Neerja en España #13: My Last Weeks in Spain

Shortly after I drafted my post about mid-year, I had to leave Spain due to the pandemic. From here on out, all of my Spain posts are retrospective. In this one, I’m going to talk about my last couple of weeks in Spain.

Thinking back to the end of February in Zaragoza (which truly feels like another lifetime), I was having a wonderful time. I guess spring comes early in Spain - the weather in Zaragoza was getting warmer, and cherry blossoms were blooming.

This photo was taken on February 11th right outside of my apartment…spring comes much earlier in Spain

I finally felt at home in my lab and was getting closer every day with my labmates. Miguel was gone from the lab due to a broken leg, but everyone else was still around. Work days consisted of learning lots of new things (and even changing GPUs in computers and some other basic hardware stuff, with the help of labmates), long lunches and lots of coffee breaks (we had a conversation about how to improve lab dynamics given that we were split up into two separate buildings, and the solution was to drink more coffee in the two buildings, resulting in about 3 coffee breaks every day), and frequent trips to the vending machine with Manu and Adrian. Some other fond memories from my last couple of weeks: a lovely, long chat on a Friday afternoon with Johanna, a postdoc from France, about work life balance in academia, and getting a new fancy coffee machine in the lab. Also, going out with Adrian and a bunch of his Spanish friends on a Thursday night and experiencing machacados (shots of a mixed drink that you cover with a plastic lid and all simultaneously slam on to the bar, hard - success involves breaking a glass - before drinking).

Weekends consisted of sunny afternoons, failed hikes and crazy nights with my auxiliares friends, a trip to the pueblo of a labmate for a 7 hour lunch (that is not an exaggeration, and this is the norm for “lunch” at someones home), and more time spent with Aiko and Aparna’s class. As you read about in my last post, I had a lot of plans for the rest of my time in Spain, which I was looking forward to. It wasn’t until early March that I started to suspect that maybe those plans wouldn’t happen.

A few of my Fulbright friends had promised to come visit. In particular, Ash and Libby were planning to come from Madrid. We were debating between the second and third weekends of March, and thankfully they decided to come on the second weekend, otherwise they would not have made it before the pandemic hit.

We had a wonderful time. I took them to my favorite tapas bars and restaurants in Zaragoza and went to some museums I had wanted to go to for a while but was saving/procrastinating going to. A fun fact I learned in the Roman Forum museum - Zaragoza used to be a Roman city called Caesar Agusto. Then, they dropped the “cae”, and “sar agusto” became “Zaragoza”.

Zaragoza is famous for being windy. My friends really got to experience that!

The interior of the Aljaferia palace in Zaragoza, which inspired the famous Alahambra and is truly stunning
We loved these doorways
I am so nostalgic for the details of Spanish architecture, like these beautiful ceilings

I really appreciated my city and loved showing my friends around. It’s so good I got that they came when they did, because I definitely wouldn’t have gone to Aljaferia again or hit all of my favorite tapas bars one last time!

Taking my friends to eat my favorite champi tapa
A dinner we made out of tapas at a place that specialized in cheese - pan con tomate, truffled manchego, artichokes in cheese, and migas, or breadcrumbs, a dish very typical to Zaragoza
I really wanted to see this view from the tower of the Basilica (photo generously provided by my friend Shani) and show it to my friends, but sadly it was closed that weekend - one of so many reasons I have to go back to Spain!
I was able to take them inside the Basilica - this is its ceiling
Zaragoza is so stunning…I’m really happy I was able to rediscover it with my friends and appreciate it one last time

That weekend felt like a very distinct point in which life went from pre pandemic to pandemic. I had talked about coronavirus with my lab mates, but they laughed at me for wanting to buy a mask to wear, and it wasn’t a main conversation point. But Ash and Libby and I couldn’t stop talking about coronavirus - would it become a pandemic? Would it spread to America? Would Fulbright let us stay here? Ash is brilliant - she had just gotten into Harvard med school and she’s very interested in epedimiology, so she was the perfect person to talk to about this (and still my go to person for covid-related questions, months later).

We spent our last hour together hanging out in the park by my house
Zaragoza spring + Ash was such a good aesthetic

While there was a nagging feeling about coronavirus, we still had a lovely time, but as soon as Ash and Libby left, things went downhill. On Monday at the lab I kept on refreshing the Spain coronavirus map and watched the numbers in Madrid triple in a single day. I started to have a sinking feeling as I faced the reality that I probably wouldn’t be allowed to stay. That evening, I went with my labmates to cien montaditos (a chain in Spain) for sandwiches and beer. They made fun of me for my paranoia about the virus and fears about having to leave, and even for washing my hands before the food came! Clearly, they didn’t think coronavirus was anything to worry about.

The week kept on devolving into more confusion and anxiety. Things were very bad in Italy, so I asked the Comission what happened to grantees over there, and they told me that Fulbright Italy was cancelled, and that depending on the region everyone was either encouraged to go home or Fulbright was cancelled and they were required to leave. With Spain quickly devolving into the next Northern Italy, it felt like things were getting worse and worse, but the Department of State wasn’t updating Spain’s travel advisory level (which would mean we had to leave), and Fulbright wasn’t telling us anything.

I couldn’t focus on work at all - I was consumed with wondering if we were going to get sent home, if the program would let us stay, if the numbers in Spain would continue to go up like crazy. It felt like I spent all day WhatsApping my Fulbright friends, trying to figure out what was going to happen.

I had booked a trip to visit a friend in Asturias for that weekend, which would require me to travel to Barcelona on Thursday, and I had no clue if it was safe or reasonable to go or not. On Wednesday night, I woke up at 4:30 am, and saw a bunch of WhatsApp messages and texts from my family. Trump had said that Americans had 48 hours to come back to the country, and Fulbright still hadn’t told us anything. I woke up again a few hours later, and Fulbright still hadn’t said a word, and I had many more text messages. I’m not a spontaneous person normally, but I felt like I needed to be with my friends. So I booked a train ticket to Barcelona, packed enough clothes to suffice for a few days, and left my apartment.

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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