In what would turn out to be one of my last classes at the University of Zaragoza (Unizar), a student raised her hand and asked if our assessed presentations would continue if the university had to close. The class laughed while the professor joked; we were all sure that it wouldn’t happen and so we turned our attention back to Postcolonial thought. This was 11 March 2020 and Covid-19 was already devastating Northern Italy and spreading rapidly across Europe.
That same day I packed my rucksack for a six-day trip to see my girlfriend in the Netherlands, throwing outfits and toiletries together quickly. This was all I took home with me for the nine weeks (and counting) of social isolation I was to experience in Sligo. I laughed with my housemates that evening about getting stuck in the Netherlands and not making it back to Spain, saying goodbye to them in a rush over a birthday dinner for my flatmate, wanting to get a few hours of sleep in before catching an early bus to Madrid.
“Emails from Trinity followed with advice to return to Ireland as soon as possible. Panic ensued.”
Upon landing in Eindhoven, my phone exploded. While I had been dozing during my flight, the government of Aragón announced that schools and universities would close for three weeks. Emails from Trinity followed with advice to return to Ireland as soon as possible. Panic ensued. My parents told me to get a flight home the next day, which led to tearful discussions about what I should do and the frantic checking of news and airline sites to find out about airport closures and border shutdowns. More emails from Trinity and my host university made it clear that it would be impossible for me to return to Spain, where cases in Madrid had almost doubled overnight. At this rate, I felt I would be lucky to make it home at all as friends on Erasmus across Europe had begun their return home en masse.
On March 16, I flew into Dublin. The student couple beside me wore masks and gloves and they disinfected their seats and table tops with a travel size Dettol, making it clear that I was flying towards a very different reality. It became clear that coming home was the right decision as Spain announced a total shutdown including bans on exercise. As the weeks passed and travel seemed more unlikely, I realised that for the foreseeable future I would be living out of my rucksack and in my hoodies from transition year which hadn’t made the cut for Spain.
“I wrote a long and apologetic message to my flatmate Sara — with whom I had lived for just over a month — asking her to pack up all of my belongings for a courier to collect.”
Eventually, I asked for the biggest favour of my life. I wrote a long and apologetic message to my flatmate Sara — with whom I had lived for just over a month — asking her to pack up all of my belongings for a courier to collect. I wrote her a two-page packing guide which she dutifully followed; my suitcases are due to be delivered any day now. I also must mention my landlord as well, who was very considerate and reduced my rent by 50% for the months I wasn’t actually living in the flat. Apart from the stress of organising a courier collection from across the Atlantic Ocean, academic life has been less than smooth sailing since my return home. It has not been as simple as logging onto Zoom for online tuition. For the first few weeks of lockdown, my host university was really optimistic — they hoped to open for classes and sit exams, as planned, in June. Most of my professors weren’t yet offering online assessment and it was unclear if Erasmus students would be accommodated if they couldn’t return to Spain.
“As the situation developed, Unizar announced that exams would be held online and I breathed a sigh of relief as professors slowly began to announce modified assessments and online class schedules.”
Travel to Spain seemed impossible at this point in the crisis for me. I was fearful that I would end up sitting my exams at the second available examination session in September. Trinity was unclear as to what would happen in that case. I filled in a survey sent out by the Erasmus office to all students studying abroad, which really didn’t allow for enough space to go into the particulars of my situation. Additionally, messages were mixed as to what would happen if we didn’t achieve the required 45 credits, which has caused stress and confusion for many of my coursemates. As the situation developed, Unizar announced that exams would be held online and I breathed a sigh of relief as professors slowly began to announce modified assessments and online class schedules.
In this time of worldwide tragedy and stress, I am fortunate that my main concerns are passing all my classes, comparing shipping companies, and wondering when I’ll see my girlfriend again. My world transformed quickly. One moment I was flying across Europe joking about the virus which would soon take control over almost every aspect of our lives and the next minute, I’m at home in my pyjamas planning days in advance to go out for ice cream with a friend. Times change.