Even bundled up in my knee-length coat, the freezing rain and wind cut through my jeans as I waited for the S-Bahn on the darkened platform in Berlin. Commuting home from classes at Freie Universitat took me two hours and three modes of transport – the most challenging part of my day usually – aside from being fundamentally illiterate in German. But tonight would turn out to be different. And the weeks that followed would challenge me and my world in ways I couldn’t even have imagined, shaking my faith in institutions and my own direction.
Earlier in March, the University of San Francisco (USF) advised all students studying abroad in Europe to return to the US due to something called COVID, which I was so over hearing about. According to Senior Director at the Center for Global Education (CGE) Sharon Li, “Information was changing by the hour during the pandemic and we leveraged various resources to stay on top of the rapidly unfolding situation.”
But, my program at Freie didn’t seem overly concerned, and I was determined to stay the course.
Our German Program Director, Lea Króner, reassured us, “Please remember that Germany’s health system is among the strongest world-wide, and all of you are covered by the health insurance Klemmer International”
Please remember that Germany’s health system is among the strongest world-wide.
I figured this was just another typical American overreaction – packing it up when the going gets tough! I was in it for the long haul. Plus, I had just booked to go to Greece for spring break– hello land of feta and sunshine! No flu was going to keep me away. I wasn’t alone, my peers felt the same way.
I was holding on to hope that we would be there for the whole semester and that everything would just be fine .
Lorelei Poch, a Saint Michael’s College student and fellow Freie program participant said, “I was holding on to hope that we would be there for the whole semester and that everything would just be fine…but when I saw my friends in Italy go home I knew we didn’t have long.”
Things started to unravel. Restrictions on indoor spaces had been put in place, but we were assured that everything would be fine, and that our program wouldn’t be impacted. I was excited to be staying in Berlin all summer to do the Freie Internship Program – so many cool European adventures!
USF insisted that I return home or sign a liability waiver. I decided to stay– I won’t let the people at USF’s Center for Global Education boss me around. Plus, I had the Greece trip at the end of the month!
Olivia Macieik, a student at American University and fellow Freie Program participant candidly recalls her frustrations. “I remember being super annoyed because Berlin announced all the clubs and bars were shutting down on Friday and my friend was flying in on Saturday to visit,” she says.
I remember being super annoyed because Berlin announced all the clubs and bars were shutting down on Friday and my friend was flying in on Saturday to visit.
But the truth was, most of my peers were going home. Either their parents or their universities were making them. The halls were now empty, and the mood more somber. The next day, Freie announced that classes would go online after March 30th – conveniently after midterms. I figured that this was changed to suit the students who were leaving. Despite these departures, I resolved to stay. My internship program was still on, and USF had approved my liability waiver.
I would have been one of the few USF students to remain abroad. Director Sharon Li shared that, with a few exceptions, “almost all USF students returned home…we were able to work with students to ensure they could do what was best for them and their families.”
I got off the train and met my boyfriend outside the station, and we scurried across the street to Rewe grocery store to find some ingredients for pizza night. The line to get in wrapped around the block, and customers inside picked over the shelves like buzzards over a dead body.
Carts full to the brim, the man in front of us bought 500 euros of canned goods. The stockpiling had begun!
And for a city that hasn’t forgotten what scarcity and restriction looks and tastes like, Berliners were leaving nothing to chance, nor anything on the shelves. We returned home in stunned silence with our meager haul of a stale baguette, sliced cheese and tomato sauce. We wondered which nightmare episode of The Walking Dead we had stumbled into.
That night Berlin announced transit restrictions. Freie would temporarily suspend classes and cancel the internship program. Talk of a total lockdown flooded social media and news channels.
Suddenly, the thought of being stuck in a German lockdown with no safety net, no purpose and no contingency plan was terrifying. My determination to stay and denial of the crisis vanished. I needed an exit plan. And with talks of borders closing, I needed it fast.
The next day I broke my apartment contract, bought a one-way flight to the UK where my mom was living, packed everything into suitcases, and took off. I felt sick, the rate of change was dizzying. Life was a fever dream of hand sanitizer, 6-foot tape markings and masks.
I felt sick, the rate of change was dizzying. Life was a fever dream of hand sanitizer, 6-foot tape markings and masks.
Curled up in my room in London, I had a chance to cry, and process what had happened, and mourn what could have been. Did I not have enough warning from my university or government? Did I put on blinders so I could stick to my plans? How could this have been any different? Does it even matter?
All but 6 of approximately 100 program members fled Berlin, as COVID reached across the globe, and cases ran through our ranks.
“I was sort of dumbfounded,” said Lorelei, who returned to Boston after Berlin. “It took me a few weeks to comprehend how serious this virus is and how rapidly it would spread around the world, and how access to resources could play a major role in keeping humans healthy and safe.”
Olivia was also in shock when she returned home at the request of her parents. “During my quarantine I was completely alone in the basement of my house…during those two weeks I realized how bad the COVID situation actually was with everything I was seeing on social media.”
JANUARY 22, 2021
Looking back, I can see more clearly the terror I felt in Berlin as the structures around me crumbled, and the raw instability of our world was laid bare. After surviving 99 days in UK lockdown in the spring, and enjoying relative free movement this summer, Europe is now in a new lockdown, as the vaccine roll out struggles, and cases remain high. A new highly contagious COVID mutation could threaten a swift recovery.
I am tired of being anxious and afraid. More than anything I miss my friends and want to hug my abuela. I wish I could be looking forward to crossing the stage at graduation, but our desires for this to all be over does not change the state of global health nor the direness of our current situation.
Our global interdependence is undeniable in this pandemic.
Director Sharon Li wisely states that “our global interdependence is undeniable in this pandemic.” And, if we take this seriously – putting aside our hubris and impatience – heed the warning signs, and act together, with a little luck, we might just have a world after COVID.