Surviving a Pandemic Alone in a Foreign Country

Since mid-March of 2020, life has been quite something, hasn’t it? Over a year on, I still don’t know what to make of it all. Truly. Like many, this past year turned my life upside down and inside out. In 2019, I had finally found an opportunity/the courage to fulfill my lifelong dream of moving to Europe. In September of that same year, armed with hopes and dreams for a new and fabulous European life, I quit my secure government job, left the apartment that I loved and headed to Zaragoza, Spain to teach English. I could never, in my wildest imagination, have foreseen that almost exactly six months after my arrival, I wouldn’t be able to leave my apartment except to get groceries and make emergency runs to the pharmacy for nearly three months. Seriously, universe? Seriously?

I had overcome the many challenges of settling into a new place with a low level of the local language. Lovely apartment rented. Check. Bank account opened. Check. New phone number set up. Check. Visit to the government offices to complete residency paperwork. Check (however, not without a lot of sweat and tears). Navigating a worldwide pandemic. WTF? 

There was a strange energy in the air as I drove home with my colleagues on what would turn out to be the last day I would be in the classroom and see my students. We would be entering a full lockdown the following Monday for what we all thought would be a couple of weeks until this whole thing blew over. Little did we know. 

As one of my favourite students, Diego, wrote in one of his assignments, “Quarantine is the same as my normal life”. I chuckled, picturing his cute little face informing me of this fact, and then thought to myself “Yeah, I’m with you, Diego”. As someone who is perfectly used to and very happy living alone, pottering around the house, it wasn’t a huge adjustment for me. I have to admit, I kind of enjoyed the first few weeks of lockdown where I could catch up on my sleep and indulge in my Turkish dramas on the TV channel devoted entirely to them. It was kind of nice given the intensity of the past few months settling in. 

However, as the weeks turned into months, I realized that this was no vacation and I wasn’t enjoying it so much. As the horrific death toll and case numbers increased by the day in Spain, so did my uncertainty and discomfort of navigating this alone in a foreign country. Part of me was relieved we weren’t allowed to leave the house, because I couldn’t imagine having to function in this new world.

My weekly trip to the supermarket never failed to be fraught with misunderstandings and being told off for something I was doing wrong because I couldn’t fully understand the signage – touching the fruit with my bare hands, not lining up in the correct line, not following directions to go this way or that way. However, it was the thing I looked forward to most as I could actually get out for a walk and see people, even if they were mad at me most of the time. Despite their weekly annoyance with this foreigner, the grocery store staff were my pandemic angels. I can’t express my gratitude to them enough for putting themselves in a very risky situation to make sure I could eat. I will always be grateful to them. 

My Covid comfort – I was always looking for an excuse to buy this and I think a pandemic was a good one!

We slowly emerged from quarantine and I was excited to revel in my freedom, but it was anything but enjoyable with all of the restrictions. The lack of a vaccine and uncertainty of what the future would bring made life on the outside very stressful and unnerving. I was able to still enjoy my daily coffee on my favourite terraces and take myself to the museums. I never took these simple pleasures for granted, but nothing else was really going on. I was not only nervous, but also becoming a bit bored, and the pandemic certainly did not create ideal conditions for inspiration or motivation. 

Spain’s state of emergency would lift at the end of June and we were free to travel to other regions of the country. At this point, a friend encouraged me to go on a week away up north because we didn’t know what the future would bring. We masked up and went to Cantabria and the Basque Country, my favourite part of Spain. I’m glad we did that because a couple of weeks later, cases began to rise again and I would be on a plane home to Canada. 

Many people I met there remained in Spain or have since returned, but it was the right decision for me to leave and ride this out at home, despite how difficult it has been coming to terms with these circumstances. It wasn’t fun there nor was it the experience I wanted to have, the one that I gave up everything for – I remind myself of that constantly. Experiencing the first wave of the pandemic in Spain made me appreciate how well things were handled here in British Columbia and how lucky we have been. I sit here now, fully vaccinated a year after returning home, watching cases rise once again, for what seems like the millionth time, in the city I left and in all of Europe. I don’t know when things will get better, but I know I will return in the future, whenever that may be. In the meantime, I will exercise patience and be thankful that myself and all of my family and friends are well. 

I have managed to survive several hiccups in my years of solo travel. I have experienced unexpected rail strikes, taken myself to the hospital, dodged bombings, cried through visa nightmares, and bedbugs, to name a few, but navigating a pandemic abroad definitely takes the cake.

In a few years, this will be a good story.