I’m sitting in Terminal 4 of JFK Airport. After a 5-hour delay on my flight out of Dublin, I have finally made it to New York, only to find that my connecting flight to Detroit has been cancelled, and I have been rebooked for a flight tomorrow at 6 a.m.
“Since the delay was Dublin’s fault and not ours,” a New York customer service worker told me, “we unfortunately won’t be able to book you a hotel room.” The chair I’m sitting in currently, a yellow lounge chair with just enough room for me and my completely stuffed bags, will be my bed for the night. Why? Because of the coronavirus.
COVID-19 has thrown the entire world into a full-blown panic, a situation that has unfortunately been escalated by the human instinct toward paranoia. Each new restriction has been propagated by intense fear, and students studying abroad faced the brunt of that this week. Starting on Thursday, when President Trump announced the European travel ban, and continuing on through this weekend, the majority of students in my program have already taken flights back to the United States. After hearing of the possibility that Ireland could potentially fall into a lockdown similar to Italy’s over the next couple of weeks, I reluctantly caved and booked my own flight. At the time of writing this post, IES Abroad has just announced that all European programs have been suspended, meaning that everyone is required to return to the US and finish classes online.
The past few days have been full of heart-wrenching goodbyes, a final farewell not only to the friends I’ve made over the past few months but also to the city I’ve come to know as home. I spent my last day in Dublin tracing my steps through all of my favorite spots, spending most of the day mulling about Grafton Street, watching my favorite street performers and having a last slice of red velvet cake at the bookstore I visit every day after class. I frantically shopped for last-minute souvenirs, tried not to think of all the things I had made a mental note to go back and buy at stores that had closed because of the virus. A group of eight of us, the final stragglers leftover from the Writer’s Program, had dinner together, trying to reflect not on what we had missed but instead what we could do with our final remaining hours. For me, this meant a final trip to Gino’s Gelato and a final glance at Christ Church, which I still stare at with the same awe and wonder as the first time I saw it, the moment when I first knew I made the right decision in coming to Ireland.
I haven’t exactly fully processed that this experience is ending. As I sit in the airport writing this post, I feel like I’m in the midst of a dream; if someone were to pinch me right now, I’d wake up, tucked safely away in Binary Hub, ready to start my day with a brisk walk to class or a train ride to the coast. But instead, I’m going home – real home – with a sense of grief that’s difficult to grasp. Leaving Ireland, to me, feels like a bad breakup. I didn’t expect it to happen, at least not so soon, and I lack the closure to properly move on. My mind wants to linger on all that I’ve missed, all the traveling I purposefully saved for the second half of the program in order to build momentum in my adventures.
But while I’ll be the first to say that it’s okay to feel this sense of loss, I also recognize the need to focus on the positive: I still lived an experience beyond belief and saw more of Ireland than I ever imagined. The experience that I and everyone else studying abroad this semester have had should serve as a lesson for future study abroad students: take advantage of every day you have in a new place, and cherish every moment, because you never know when you’ll have to say goodbye.