As soon as the Czech Republic Study Abroad program was canceled we knew that we were probably living on borrowed time. However, I’m extremely thankful that our trip wasn’t terminated before we got the chance to go on our field trip to Northern Ireland. My heart aches for the Czech students who didn’t even get the chance to start their program, especially since I went last year. We really were lucky to get the 5 weeks in Ireland before this pandemic called us home. I’m also really glad that we planned our week in Iceland for the beginning of the trip and not the end!
Our last week together was a sad one, but I think we really savored it. We didn’t get the news we were being sent home until Thursday, so on Tuesday and Wednesday we lived like normal. Tuesday we didn’t have class because it was our rest day after the field trip. I slept in, wrote week four’s blog, and Face-timed some friends from home. Nicole made pizza for dinner and that night we watched a couple of movies together. Wednesday we had our literature class and discussed short stories written by James Joyce. I made hobo packs for dinner and then the majority of the class got together to watch Titanic. We all were wanting to see it again after visiting the Titanic museum in Belfast.
On Thursday we had our tin whistle lesson, and after we started to realize the severity of the situation. Our culture teacher came in and told us that Ireland was shutting down. After 6:00 p.m. that day all schools and public buildings would be closed until further notice. There were students that planned to go to Scotland that weekend, and they started to question on whether it was worth it to go and risk getting stuck. They clearly made the right decision in staying because the university told them they were not allowed to go regardless. After we heard that decision, I knew we’d be sent home soon. We knew we’d most likely be sent home, but we didn’t know when. A group of us decided to go in to Galway and do some souvenir and grocery shopping. While we were getting ice cream at one of our favorite spots we ran into some students from Notre Dam that had already been sent home. We were in line to checkout at the grocery store when Hannah connected to WiFi and checked her email. We quickly discarded the majority of our groceries because it was official, the program had been terminated.
We shared a couple of watery eyed hugs.
We made our way back to the cottages and had a group meeting. Apparently, we were all supposed to book flights home “immediately.” As we quickly realized, this was easier said than done. Ideally, we would have gotten ahold of our original airlines and moved up our round trip flights home. However, getting a hold of airlines was nearly impossible. Many of them were only allowing communication via phone call and were requesting that you didn’t call unless you had a flight within the next 72 hours. In addition, we had 2 phones with international plans for the 13 students. I ran one of the phones out of minutes while on hold with Iceland Air. Thankfully, the university responded to us quickly and ultimately made the decision that they would book the tickets for us. I think this was a very sound decision because it allowed us all to travel together on the same flight and saved us all the extra work of getting refunded. It was a stressful period of time between when we were told to book our own flights and when we were told they would be booked for us. We were all trying to find the cheapest flights possible, because the response on how much we could spend and be refunded for was vague.
My original plan for this weekend was to have a visitor. My german friend Matthias had been planning to come since the start of the program. He was already on his way to Ireland from Germany when I discovered the program was terminated. On Friday, a group of us picked him up from the bus station in Galway! We then ceremoniously went to go eat at An Pucan, the first place we ate in Galway at the start of the program. I wanted to take advantage of my favorite Irish meal, seafood chowder and a pint of Guinness. The group had some more souvenir shopping to accomplish and then we headed back to Park Lodge and took a final walk to the beach. Having Matthias around, even just for a couple of days, really kept me in a good mood.
Saturday was our final day. We savored it, and enjoyed the day slowly. We had a group lunch of paninis, watched a John Mulaney comedy special, and walked to Spiddal. We had a potluck for dinner to try and use up the remainder of our groceries, and the hotel owner opened up the bar for us to celebrate our final evening. The majority of us stayed awake until the bus left around 3 am to take us to Dublin.
Sunday was a long travel day. A 5 hour bus to Dublin and then a couple hours standing in line at the airport. Dublin has a pre-clearance customs system set up with the U.S. so we went through customs before leaving the country. There were two lines, one for those who had only traveled in Ireland in the past 2 weeks and one for those that had been elsewhere in Europe. Since we were lucky enough to get in the fast lane, we went through a normal customs experience. We believe the other line had intense medical screening involved. We made it to our gate in time to board but then sat on the tarmac for 3 hours while we waited for passengers from the other line. The 7 hour flight to Newark finally took off and we arrived right as our connection was scheduled to depart. I stood in a customer service line with our program director, Marta, until we learned that the whole group was rescheduled on a later flight. I tried to look at the whole endeavor as an educational experience on leading group travel. We had a 4.5 hour layover and finally made it into Omaha a little passed midnight. I was bound and determined to stay awake on the final flight home which was made easier by my seat buddy Kevin. Before the plane took off a flight attendant offered a free row that I could have moved to, but I was already enjoying our conversation. We chatted the whole flight and it even turned out to be a networking opportunity as he passed along a contact that could help me find a job in Nebraska City.
Being sent home was definitely a heart breaker for all of us. However, as the situation has progressed its become clear that we are not the only ones to have to endure a change of plans during this pandemic. As individuals sacrifice their travel plans, family gatherings, weddings, and pretty much everything else I am thankful to be home and not stuck in another country. I briefly considered the possibility of continuing to travel on my own, but clearly that would have been a disaster as the world closes down. The hardest thing since coming home is not being able to see my parents, boyfriend, and close friends. Both my parents’ and boyfriend’s employers will not allow them to be in contact with me until after the 2 week quarantine. Other than that, this quarantine has been a lot like the social distancing the rest of the world is (or should be) currently going through. I’m extremely thankful that my sister and her husband are currently social distancing and were able to take me in. I’m 8 days in and have not shown any symptoms. I hope that this pandemic is resolved quickly, but I’m slowly accepting the reality that social distancing will likely be required for several months.