What it’s actually like to have to leave your year abroad in one day

Coronavirus meant I left France three months early: but things could have been so much worse

My Erasmus experience in France was every staple: smoking cigarettes outside the Sacre-Couer on Valentine’s Day, fine wines, cheese, and foie gras, reading Hemingway, speaking French every day, developing an insufferable habit of saying things wrong in English (that’s how you’d say it in French!). It was predictable without being boring, classical without approaching caricature. My year abroad was what I expected it to be until it wasn’t. On Thursday, after the spread of coronavirus began to escalate towards lockdown, I made the decision to leave Lyon, effectively ending my year abroad three months early. It is March and there is so much uncertainty. Where will we be in two weeks? What about two months? A year?

The University of Manchester residence abroad office sent out a blanket email on Friday saying students were free to leave their placement or study anytime they wished without facing an academic penalty. When Macron announced on Thursday evening that all schools would close, thus ending my job and therefore my income, I knew that was it.

I made the decision to leave very quickly. It felt sudden and shocking: suddenly, something that was in the news, a distant siren I could mute by turning off notifications for my BBC News app, was incredibly real. For the next 36 hours, I sent emails, made phone calls to the inundated and overwhelmed offices of the British Council, Erasmus and UoM residence abroad, quit my job, gave notice on my apartment (the most beautiful place I have ever live and will ever live), booked an expensive flight and packed up seven months’ worth of life into two suitcases. I said goodbye to the once-strangers that had become close friends over Lyonnaise red wine, a desolate jazz bar, and premature nostalgia. I have no idea when I will see my friends again, nor when I can go back to pick up the rest of my stuff. Lyon was intensely beautiful on my last day. My apartment faced east, and my flight was early in the morning, so I saw the sunrise over the river for the last time. The airport was quiet and people stood far apart, many of them in masks and gloves.

I got back on Saturday morning: that day, all non-essential business in France closed, that is, bars, restaurants, cinemas. Side note: shops, pharmacists and tobacconists remain open. Now, France has two more days until full lockdown and the borders close. Students are scrambling to leave quickly to avoid being quarantined in a country where they can’t work or study, or potentially afford to pay rent. Many are leaving their years abroad as well, fleeing France, Italy, and Spain before lockdown begins. We can’t say enough times how shocked and sad we feel, and we all have stories of how lonely and weird self-isolating is, but we are the lucky ones, the young who narrowly escaped being quarantined somewhere alien in a pandemic, who have the immunity to survive this. Many people do not.

It’s a bizarre thing, to make the decision to change your entire life in one hour. Decisions used to be small: there were no problems except where to be happiest, which boulangerie to visit, whether to use tu or vous. Now, I find myself thinking deeply about public health and the vulnerable people I could have passed something on to.

I am now at home in self-isolation as a preventative measure, owing to the slight cough and head cold I have. I find myself spending my time reading every book I said I’d get around to, watching films on MUBI, and being with my dog. Self-isolation requires an occupied mind. I message and call friends constantly. In some ways, I find myself more productive and well-connected than ever. In others, I worry.

Leaving my year abroad was sudden and scary, but I am so lucky to be supported by my parents, my university, and to have had a relatively easy exit from a quickly escalating situation. Students who go abroad are the luckiest generation yet: opportunities are there, and the world feels open and accessible. Life is boundless and beautiful, and then suddenly it’s not. Losing things exposes the fragility inherent in the beauty of life’s structure, but sometimes there is no moral of the story. You just have to look after yourself and others. It’s scary to have everything snatched away so quickly, but then I am reminded: losing a few months in France, some stressful admin, a financial dent, and my own mental health are the least of the world’s problems. We can’t talk about a pandemic in the context of a year abroad anymore. We can’t afford to keep having conversations about how this will affect the lucky and the healthy. Things can get worse for much more vulnerable people.