On March 4th, I awoke at 3:30 am, gave tearful hugs to my roommates, and took an early-morning taxi from my apartment in Trastevere to Rome’s Fiumicino airport. From there, I had a brief flight to London’s Heathrow airport, where I purchased a cup of soup and what might have been the worst cappuccino I’ve ever had the misfortune of ingesting.
From Heathrow, I had a direct, 10-hour flight to Seattle. All of the seats in my row were empty. When I boarded, there was no line—I walked straight up to the desk, then directly onto the plane. When I arrived in Seattle, my dad remarked upon the lack of cars in the arrivals pick-up zone. He’d never seen it so empty.
The world had been upended. Most people were avoiding airports.
Five days before, on February 29—also at 3:30 am—all of the students in my study abroad program received an email titled “URGENT: Italy level 3, bringing students home.” COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, had been proliferating in the northern regions of Italy for weeks. The country had been updated to a level two by the US State Department, and then, suddenly, a level three. If it became a level four, all international students would become stuck in the country by travel bans, with no way of returning home.
We were being sent home 3 months ahead of schedule.
The purpose of this blog post is not to unpack the emotional upheaval of the ensuing five days. I’ll get there one day, probably. But for now, all you need to know, dear reader, is this: I was unaware that my body was capable of crying so endlessly. I was both fascinated and horrified by this new knowledge of myself.
But by the time March 4th rolled around, I seemed to truly have expended my body’s capacity for weeping. My taxi ride was tear-free, I boarded both planes without even a sniffle, and I was dry-eyed on both flights, excepting only the moment that my plane touched down in Seattle.
March 4th was also, coincidentally, my 21st birthday. On the bright side, I celebrated my birthday in three different time zones. On the less bright side, there wasn’t much to celebrate. I’d been abruptly uprooted from a home and a community I’d quickly and effortlessly fallen in love with. No more would I stroll the cobblestoned streets of the Eternal City at dusk, seek refuge from bustling piazzas in incense-perfumed chiesas, or crowd around the boisterous dinner table of our neighbor’s apartment on Thursday nights.
Now, on my second day back in Puyallup, the losses keep hitting me. I find myself grasping at memories of the smallest things. The way the interiors of trams warp when they take a sharp turn. The sound of my shoes as they click against the marble floors of basilicas. The feeling of air rushing through the tunnel as the metro approaches. How the 50 cent euro has ridged edges. How the wooden blinds in our apartment are thunderous when raised or lowered. How the wind teases the branches of the iconic Italian umbrella pines.
Small things. Tiny, really. But they prove that I was really there. That I really did build a life, however brief, in Rome.
To those of you who’ve been following along with my blogs about my study abroad experience, thank you so much. I have many more stories and photos to share, and I plan to get there eventually. I ask only for your patience as I readjust to life here in the states and grapple with both the sorrow and gratitude I feel when reflecting on my life in Rome.
a presto, amici.
On my last day in Rome, I asked my roommate Madeline to take a photo of me. I wanted it to be an honest picture, and I think it is—I think, in my tired eyes, I can see both my misery and my acceptance of having to leave my new home.
This photo was taken outside of the Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Orto, aka the first church me and my roommates visited in Rome. I wrote about the experience in this post. Madeline was the one who’d suggested revisiting it on my last day as a way of “completing the circle”—of ending in the same place we’d begun. After a month and a half in Rome, I imagined that I’d find this small, backstreet church less beautiful and awe-inspiring than I did on that first night. Instead, it remains both me and Madeline’s favorite church in Rome.