Being abroad as the coronavirus started to become more serious felt like watching water boil; it happened slowly and then all at once. I remember hearing that a new virus had emerged in China shortly after I arrived in Sevilla in January. I raised an eyebrow then, but it felt so far away that I quickly forgot my concerns as the semester began in earnest. I didn’t think much of it again until the virus reached Italy. Some friends and I had been thinking about making a trip to Rome and Naples during our spring break. We decided against going — and I worried a bit about whether or not the virus would make its way to Spain — but I carried on, life-as-normal, and tried to put my worries to rest.
Little by little, however, talk of the virus started to trickle into everyday conversations. At first, we joked about it, but we became genuinely concerned when confirmed cases began to emerge throughout Spain. It was all the news outlets covered and, gradually, became all we talked about, too. We knew that we might be sent home, but we never seriously believed that it would happen — nor that it would happen so abruptly.
Tuesday, March 10 was an ordinary day. I went to classes, ate meals with my host mom, and reveled in the fact that I didn’t have any grammar homework to do. That night we received a message from our program director, informing us of a mandatory “Coronavirus update” meeting the next day, but I truly did not think that we would be sent home. I was so sure that I even joked about it with my friends on our walk to school the following morning. We laughed, but little did we know that in just a few minutes we would, in fact, be informed that TCCSevilla would be shut down — effective immediately — and that we would need to leave Spain as soon as possible. We were absolutely shocked. Some of my classmates started crying, some went straight to panic — I felt numb.
When I went home that afternoon, I expressed to my host mom that I was disappointed, sad, and angry. She understood how I felt, but she told me something I’ll never forget: “Bailey, tienes que pensar en lo positivo.” (You have to think about the positive.) It wasn’t a revolutionary statement, but she was — and still is — completely right. I could’ve fixated on how the semester wasn’t going to end the way I wanted it to end, but that would’ve been a complete waste of the remaining time I had.
“Pensando en lo positivo,” I was determined to enjoy my last few days in Sevilla and soak up every last drop of my semester abroad. I said goodbye to my professors and classmates and went on a whirlwind farewell tour of the city to visit some of the places I still hadn’t seen. I packed up my suitcases and made all my travel preparations. When the time came for me to leave, I took one last tearful look at my host mom as she stood in the doorway of our apartment, and we said goodbye. It was a moment that will be etched in my memory forever.
I was faced with a choice after I returned home: How was I going to remember this experience? In that moment, my host mom’s words resurfaced in my mind, and I decided I would not allow my disappointment to overshadow the goodness of everything else. I would not bury the enriching, life-changing experience I’d just had underneath sadness or bitterness. I would not waste it.
So, how do I remember Sevilla?
I remember a bustling city, full of life, with layer upon layer of history and culture. I remember Gothic cathedrals, cobblestone streets, and street-side cafés. I remember cafecitos and pastries shared with friends. I remember the scent of orange blossoms that filled the air as winter gave way to spring. I remember the late-afternoon sun shining on my shoulders as I walked with friends along the Guadalquivir River. I remember long, laughter-filled, after-dinner conversations with my host mom and roommate. I remember how exciting yet intimidating it felt to be surrounded by a different language and how much deeper my love for Spanish became as a result. I remember all the people I met and how they welcomed me into their lives with open arms — and I remember how lucky I am that, even though I was only able to spend two months with them, I now have another family on the other side of the world.
Each time I remember Sevilla, it gets a little bit easier. Each time, it’s less bitter and sweeter, and, each time, I am filled with more humility and gratitude for the gift that my two months abroad were (and are). Humility because it was such a great privilege to be there, fully immersed in the culture, with the express purpose of learning another language and way of life. Gratitude because I know I will have few other experiences quite as challenging, rewarding, or enriching as this one. These are memories to be cherished and celebrated, not mourned.