Neerja en España #14: Pandemic

As I had discussed in my previous post, the coronavirus was getting progressively worse in Spain. Once Trump made his announcement, I decided to make the most of my remaining time. I am not a spontaneous person, but knowing that I probably at least had 48 hours left in Spain, I decided I was going to go to Barcelona. I booked a train ticket, threw some clothes and toiletries into a bag, and headed to the train station. Train rides were always a fun and special experience for me — I loved putting on some music and writing in my journal, or just enjoying the beautiful view of the Spanish countryside. But on this train ride, I couldn’t even put on music. I just stared at some news on my phone and tried to process Spain falling apart (this was a little before it was clear that the entire world was falling apart and the implications of the pandemic were much more dire than just cancelled foreign study programs).

I got off the train and took the familiar walk through Estacion Sants and into the metro, and eventually stepped out onto La Rambla and walked a block through the beautiful Gothic Quarter to get to my friend Anna’s place. She opened the door to her apartment and we gave each other a hug (this was before we really understood the concept of social distancing) and the relief I felt was immediate. It was lovely to finally be with someone who understood my position of likely being forced to leave Spain.

We ventured out to a bar Anna wanted to show me. It was magical - I was transported to a forest. Next, we went to my favorite bar in Barcelona (and in the world), a classy place that makes custom cocktails that always end up being the best cocktail I’ve ever had, and all seven or so friends I’ve taken there agree. Then it was time to meet up with the rest of the Barca gang. We first went to a noodle/dumpling bar, and then we went to another place with empañadas. It was incredible to see everyone - the level of comfort that I felt being surrounded by them after a crazy week was unreal. Audrey proclaimed that she was in denial, but she knew we were all going to be sent home. Apparently the ECA (the branch of the government that runs Fulbright) had said that all exchange programs would have a 60 day pause. We had 90 days left, so this was so clearly the end.

One last sangria in an ethereal, cozy bar

The next morning, we had a busy day ahead of us. Anna had a list of places she wanted to see in Barcelona before she left - mostly various museums - and we were going to make some progress on it. The day had a surreal energy. I knew that our time here was so limited, by days, maybe even hours. It was crazy and terrifying to watch the world fall apart in ways that I had never imagined, but also a beautiful reminder about how special life is, and how much of a gift it was to be half a world away from everything I had known and held familiar.

Places in Barcelona that were now familiar felt extra remarkable and magical, like this plaza…
…or the hallowed walls of the Gothic Quarter. Fun fact: there’s a skull on the underside of the pont del bisbe

We started the day off with me finally visiting the famous Boqueria market. Then we got brunch with Audrey and a college friend of hers who had just arrived in Barcelona as part of world travel on a Watson fellowship. The meal was wonderful - I had been looking for real American-esque brunch food in Spain the entire time I was there and I had finally found it.

It only took me 5 trips to Barcelona to go to one of the biggest tourist attractions
Brunch with Audrey and Anna <3

Then, Audrey peeled off, and Anna, our new friend, and I took the scenic route through the Gothic quarter and up to Montjuic. Of course, we were talking about how we would probably all have to leave soon. And then, just as we got to the top and started to take in the beautiful view of the city, Anna got an email. What we had all been dreading was here. Her undergrad institution’s Fulbright coordinator told us that we were all going to be sent home and should start booking flights. I stood in silence as Anna talked to her family on the phone, and tried to process this news.

A few minutes later, I got an email too, sent to all grantees. Spain was now CDC level 3, and we were encouraged to return to the US within the next week. I read the information about closing our bank accounts, how stipend payments would work, and getting a plane ticket, and tried to process this - it felt unreal, even though I knew it had been coming. After Anna and I absorbed this, we tried to go to the Joan Miro museum, but it was closed. The city was shutting down.

That evening, we all gathered at a soccer field near Montjuic with drinks and chocolate and watched the sun set on our Fulbright. We passed sheets of paper around and wrote notes to each other under a one minute time limit. When I got my sheet back, I was amazed at the depth of things that my friends wrote about me, despite me seeing most of them only about 5 times total over the 6 months I had known them. It hit me that I had been a part of and helped create something so special between all of us, and I was so excited to continue building those bonds and enjoying Spain (the castle in Girona that we were all planning to stay at in April really epitomized that), but now it was all just going to end. Later, the pandemic got much worse in America and all of the horrible economic and personal impacts for so many people became clear, but at the time, it just felt like we were being sent home.

My friend Sasha and I at the soccer field overlooking the city
The Barca gang’s last in-person rendezvous

The next morning, Anna, our friend Akshay, and I got brunch; the restaurant was already closed for eating and only open for takeout. We sat in Placa de la Universitat - one of the first places I had ever been to in Barcelona, since my sister and I stayed in a hotel near the university my first time in the city. We sat on a bench and I tried to just enjoy looking at the city and talking to my friends, knowing that this would be one of my last moments of peace before I had to pack up my apartment and deal with a million things. I headed to the train station and bought one last ticket to Zaragoza.

I got home and tried to contemplate having to pack up my entire apartment in the next 2 days. My flatmates were excited - apparently the president was going to address the country in the evening. As I started packing, messages were flying in every WhatsApp group. Everyone was really confused, and debating whether they should say in Spain or leave. They were angry at the lack of clear guidance on exactly what we needed to do from Fulbright, since the email just “strongly recommended” that we leave. I personally thought that the Comission was very responsive and helpful during this crazy crisis, but the fault was with the US government for having a lack of a clear plan and leadership at the top, which then trickled down to be confusing for us.

I was definitely conflicted, but I also knew that my family really wanted me to come home, and being with them during this crazy time didn’t seem like the worst idea. It also seemed like flights were getting cancelled left and right, so we all had to try to get out of Spain ASAP. My flight was booked for Tuesday originally, but it got cancelled, so I moved to a Monday flight and gave myself less than 24 hours to pack up.

That evening, the president of Spain spoke to the country. He announced that Spain was going to enter a strict lockdown, that people would only be allowed to leave their apartments to get groceries, go to the pharmacy, or go to the doctor. All of a sudden, everyone in Spain started taking the virus really seriously. My flatmates and labmates realized that the virus could spiral out of control and that they needed to listen to their leaders - what a contrast to how Americans responded to the virus. On the bright side, the lockdown meant that Spain somewhat got a handle on the virus. Also, the prospect of spending a lot of the next 3 months in my apartment in Spain made leaving a lot easier.

The next day or so was a whirlwind of packing everything up, realizing it wouldn’t even fit into the 4 suitcases/duffle bags I had, my labmate Julio saving me by both letting me store a few things at his house indefinitely and driving me to the train station, making it back to Barcelona, and hauling my luggage around until I was at the baggage drop and then Delta agent was merciful with extra baggage for the first time in my memory. I very cautiously got on the plane, feeling aware of my proximity to others in a way that I’m now familiar with. I was sitting next to a guy who had been studying abroad in Barcelona and had to leave early, a relatable mood.

The screening when I landed on U.S. soil was very lax. They took my temperature, but did no other checks, and I doubt they would have done anything except encourage me to quarantine for 14 days if I did have one. I had low expectations of how America would handle the pandemic, but this was an early indication that it would be even worse. That being said, the gratitude and relief I felt when I saw my family and got home was immense. I missed Spain immediately, but I felt so lucky to have a loving home to return to, to still be on my parents’ health insurance, and to have my supportive family and wonderful friends to process this unprecedented situation with.

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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