It was Friday, March 20, around 1:30 a.m. and I was still awake working on my homework for my Norwegian class. That evening had been the first real chance that I had been able to sit down and finally direct my focus on my studies again. A week before, all students studying on international exchange received information delineating that due to the COVID-19 pandemic reaching Europe, Trump had announced the suspension of all travel between the U.S. and Europe, and all students were to make arrangements to return to the U.S., or begin drafting their application for an appeal to stay. Almost overnight, my friends from the University of Minnestota, from UMKC, and from the University of Chicago were notified their study abroad programs were over and were wisked back to the U.S. without the chance to be able to say goodbye. Though I had to prepare a thorough appeal application, I felt lucky at the time that MU was allowing its students an option, unlike my friends’ universities.
Thursday, March 19, I joyfully received word that my application had been approved. “The committee has approved your appeal to remain on your study abroad program. Enjoy Norway!” the email read. I was relieved, excited to return to my studies and any semblance of the “normal” life I had spent the last two and a half months building for myself in Norway. Everything changed about eight hours later, when I received another email, this time reading, “Today the U.S. Department of State issued a Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel … If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite time frame… Your university-related international travel or study abroad program has now ended. If you choose not to return to the United States, this will be your own independent, personal travel, and the university may not be able to assist you further with your stay or travel arrangements.” Not even three days later, I was gone.
My last days in Norway – in the city and the country that I had grown to care so deeply about – were characterized by the numbness of uncertainty. I spent my last days mainly with my roommates and one other friend. By that point, everyone else I had grown close to had already left themselves, or were in a government-mandated quarantine. In those two days spanning that unsettling email and my departure flight, we hiked in the mountains surrounding the city, doing two in one day, we bought reindeer dogs and skyllingsboller (Bergen cinnamon rolls) and walked the entire city two times over just trying to take it all in. Bergen is notorious for being a cloudy, rainy city, but what I remember the most from those two days was the sun: how it felt on my face at the top of Rundemanen mountain; how I had to put on my sunglasses in Nordes park as the reflection off the ocean near the harbor was so bright. Those last days I tried not to blink, and I made sure to take plenty of pictures just in case I did, but I constantly felt myself wondering if it is better to know something is going to be the last time before it is, or if it is better to be oblivious to the ephemerality of a moment and enjoy it with naïve bliss?
A woman from my Norwegian class is on my same flight out of Bergen and she’s going back to Canada to spend her two weeks of quarantine in a cabin in the woods. I hear her open something as she sits in the seat behind me on the pane – it’s the same package of First Price brand tissues I have in my own bag. I brought them with little intent to use them and more as precaution, but as my plane ascended, and the snow-capped mountains became harder to distinguish from those infamous clouds I had become so familiar with, and we were engulfed by the sun, a tear rolled down my cheek. I thought about wiping it away, but thought I should probably use hand sanitizer before touching my face.