This post was contributed by Spring 2020 Global Ambassador Sabrina LeBoeuf, a journalism and RTF student studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. Read more about Sabrina’s experience.
The first and last time I tried banoffee pie was Wednesday, March 11, 2020. My friend Giulia and I met at a cake shop called La Cocina de Mi Vecina. We had met there once before with other friends after a night of tapas. It was a spur of the moment decision fueled by young women who all possessed a sweet tooth. We laughed and shared slices of pie and cake. We planned to return and try all of the other treats in the shop. After all, we thought we had time.
But that Wednesday was that last time we stepped foot in that cake shop with the pink sign. Like the previous occasion, our decision was spur of the moment. We craved conversation and support because everything around us was chaos.
Our school made classes online. Peers were flying home. Milan had shut down as well as other parts of Italy. It felt like the end even though we had only arrived in Madrid two months ago. The weekend before Giulia and I had taken our first weekend trip together to London with two other friends. For me, it was my third excursion. For Giulia, her only. The cases were rising more and more each day in Madrid.
These were the thoughts running through our heads as we ate bites of banoffee pie. Do we stay in Madrid or do we go home? By the time we had emptied each plate, we decided we would try to stay. That this would not be the end.
The next day, I found out that President Trump announced a travel ban from Europe. UT had cancelled all study abroad programs, and I was told to return by March 30 at the latest. My stomach flipped. Immediately, I searched for flights home, and the prices for tickets ranged from $2,000 to $7,000 for a trip to Austin, Texas. I called my parents. I talked to my host family. I knew I was upset, but I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t have time. I had to figure out how to return home before Madrid shut down. We knew it was the next Milan.
I walked an hour to the U.S. Embassy to avoid the metro to see if they had any information or any way to help with Americans trying to get home. They didn’t know any more than I did. When I stepped outside, I started to sweat. The weather had just started to get warm in Madrid.
Rather than returning home, I decided to continue walking to my favorite place in the city, Retiro Park. I picked up two pastries and sat on a bench surrounded by trees. At that point, I still didn’t feel anything. All I could think to myself was, “This is the last time.”
On the way back to my host family, I created a WhatsApp group chat called “Sabrina Leaves Spain.” I had to say goodbye to my new friends. We had known each other for such little time, but they meant so much to me. Madrid wouldn’t have been my Madrid without them.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one making arrangements to go home, so I couldn’t see all of my friends before I left. I only saw four of my friends before leaving the country: Aik, Carmen, Cierra and Giulia. Carmen cried. We took lots of pictures and hugged a lot. We enjoyed a pink sunset, a Spanish dinner and porras and chocolate at a table outside. We wondered what the city would be like in the spring and summer.
Then, we said goodbye.
Despite the risk, I took the metro home. I used to stumble on the train, but I had figured out how to balance myself. I stood in my favorite spot, a nook near the door where I could stand without holding onto anything. Usually, I would read a book. On that day, I just read the signs.
I managed to buy tickets home with two stops. First, Oslo. Then, New York. Last, Austin. Just over a full-day’s trip. I packed my suitcase and repacked my suitcase until everything fit and the zipper closed. I had bought souvenirs thinking my sister would visit in May, and I planned for her to take some things home in her bag.
In the morning, I said goodbye to my host family. In the afternoon, I boarded the plane. In the evening, I watched the sunset in Norway. My emotions didn’t hit me until that night on the plane ride to New York. Without a thought in my mind, I just began to cry. The mask covering my nose and mouth became soggy, and it remained damp until I arrived home.
I had always envisioned my arrival as something warm and happy. I would finally get to hug my mom and family and friends. I’d share my pictures and gifts from abroad. Instead, I got to fist bump my mom through gloves.
My mom lives in a one-bedroom apartment, so I quarantined in the bedroom for two weeks while she slept on the sofa. (My mom is a trooper.) I made a vow. Sabrina, you will not become a Netflix zombie. You will NOT become a Netflix zombie.
I devised a plan to create a YouTube show about my experience in quarantine to occupy my time. I talked about my feelings, sang songs and told stories. It was a way to show my friends and family how I was doing while simultaneously picking up my spirits and distracting me from solitude. In the evenings, my mom, an essential worker, would return home and converse with me from my room. For those two weeks, I ate off of disposable plates with disposable flatware and cups to decrease risk of contamination. I sat on my same chair to watch movies, eat, do online coursework, etc. My days ended with a cup of tea and a movie.
This came to an end on March 28 when my mom brought me my usual cup of tea. Unknowingly, I picked up the cup by its handle and brought it to my lips. Then, it hit me: the hard ceramic surface of a mug. A mug! In my hands was a purple mug with a smooth surface and a curved handle, a stark contrast from the disposable cups I had gotten so used to.
My first real mug in the United States.
My next post-quarantine first was a sofa. I got to sit on the sofa near my mom as we watched a movie. I don’t even remember the movie. I’m just so glad I got to curl up on a sofa.
Of all my post-quarantine firsts, my favorite one came a few days later. I got to hug my mom. I hadn’t been that close to another human being since I hugged my friends goodbye. The last time I hugged my mom was January 2 before my flight to Madrid. We didn’t expect to see each other until June. Yet, there we were in early spring sharing a hug.
Since then, a new normal has settled in. I stay at home all day. I take my classes from Spain online, which means weird class times during the middle of the night, but I make it work. I look out the window more, and I’ve transitioned to finally wearing Texas-weather appropriate clothes instead of my Madrid winter attire. I’ve come to terms with leaving Madrid even though I still miss her dearly. Sometimes, I think that I will see her when I walk outside, but I then remember that I’m in Austin.
While everything hangs in limbo, I cannot wait for that first day back on UT’s campus, and I’m especially excited for my first day back in Madrid, whenever that day is. Hopefully, it’s soon.