Admittance as a spring scholar was certainly not something I’d anticipated, but my unusual first semester would become more bizarre with the mounting global pandemic.
Last September I took off to Rome. It was my first flight in six months due to Covid, my first time going to Italy, and the first couple hours I would spend with my new roommate, Maggie. We had mutual friends, but hardly knew each other. Yet there we were, flying to a foreign country in the middle of a pandemic, knowing we’d share a room and quarantine upon arrival.
Flying internationally during a pandemic leaves lots of empty seats – we had the plane nearly to ourselves. Naturally, we sat in the same row. Awkwardly, we sat five seats apart… close, but not close enough to converse. After a 24 hour travel day, the two of us had mustered up a few lines of good banter, but were clearly nervous when we landed in Rome.
While driving to campus, I focused on my imminent fate: a fourteen day quarantine. For weeks before Rome I planned ways to keep busy in order to protect myself from anything that could go wrong. I made lists of things to do, overpacked on books I knew I would never open, and spent far too long on Google researching my unanswerable questions. As someone who does not do well with a lack of structure, this would be a test.
We each dragged our massive duffle bags into the apartment building and took our last breath of fresh air. We were told: “No stepping into your hallway. Food is brought to your door. No interacting with students in other apartments. Some windows don’t open.” Kids who had already arrived peeked out their windows to look at us. I sadly realized that my first college experience was marked by the strange scene those students saw out their window: Me, alone, uncomfortably lugging a giant bag to my stark apartment, while pretending nobody was watching.
Maggie and I found our way up the stairs and opened the door. The apartment was huge. It seemed like too much space for the two of us. Curiously, we swung open a bedroom door to find a girl sleeping with all the lights off – OOPS. We soon realized that we had three other roommates.
For the following two weeks, our usual bedtime was 5am and our wake up was 4pm. We were each kicking jetlag to varying degrees, and the more you sleep, the faster time moves. Catching daylight was a rare occurrence. The only time we spent together was “dinner” (which was technically breakfast). Those two weeks were a time warp of jetlag, eating stale Saltines, staring at blank walls, and awkward interactions with my new roommates.
After the two weeks, we were free. Italy was completely open – beautiful, lively, with streets bustling with energy on Tuesday nights. We explored and ate pasta for two weeks. But one day none of us could decipher pesto from marinara. We all had COVID, and were all back in our apartment for another 20 days. Yes, another 20 days. That would put us at 34 days inside, while Rome waited for us outside; however, when we were finally freed, Rome had shut down completely and we immediately flew home.
We all felt disappointed. It was not normal compared to a first semester without COVID, compared to kids who were at Tulane in the fall, and compared to the other Rome kids who went abroad with us. The sticky sense of letdown hung over us.
In the spring, NOLA welcomed us with boiling swamp air and cockroaches crawling around our floors…how charming. In all seriousness though, our time in New Orleans presented far fewer bumps than Rome. We all still live together as sophomores, and settled in quickly for the excitement of syllabus week this fall.
But, it’s all fun and games until hurricane Ida comes sweeping through. I had no idea people were evacuating until I walked outside and saw frantic students dragging suitcases on the uneven streets. Within hours my roommates and I were driving to Texas…indefinitely.
I write this now from my childhood bedroom while approaching my 20th birthday. I’ve always struggled with uncertainty. For some people, uncertainty is a feeling which comes and goes, and for others, uncertainty leaves a crippling knot of unanswerable questions which whirl together endlessly. I am more the latter, but can confidently say that of all my planning and “what ifs” did not predict getting COVID in Italy with strangers, being trapped with them for 34 days and actually liking them. Or hydroplaning across the Louisiana border to escape the strongest hurricane in 150 years after just one week of class.
I must say, I could have saved a lot of time on unanswerable questions if I had just put on a TV show. Easier said than done.
Cover photo by Meredith Stais