Leaving Italy

USAC student shares her experience in the days leading up to the program cancellation in Viterbo

When I signed up to study abroad in the small town of Viterbo, Italy for my junior year spring semester I felt I was prepared for all the typical difficulties students face when living in a new country for the first time. I knew I would experience culture shock and prepared ways to cope. I was aware that I had very little understanding of Italian language and culture and was going in with an open mind, eager to learn. I was warned about pick pockets, and purchased a pouch to wear under my clothes in crowded places to protect my precious documents. I researched all the major places I wanted to visit and compiled a list. I downloaded all the recommended travel applications for my iPhone and was very familiar with using Google Translate. The money was saved, the tickets were booked, and my suitcase was packed. I felt I was adequately prepared for just about anything.

What I failed to prepare myself for was a nation captivated by the fear of an impending pandemic and all the complications that would bring. Viterbo is a small town located in the Lazio region of central Italy. About a 2-hour train from Rome, Viterbo offered a more authentic Italian experience without being far removed from more touristy areas. When all 32 of us USAC students boarded the bus from Rome’s Fiumicino airport to Viterbo on January 8th we never imagined that in just two short months, only half the time we planned on spending, we would all be returning there to fly back to America

 In January, the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 was still contained primarily in China with no cases yet reported in Italy.  The treat of the virus wasn’t really a topic of conversation among us students until mid-February when we began to receive emails from the U.S. Embassy in Rome notifying us about Italy’s status with reported cases of the virus. No travel limitations were yet put into place but we were encouraged to exercise caution and avoid crowds.

This did not stop many of us from traveling, myself included. The whole purpose of studying abroad is to travel and see as much as you can and we weren’t about to let the coronavirus stop us. The consensus among us students was that everyone was overreacting. The people being effected were elderly and immunocompromised individuals. We are young and invincible. We were not going to slow down for anything.

Gabrielle (left) and Myself (right) participating in The Carnival festivities.

On the 22nd of February 23 of my fellow students and I traveled to Venice for its iconic carnival celebration. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience this historic city during this annual celebration was simply too alluring to pass up. I remember joking with a few friends on the bus ride into the city, “does everyone have hand sanitizer? Who brought masks? Don’t touch anyone, we don’t want to get the plague.”  As we wandered the crowded streets together the running joke of the day was coronavirus.

I saw many people in beautiful costumes and many of the masks I noticed were the traditional colorfully designed carnival masks and not frightful surgical ones. I feel very lucky that I was able to experience the Venice carnival because the very next day the festivities were cancelled due to the coronavirus. This sent a wave of shock through the group. We continued to keep our spirits high by using humor as a pacifier, but I believe that was the moment our attitude towards the virus really changed.

Example of one of the many costumed Italians wandering the Carnival

Monday the 24th we had a mandatory meeting to check in and answer any questions we might be having regarding the status of our program. We were reassured by our USAC program coordinator that our classes would continue as planned but all non-essential travel was highly discouraged. Other trips coordinated by USAC were cancelled and we were issued a refund. By this point everyone was nervous. I was on the phone nearly every day talking with my parents. My dad was prepared to buy me a ticket home right away. I could feel the anxiety growing inside me. My parents worried about possible travel bans, about the screening processes at airports, and about the possibility of me being put into quarantine in Italy. I was not ready to leave; I wanted to see this through but things quickly crumbled from there.  

On the 26th the CDC issued a level-two travel health notice in Italy and just two days later it was raised to a level three. Saturday morning I woke up to over 100 messages and an email notifying us that our USAC program was canceled effective imminently. My stomach plummeted. Like any other 20-year-old almost adult the first thing I did to face this emergency was call my dad. He had seen the email right when it was sent out and had already followed up with my airlines. I had a ticket flying out the next day at 11am.

My last day in Viterbo feels so blurry. I met up with my friends to visit our favorite café and enjoy our last Italian cappuccino. None of us could believe it. I sat sipping my coffee, listening to the chatter of locals speaking Italian to each other. A sound that I felt I was finally getting accustomed to and one I now dearly miss.

We talked about our travel plans, what airlines we were flying out on, and how disappointed and angry we were that this was all coming to an end so quickly. We wished we had done more, seen more, eaten more. We worried how the hell we would fit everything into our luggage again. As one final act of rebellion, two of my friends got impulsive tattoos at a local parlor. A way for them to feel in control of a completely chaotic situation. We drank wine and watched the sunset over Viterbo and I went back to my little apartment to pack my bag.

I have been safely back in the U.S. a little over a week now. The CDC has asked us to self-quarantine for 14 days as a precaution. I am serving out my sentence in Washington state. How ironic that I have gone from one epicenter of coronavirus to another.  This has allowed me ample time alone to think and reflect on my whole experience and the thought that continues affect me is this. I mourn the loss of the time I will never get in Italy and I am heartbroken to have my study abroad experience cut short, but mostly I am sad for the people of Italy. Their beautiful country, so full of history, culture, and national pride is now being so heavily impacted by the effects of the virus. I am so sad to leave the country in these circumstances. I pray for Italy and for the world as a whole that we can step outside our fear and come out the other side of this better than we were before.

This is one of my favorite pictures from Venice. Such a beautiful city, I hope to return one day.