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Erasmus in the time of quarantine

An original KÖZGAZDÁSZ ONLINE post.

I will start my story with a song by Margaret Island: „If you don’t know where you are going, look for the source”. Now, this was completely true for me, I had absolutely no idea where I was going. In fact, I don’t really know now either, but at least I am on my way. And, as strange as this may sound, this is largely due to the coronavirus.

Written by Dóra Major, guest author.

My name is Dorci Major, I am in my third year studying Commerce and Marketing at Corvinus, and currently studying abroad, in Balboa, Spain. Now, this is the introduction which I have settled on, and which I send to my teachers and the contact persons of Erasmus/Campus Mundi when I have a question – the only thing missing is my Neptune code.

Since I was in high school, I have always wanted to study abroad, to travel and get to know as many people and cultures as possible. This very much sounds like a “Why study with Erasmus” brochure, but it indeed was typical of the first two years of my university studies. So, this is how I ended up in hustling Bilbao in Northern Spain from my “very busy” life in Nyíregyháza and Budapest.

Many friends of mine, who have already been on an Erasmus trip, told me that it feels like time speeding up and slowing down at the same time: during a semester abroad one week seems like 1-2 months at home – and they were right. I could hardly keep up with the experience, I met so many nice people and saw so many wonderful places, in the meantime thinking to myself, wow, I am having such a great time, too good a time in fact, and I will miss all this so much. I tried to experience every minute to the full, and after the culture shock was over, just walked around in the city making the whole experience mine forever. The palm trees at the campus, the great laughs, the carnivals, the coast right by my side, the street music, the fiesta, the Spaniards, life is beautiful.

And now, you know, in horror movies, this is the point when after all this happiness YOU KNOW something must happen because this is too good to be true. The calm before the storm.

And it did happen.

COVID-19. Pandemic. Quarantine. If my dad, who tends to worry about me a bit too much anyway, had told me in January (actually, maybe he did), “Dorcika, there will be a pandemic, and some things you have never experienced in your 21 years will happen”, I would have probably laughed it off. Well, like it or not, parents seem to be always right.

The world has really turned upside down.

whatsgoingon. everybodyscomplaining. theyregone. withoutsayinggoodbye. uncertainty. youaregoinghome. notme. ishetoo? metoo. not me. Iamcertainlystaying. metoo. iwenthome. ididnt. whyarentyoucominghome. whyareyougoinghome. iamstaying. iamgoing. iamstaying. iamgoing. iamnotgoing. repeat. iwanttostay. butihavetogo. whyisthishappening. why. why. helpless. wonderplce. wonderpeople. lasthug. farewell. heisgoingtoo. sheisgoingtoo. theyregoingtoo. iamnot. idontfeellikegoing. nobodyhasstayed. butyouare. iamtoo. whatisgoingon. daybyday. icannotsleep. quarantine.

Well, this is how my little cotton candy life turned upside down: time sped up and slowed down at the same time. Again. But this time it was a little bit different.

Nobody likes to say goodbye

I don’t either, obviously. But I had to. This is another thing I spent some time thinking about (you certainly have time to think during a quarantine), which one is easier: to prepare and wait for the final goodbye, or just pack your things and go?

There is no right answer, as neither of these options are easy. We were “fortunate” enough to experience both. Our circle of friends of about twenty people is rather colorful: among the French, Americans and Latin-Americans there are also people from Australia, Canada, Jordan and Hungary.

Early March things got a bit rough here too, but the Spanish were pretty cool, maybe too cool, about it. When at home universities had long been closed, we still were happily, nonetheless a bit worriedly having con café leche and zucchini tortilla de patatas for lunch in the school canteen.

And then, exactly like in the movies

Two days later, Thursday early morning, after the announcement of the US president calling citizens home, panic broke out. But really. That morning, the stay of most of the American students on Erasmus came to a sudden halt, and they headed back home, basically immediately. This started the avalanche. Two of my friends got their plane tickets right after talking to their parents on the phone, and were on their way home aboard the first flight in the morning. The rest of us went to uni just to see each other.

And the last ones started.

It was really scary to see everyone crying on the corridors, just like in a movie about the end of the world. They cried in the canteen. And in the courtyard. Even the teaching and the administrative staff had nothing they could tell us. Because nobody knew anything.

All we did was sitting in the courtyard under the palm trees all morning trying to process the events. Everyone’s situation was unique, but we shared one thing in common: we knew that it would affect all of us in a bad way. And everything was extremely uncertain.

We stayed up until 4 a.m. that day

Together, for the last time. My sweet American friend took a cab to the airport and he had left his phone charger in our room… so I ran to catch him at 4.10 after five minutes of sleep…. Luckily, everything is within five minutes walking distance in Balboa.

So far I have been writing this with a smile on my face, but now I started sobbing a little bit. Then, I had not realized how absurd this whole thing was. We said our goodbyes with a See you soon. And I know we will see each other someday.

Another amazing friend of mine is from Australia, which is literally the other side of the world. I worried myself sick until she managed to finally get home after three stopovers, two cancelled flights, and one lost luggage during the course of about three days.

Because, besides the many cancelled flights, a lot of people were not allowed to board planes because they were travelling from Spain, one of the most affected countries at that time. Just like jumping from a sinking boat.

This is when the collective applause started at 8 pm every night, which meant and still means hope. We stand in the window and clap optimistically, thinking this can only get better. On the final night of my Canadian friend, after the eight o’clock applause, we played old songs through loudspeakers in our windows and then we had a dance in the room, just the three of us. We needed it.

By this time we have become so experienced in saying our farewells that we didn’t even cry, just held each other tight, or hugged each other with a bitter laugh. We had cried all our tears, mourning all our past and planned adventures, as well as our carefree time abroad.

Our French friends went home “for a while”

They live the closest to us, and we never believed in our wildest dreams that right after they left the borders would get closed off. They didn't even take all their stuff with them. They left behind some blankets, bed linen, yoga mats, a mixer, plants, and even a pretty good TV too.

And, of course, the guitar. I have been playing music for quite a while, and here I missed playing and singing after the first week already. I was not alone with this, so we went ahead and started an international band, and each afternoon we got together to play some music in parks or at one another's places, and in the evenings in the streets. We even made friends with the local street musicians, and had wonderful joint projects.

However, all of a sudden, all my friends left, except my roommate from Jordan. So, with nothing better to do, we started learning to play the guitar together. We were teasing each other with who progresses faster, and after 2 or 3 weeks we were ready to play some of today’s simple pop songs that have about four or five chords. We were delighted. We watched tutorials on YouTube and I even started an Insta page with motivating lyrics. It is true music always helps.

And we do need it.

Here in Spain the situation is rather dire, even though, after stagnating a bit, the rate of new infections started to drop. But I am very careful to say that the worst is over because I can't be surprised anymore.

We are having a real quarantine here.

We are only allowed to go to the drug store or the supermarket, and only in the vicinity. This is taken seriously and controlled by the police. I also was stopped once. After the first couple of weeks of complete lockdown I felt I had to go for a walk or else I'd get mad. I was walking the sunny streets carrying my huge pink bag, wearing sunglasses, and almost whistling (I might have as well been going to the store), when a police car, until then considered an urban legend, slowed down beside me.

I managed to explain myself saying I was going to grab some hand sanitizers from the drugstore (this was the only object in my bag beside my keys), but if I hadn't been able to I would have easily been given a 500 euro fine. So, this is not a joke, and rightfully so.

March and April, we spent on curfew.

I had my birthday on April 26th, and I received a huge gift from the Spanish government: as of May 2nd we were officially allowed outside to do some sports! We were finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

You might want to ask: if the situation had been so bad why didn't I go home? Yes, I also had the choice of staying or leaving. And by this I mean not just all the Erasmus students studying abroad, but also those from the countryside going to school in the capital or relatively far away from home. In a situation like this even the distance between Budapest and Nyíregyháza may seem huge, and everybody had the same circumstances to deal with.

This may have easily been the hardest decision of my life.

Because as much as I hate saying goodbye, I hate making decisions. Like most people my age, I prefer intuitive decision making, but this time I did thorough research, carefully weighing my options. I did not want to go home. I did not want to change flights multiple times and get home with nobody waiting for me at the airport, nobody hugging me. I could not. I could not end this adventure of my lifetime in this way, return to Budapest this way. It did not want to regret going home.

After all, if we consider that I had wanted to spend this semester exploring ways to go forward and pursuing personal growth, then here it is, I got it. Obviously, I didn't plan it this way but hey, let's make the most of it.

There is no right choice.

I didn't regret that I had stayed. I simply thought that this was the safest for myself and my loved ones. There is no right or wrong choice in a situation like this.

My best friend is currently in Portugal on Erasmus in the same situation, so we have been supporting each other, and will keep doing so. Because yes, this would be unbelievably difficult without the support of our families at home and our friends.

I often received packages from home, and I cried every time I unpacked the box full of Piros Arany spice, Pick salami and liver paté. Some things are invaluable. The taste of home.

There was some sort of mourning when the quarantine started.

We never said it at that time, it is only now that I am realizing it. Maybe insomnia was the worst, which still causes trouble for many of us, I believe.

It is not just our bodies that is not being exercised enough, our souls and minds would like to keep going too. After all those events, human interactions, and a myriad of adventures, now we are involved in a small fraction of activities. And no matter how much you want to, you are unable to sleep. Actually, I don't even remember what I spent time awake with until the break of day, probably just tossing and turning in my bed. I didn't even watch Netflix at that time. So, the next day I was almost completely useless.

This period was mostly characterized by my endless sessions of FaceTime and phone calls. I was homesick to the point of madness, but I kept hearing that little voice in my head (Gosh, I might have really gone mad) telling me I should not go home. When the flights from Barcelona were finally stopped completely, I felt a huge sense of relief. This was some sort of certainty: now I’m for sure unable to go home and I will certainly stay, amen.

After this it was like a fresh start: we did a deep cleaning of our apartment, we reorganized the living room creating a small “chill zone” using the plants, blankets and carpets given to us by your friends, so this made us feel they were there with us.

After the mourning we started to process the events.

Initially our apartment was the hub, witnessing a lot of parties, laughter, and a lot of memories. I also had to accept the fact that this was over, and there were no more travels, street music, and some of the people I may never see again.

The small changes in our environment helped a little bit, plus, the depressing, big painting-like object with black colours was replaced by the colourful Mediterranean pictures painted by my roommate. Our apartment is large enough, so we managed not to kill each other in these two months, what is more, she became like a sister to me.

People in Bilbao tried to keep to the rules. They wear masks, and gloves are mandatory in all the stores. There are no empty shelves, and even though it takes a bit longer standing in line, considering everything, shopping is easy. Our neighbours still talk to each other, only now from their windows or balconies, or sometimes even sitting in front of their entrance doors in the staircase, strictly 2 metres apart, and this is how they talk over the events of the day. It is funny how creative people can be.

Distance learning

I have classes both at the Hungarian and the Spanish universities. Both try to implement online education, and I try to do even better. I more or less manage, however, I still have the exam period ahead of me. Thanks to the virus I could take up a subject past the deadline, and I have started working on my thesis so I may even be able to meet the target date! At the same time my favourite student organization, the Corvinus Art Academy also keeps running, so besides the creative work we spend time with online courses, weekly zoom meetings and playing video games together.

Everybody had to adapt to the circumstances, and we need to realise that even though this may be a temporary situation, the whole world needs a change. The world that we thought to be normal is not so normal after all. We are also aware that the quarantine is just an initial hurdle, the coronavirus will have a huge impact on our future. We cannot go back to normal. We need to improve.

I am the kind of person who always wanted to make plans. I planned everything for long term. This time I have lived from one day to the other. There has been nothing to hold on to, nothing but the daily events, things that were happening at the moment. It is all there is. And it helped.

Thanks to the gadgets I always knew what was going on with my loved ones and in the world. It is scary it to look at my screen time counter and the steps measuring device… but at least the whole world is sticking together virtually! I even started - because now I have time – to teach my mum English and she's a very hard-working student!

Gratitude is essential for mental health.

Every day I note down one or two things that happened to me that day, and for which I can be grateful. There are some things that I used to take for granted, but now they carry special value. For example, taking the trash down. Then taking the steps to the 5th floor. I swear these things make me feel alive!

I try to be positive. I have set small goals for each day and I can feel how I am progressing. I feel much better about myself. I have become more patient, which is a huge deal. My own mother thought (by the way she fully respected my decision in spite of missing me a lot) that after such a busy lifestyle I would have a much harder time being locked down, but this never happened.

I will finish as I started, with the words of Margaret Island.

It was kind of good, it was kind of nice, I stand alone at the sunny beach, happy.”

Pictures and text: Dóra Major

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