I never thought my semester in Spain would end like this. I, along with all the other study abroad students, got sent home early for our own safety and the safety of others. The Corona virus had made it impossible to stay for the remainder of the program. This was such a heartbreaking end to the best experience of my life. However, I don’t think dwelling on what could’ve been is the answer. Rather, I think that challenging times like this can bring about an opportunity to become stronger, create deeper relationships, and learn something new. At least, that’s what happened for me.
Two weeks ago, I wasn’t sure when or if I would even be leaving Spain early. Everything happened so fast. The Thursday of my last week in Spain I was still having classes in person. That Saturday, less than three days later, the president declared a state of alarm. This meant that businesses, classes, and restaurants would be closing and everyone would need to stay inside. Not long after, my program was officially canceled and I bought my plane ticket back to the US.
Saturday, at around nine o’clock at night, my roommate and I heard a strange noise coming from outside. We headed towards the window as it got louder and louder. Everyone had come out onto their balconies and started clapping. At first, I was confused, but later my host mom explained to me that they were applauding for all of the nurses and doctors who worked tirelessly due to the rising number of corona patients.
Sunday night it happened again. Once more, at exactly nine pm, everyone headed to the windows to clap and honor the working heros. There was something incredibly special hearing that applause and knowing that people from all over Spain were participating and showing their gratitude.
I bought my plane ticket Sunday and was scheduled to fly home the next day. I was supposed to fly from Granada where I was living to my first layover in Madrid. From there I had another layover in Miami before heading to my final destination. However, the night before my trip home, I got an email saying that my flight to Madrid had been canceled. I had no clue how to fix this, so I did what any struggling study abroad kid would do: I went to my host mom.
My amazing host mom, Alicia, wasted no time. She got on the phone with the airline to try and get me a different flight. When that didn’t work she booked me a bus ticket to Madrid. My bus would leave Granada Monday at 2am and arrive in Madrid 5 hours later. From there I would just need to take a taxi to the airport.
Sunday night was my last meal with my host family. Alicia made pisto, a typical Spanish dish, for dinner because she knew it was my absolute favorite. It was our last time together as a family. I’m so thankful that I had such an amazing host family and roommate. However, that made it so much harder to say goodbye.
A little before 1am that night I grabbed my bags and hugged my host sister and roommate goodbye. My host mom helped me carry my stuff out to her car and then drove me to the bus station. We got there a few minutes early, and as we were waiting for the bus it finally hit me that I was leaving Spain and my family. My host mom could see the tears about to fall and pulled me into the biggest hug. She whispered in my ear that I would be back one day and that I’d always have a family in Granada. The tears really started to fall after that. We stood there hugging in the bus station, crying while everyone around us had on masks and gloves and were standing at least six feet apart. They looked at us like we were crazy, but we didn’t care. That moment with my host mom at the bus station brought us closer together than all of my time in Granada put together.
My bus finally arrived a little after two. My host mom helped me get my bags put away and gave me one last tight hug. I was surprised but happy to discover several other study abroad students on my bus who were also heading to Madrid to fly home. It was comforting knowing I wasn’t alone in this crazy journey. Five sleepless hours later we arrived in Madrid. Our driver told us there was another bus at the station that goes to the airport. The other students and I quickly grabbed our bags and ran through the bus station to make the next bus. We piled on and put our big luggage wherever it would fit. Eventually, we finally made it to the airport.
Once more I was shocked by the number of people wearing face masks and gloves. All of the airport employees had them on as well as most of the travelers. I felt naked with no protection from the virus and intimidated by everyone else’s precautions. It looked like something out of a movie. Nevertheless, I slowly made my way through the nearly barin airport to my gate. Several other students were on my flight to Miami, including some of my good friends from Granada. We sat as close together as we dared while we waited for the flight to start boarding.
Once in Miami I became separated from my friends once more. They took us off of the plane in groups of about twenty for our health screening. During the plane ride, I had filled out a mandatory form they passed out, asking me what countries I had traveled to and if I came in contact with anyone who had Corona. I knew that I didn’t but I was still terrified to go through the health screening. I had heard roomers that they were taking temperatures and I was afraid they might not let me back in my own country, even if I wasn’t sick.
My turn came and I had to walk up to an intimidating man wearing a large face mask. He asked me how I was feeling, to which I replied, “I feel great, super, super healthy, no Corona here!” He took my form and hurridly waved me on after handing me a giant stack of papers about quarantining.
I was so relieved to finally be back in the US, but my heart ached for Spain. Eventually, I found my two friends again. Brenna was on my same flight to Illinois, but Taylor was heading to Kentucky. I broke the social distancing rule once more and quickly hugged Taylor right before she had to board.
Brenna and I bought some snacks and then boarded our own flight home. Two hours later we were finally in Illinois. It had been a full 24 hours of travel and we were both struggled to keep our eyes open. Brenna’s mom was so kind and offered me a ride back home from the airport.
That drive home felt so strange. My mind had not fully realized that I left Spain, my home from the past seven weeks. Nevertheless, it was so sweet to see Brenna reunited with her mom. It was easy to tell she had been worried about her daughter being alone in such a scary situation. She gave us some amazing advice on that drive home. She told us that during our next job interview, when we get asked about being in a high stress situation, this is what we should talk about!
It’s been so weird being back home. Leaving Spain so unexpectedly was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Yet, now when I look back at it, the situation doesn’t seem so bad. I had amazing people helping and guiding me every step of the way. The challenges forced me to rely on other people, something that’s always been a struggle for me. But I quickly learned that leaning on others isn’t always a bad thing, in fact, it often brings you closer together.
I thought the hardest part about studying abroad would be speaking my second language, losing my passport, or culture shock. Those all seem so small in comparison to what actually happened. After journeying home in the middle of a pandemic, I feel so much more confident in myself and my ability to travel on my own and adapt to the unexpected. I’m no longer mourning Spain because I know that I’ll be back soon.