When students have to evacuate Spain in two days, emotions run high

The Toledo bridge in Madrid was empty during the lockdown Sunday.
The Toledo bridge in Madrid was empty during the lockdown Sunday.Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

In Spain, staying up late is a rite of passage. It’s a society enamored with the night, complete with shockingly late dinners and a nightclub culture that doesn’t get going until 2 a.m.

But two weeks ago Thursday, in my Madrid apartment, a group of us studying abroad for the semester were sleepless at 5 a.m. for a much less enjoyable reason. President Trump had just announced there would be travel restrictions from most of Europe to the United States beginning in just two days.

The only thing that seemed certain at that point were the uncertainties, among them: What did it mean that we could return to the United States only after “appropriate testing”? And would our universities refund us for the flights home, which were already climbing past $2,000?


As the dust settled the next day, I packed for my flight and reflected on the insanity of the week leading up to this moment. The stress of the evacuation had been intensified for me because my phone was stolen days before. I could only communicate with my frantic mother through e-mail, and I couldn’t call the airlines.

I opened the windows to enjoy my last slice of Madrid sun. I knew it was right to leave, yet I couldn’t help but wallow in heartbreak as I tried to shove two pairs of cheap Spanish shoes into an already full suitcase.

I had been in Madrid since early January and planned to stay until late May. I worked hard to get there, having spent my previous semester applying for a student visa, saving money to travel, and fighting for an internship at a Spanish magazine for English speakers. I fell in love with Spain immediately. When we first started hearing news of the coronavirus in China, it felt gloomy and sad, but also far away. When it reached Italy, we still didn’t expect it to affect us, except that we felt awful for our classmates studying in Italy. It would never be us, we thought. Until it was.


In the hours before the travel restrictions were announced, Northeastern University had e-mailed all students in Spain to say we were required to make plans to return home immediately. I did as told and booked a flight back, even if it hurt to do so.

I felt confident I was making the right decision, but some of us were feeling defiant: My roommate declared the university couldn’t make her go. She would stay, she insisted. My boyfriend said he wasn’t leaving unless his university refunded his tuition. I felt a wave of regret. I wanted to stay in that beautiful city as much as anyone else.

Of course, their tunes changed hours later when it became clear the United States would restrict people from returning anytime soon if they waited too long. In those last two days, as we prepared to head home, we both celebrated and grieved. Over a pitcher of sangria, we traded our favorite memories from our time there and mourned what we would be missing out on. But I could also sense an undercurrent of relief.

We are all now safely home and keeping in touch via group chat, trading stories of how long we have been in the same pajamas, and ranting about travel companies that are refusing to give us refunds.


But even as we grumble, we are grateful. We feel lucky to hug our moms, dads, siblings, and pets. Being abroad is alluring, but in the age of coronavirus feeling safe at home is even more so.

Ysabelle Kempe can be reached at ysabelle.kempe@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @KempeYsabelle.