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It’s so odd how quickly things can change. I had boarded my flight from Manchester to Paris at the beginning of March with little difficulty, and only a hand full of people were wearing masks. I was prepared to spend three months in France, but by the time I was back in Charles de Gaulle only a week and a half later, there was barely a full face to see and everything seemed to be suspended in an almost tangible terror. The decision to leave France had gone from unthinkable, to plausible, and then to the only safe option within a matter of 24 hours. I had barely time to think as I booked a flight only two days in advance.
The whole situation felt like I was living a movie: from the newspaper headlines and French President Macron’s address to the nation, to my own president’s European travel ban and the deserted Parisian monuments. Of course everyone was going through some variation of the same, but it uniquely felt like my world was crashing down. When I got home, I had to self-quarantine for two weeks, which I have to admit was not very successful due to a family that had not seen me in months, and a country that had not yet seen the worst of the pandemic. Yet, I tried as much as I could to stay in my bedroom alone, or rather the bonus room that was quickly turned into something that could accommodate my unexpected arrival, as I waited to go get tested. Luckily the test came back negative, and I was able to finally go downstairs to cook my own breakfast and pet my dog.
Now it has been about two months of quarantine. It has had its ups and downs, but honestly it has gone better than I expected, and that can mostly be attested to the fact that I am privileged enough to live with a loving family in a rural area. We can get on with our lives somewhat comfortably, if not suffering from occasional bouts of boredom. But what I have noticed is that some of the skills I learned while solo travelling have helped me adjust to quarantine in ways I hadn’t expected. Whereas many have been newly starved of their usual social life and are unused to it, I have been largely independent over the past year and have learned how to be alone. Sure, I’ve made friends when I’ve traveled, but they were all fellow travelers themselves and so I rarely spent longer than a week with any of them, if that. There were many places I visited completely alone, many meals I ate alone, and many nights in cities where I knew no one. I am not saying that I am suddenly more mature than my peers, but I do think that the time learning how to be alone has helped me adjust to quarantine. I don’t have much problem planning out my days even when there seems to be nothing to do.
In fact, the time out of school has instilled in me a reflex to self-learn. I am not completely auto-didactic, but I’ve made sure in quarantine that I’ve kept up with my French learning, read certain books I’ve always meant to read, and tried new projects. This was something I learned this last year; truth be told, everything I was doing this last year was a self-motivated project — from hiking the Camino de Santiago to interning on farms — so I know how to keep myself motivated and productive even when I don’t have outside pressures.
This sudden and drastic change in the world has also made me feel thankful for the things I was able to experience. The world after this pandemic will not be the same as the one before, whether in a large or small way. With people largely prohibited from travelling, and uncertainty as to when tourism will reopen, I am grateful that I was able to travel when I still could. Obviously we will be able to travel again and hopefully things will return to how they were, but perhaps it will not be the same. Like 9/11 changed travelling permanently, COVID-19 might very well have a similar impact; perhaps there will be temperature screenings at airports or entry restrictions at crowded tourist attractions. Some have asked me if I regret taking the gap year because I wasn’t able to finish it out, but in fact I feel even more reassured in the timing of my decision now that so many of the things I was able to accomplish are now, for the time being, inaccessible.
Finally, I feel that my gap year has given me the emotional maturity to weather this set-back. Of course I am sad to have plans cancelled and I lament the prospect of having to start college online,* but I am also able to contextualize the situation. I remember all the stories I heard travelling, all the different people I met and the different ways their lives ran course, and I can fit this time into the larger story of my life. There will be an after-quarantine, and we all await it anxiously, but right now all I can do is make the most of the place I am in now. Even if I begin my time at Duke over Zoom, I am optimistic to see what this next stage of my life holds.
*A note from the Duke Gap Year Team: As of this posting, Duke University has not made any announcements about what its education plans may be for the fall. We encourage you to follow any updates at coronavirus.duke.edu
It’s been nearly three weeks on the Chemin de Saint Jacques (as the trail is called here in France) and about 250 miles. I’ve decided to take the day off in a little village called Auvillar, giving my body much needed rest and my mind some time to reflect. Auvillar is famous for its 17th century clock tower, and it is this clock tower that warns me that I’ve sat staring at my screen too long. As the bell suddenly dings twice instead of once, I realize that I’ve been trying to think of a good way to write my experience for nearly an hour. But still, I can’t. When I look back I just see a jumble of places and people and thoughts and food and magic — like a carousel moving too fast.
Snapshots, in no particular order:
Walked 250 miles with nothing but myself and a backpack (go me!)
I’m one month out from my departure — a one-way ticket to Paris. I’ve never been to France, yet here I go alone with nothing but a backpack and camera. I’ve arranged to stay in a hostel in the Montmartre neighborhood for three nights. I had to call the hostel and ask how to book my room, which has probably been the most nerve racking thing so far. Nerve racking because it revealed just how much I didn’t know how to say in French. I know how to debrouiller (a french word that is always hard to translate but basically means to get around), but I’m not going to just be debrouiller-ing. I’m going to be hiking nearly 1,000 miles across the French and Spanish countryside, following an ancient pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago. And so what happens if the roof is leaking in a hostel and I need to ask for a bucket? I don’t know the word for bucket in either French or Spanish — okay now I do because I just looked them up in google translate. But still, I don’t know how to say chapstick, or room-service, or blister, or walking stick, or quantitative biostatistics. Anyway, I suppose that’s a large part of why I’m going: to learn all those words.
Another thing that worries me is the physical difficulty of this journey. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t hiked 1,000 miles before, and my feet don’t seem that excited about the prospect. I know I can do it — I am just trying to not think of the blisters (apparently cloque in French, God knows how I’m going to remember that). I’ve been going hiking about three times a week, and I am starting to understand how to pace myself and such, but closer to my departure I should be hiking every morning to prepare. We’ll see if that actually happens. Anyway, I’ve spent way too much time at REI and online researching the best gear, so hopefully I am as comfortable as I can be on the trail. I’m trying not to think of this as a get-fit-quick scheme, but hopefully I at least come out with some really nice calves when I return.
I think more importantly too, I have to consider the mental challenges of this journey. For most people my age there is college to buffer a transition into adulthood. And while I will still have four years at Duke, I will have to embark on this year independently. I’ll have to navigate living in a foreign country, speaking a new language, and taking responsibility over myself. I am ready, but I am not going to have the same support system that exists at a university, nor is there going to be the camaraderie that exists between freshman students as they figure out this new chapter in life. I am going to be in charge of myself — that’s both exciting and daunting. Anyway, see you in a year, Duke!