padua (35 km away) got isolated and quarantined (February 21st). In the following days, Veneto, Lombardy, and Piedmont were practically shut down. The virus began to control every facet of life throughout the country. I would try to tell my friends and family about it, but for some reason, it seemed so distant to them. A lot of people blamed the media. (A lot of Romans, I should note, didn’t believe the virus would move South. They felt it was a problem for people in the North.)
The transition from Italy to Holland, on March 4th, felt more than changing cultures. It was like going back in time. All the fear and hysteria that consumed Italy were just beginning to reach the Netherlands. When I initially arrived, there were only a few cases in Utrecht (my home province). When I left, that number mushroomed. A day felt like a week, and a week felt like a month. So much changed so fast.
People were suspicious of me during family gatherings (not that I can blame them). Many smiles fell from distantly related family members when they heard I was just in Italy. People didn’t know how to greet me. A hug? An elbow tap? A wave? I wasn’t able to see my Great Uncle before he died. It felt like I wasn’t able to fully exist some days.
After a few days, a friend of mine from Rome came to visit my family and me in Holland. I loved showing her my home country. It was the first time I was able to show this other part of me I desperately desired to. So many good memories were made in those short few days.
On March 11th, in the middle of the night, my brother called me. Apparently, President Trump was giving a formal address to the nation. He said he was closing the border to Europe midnight the next day. If I wanted to leave without extra check-points and possible detainment, I would have to leave in the next 21 hours.
It felt like deja vu, like I was back in Naples. My friend was sleeping; I was the only one awake. I processed the news alone. I had to leave my home again suddenly. This also meant saying goodbye to my family without knowing when I would see them again. My heart was shattered. I cried and I cried before putting myself back together and waking up my friend. I told her we had to book flights home that day.
I then went to my Oma and Opa’s room and told them the situation. My friend and I’s flights left at 9am, which meant we had to pack and leave for Schipol airport in just 3 hours. I wasn’t able to hug my Aunt, Uncle, and cousins goodbye.
I got back to Orlando, Florida, in the evening, not even 24 hours after finding out I had to leave. When I saw my mom, I cried. I thought of all the stories of all the people who had been on this study abroad journey with me, and imagined the hurt they were feeling. We had been thrown around the world, vagabonds, without a home.
Again, flying to the United States of America felt like going back in time. I went to my favorite Thai Restaurant. I visited my grandparent’s new house. I finally got to see my boyfriend again. It felt like no one knew what the virus was, or how serious it could become. Sometimes I saw flashbacks of Italy, all the broken memories. Who was to say this couldn’t happen here?
A day felt like a week, and a week felt like a month. So much changed so fast.
New federal and state orders were made each day, which limited our ability to go places or see people. Gatherings were capped at 10 people. Non-essential businesses were closed. Restaurants and bars couldn’t seat individuals. Our family instituted a policy that severely limited our ability to see people outside our predetermined ‘circles.’ Then we weren’t able to see people at all. Clients began canceling their contracts with our family business. People had to be laid off. I knew of family members and distant friends who had contracted the virus, struggling or succumbing to death. And even then, not all people have taken the virus seriously. Home didn’t feel like home.
In my first blog post before leaving for my semester in Rome, I wrote the following statement: “It is not the fear of a foreign land, language, or culture that frightens me; I’ve experienced that many times before. It is the feeling of doing something on my own. To start over for a brief moment in time. To not have the control I’ve become accustomed to.”
It is true. In the course of two months, I lost complete control over my life and circumstance. There came many moments where I didn’t want to get up in the mornings because waking up meant more bad news. More losses. This still happens.
The hardest moments I’ve experienced since February 29th, 2020 (when I woke up in Naples) were all goodbyes. It was saying goodbye to my Rome family: Madhavi, Caitlyn, Nikki, Jill, Rhodes, Gaby, Jewel, Karina, Anna, Colleen, Paris, Emma, Madeline, Diana, Vanessa, Camila, Joshua, and Elliana. It was also saying goodbye to my Dutch family: Oma, Opa, Anneke, Thijs, Guus, Stijn, and Mees. Those days broke my heart.
I am so thankful for those connections. Not only did we experience all the effects of COVID-19, but we experienced them together, in unison.
When I look back at my time in Europe in 2020, I hope I will remember the good things: the wonderful homecooked ‘family’ dinners, glasses of wine, grappa, and limoncello, the movie nights, the #8 tram to Piazza Venezia, olive oil tastings, on-site classes, cross-country train rides, makeshift couch-beds, the way our apartment always smelled like garlic or potatoes, the sound of the deadbolt on our apartment door, Paulo the wonderful Italian professor, the strenuous walk to school up the tallest hill in Rome, the water fountains, the espressi, the cats that didn’t want to be pet, the expressive hand gestures, the exclaimation of “Ciao!” each time we’d greet each other or part, the insanely cheap pasta, the orange and red comforters, the sound of construction in the morning, the heavy metal shutters on the windows, the sound of my oversized house slippers across the wood floor, the brisk weather, the way water always escaped the shower onto the bathroom floor, the drying racks on the balcony and the pure, pure love we each felt toward one another.
I am better for having gone to Rome. I am thankful, though, at the moment, I am still hurt. But I know that hurt will one day pass.