Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, the romantic European adventure that Liz Gleeson, a Stellenbosch University postgraduate student in Animal Sciences had envisaged as part of an academic exchange program to Italy, turned out quite differently.
Liz, who grew up in Bloemfontein but has been living in the Western Cape for the last six years, tells more about her experiences:
“I arrived in the town of Padova in the Veneto region of Italy in December 2019 as part of an academic exchange for my MSc.Agric Animal Science studies. For the first few months it was a normal exchange experience, filled with excitement and nervousness as I tried to find my rhythm.
By February I had almost perfected my routine. Weekdays I would take the bus from the residence I shared with 200 Italian and international students to the Agricultural campus outside of town. I'd make sure to get there early enough to have my morning cappuccino. It's not exactly Pulp coffee, but I must admit the Italians know how to make a good cup of coffee. Then I would spend my day either in the lab learning new procedures, or in the office trying to write my first academic article. On weekends I would walk for hours exploring the town. I'd buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the local market and end my day with a Spritz at a café that overlooks the Basilica di Sant'Antonio.
My romantic European adventure unfortunately came to an abrupt end with the spread of Covid-19 into Italy. We were all aware of the Covid-19 outbreak in the neighbouring region of Lombardia, but in what felt like the wink of an eye, our town experienced exponential growth in the number of confirmed cases.
An email from the Italian government announced that Italy would go into a national lockdown. It was definitely a shock and coming to terms with my new reality was not an easy task.
There was no “Life in Lockdown for Dummies". I had to accept that I could no longer take the bus to campus or get my morning cappuccino or go exploring over weekends. Besides my daily life being effectively put on hold, the lockdown started affecting me mentally. I started worrying about my friends and family thousands of kilometres away, and whether I would be able to see my loved ones again.
I knew that sitting around being worried would not change the situation. I therefore decided to approach the quarantine situation in the same way that I approached the exchange program, by getting to know my surroundings and establishing a new routine.
Representatives from both Stellenbosch University and my host university contacted me immediately after the lockdown started and provided me with all the information I needed and answered all my questions. This made the transition from campus life to quarantine life much easier. More importantly, I think it made me realise that even though I am in isolation, I am not alone.
I started my lockdown days by taking four flights of stairs down to the kitchen in my residence to make myself something that resembles a cappuccino. Of the initial 200 residents, there were only about 50 left. Then I got dressed and headed to my office (the desk next to my bed) to start my workday. On weekends I sat in the residence garden reading a book and watched the birds enjoy their freedom. Like many other people, I also started baking. I tried to bake one thing every weekend and I'd send pictures of my attempts to my WhatsApp family group for their praise/criticism.
One of the most important parts of my new lockdown routine was to talk to the people I care about. The support of my friends, family and my amazing supervisor, Dr Elsje Pieterse, has made this unexpected journey much easier.
This week, after almost three months of living in lockdown, I was finally allowed to go back to campus and work in the lab again.
I work in a laboratory where research is done on meat. We've therefore always been used to wearing personal protective equipment (PPEs) such as gloves, and to clean surfaces regularly. We now also constantly wear masks. I'm still struggling to find a position for my mask so that my glasses do not fog up, and I permanently smell like hand sanitizer.
Social distancing measures are in place. There has always been a degree of it present in laboratories, in an effort to curb contamination and to give each other enough space to concentrate. The University of Padova has now also placed a notice at each and every room on campus stating how many people at any given time are allowed to be in a particular space together.
Social distancing measures are still in place and we constantly wear masks.
Once again, I will change my routine in an attempt to adapt to this “new normal". I am excited to see what the rest of my exchange holds in store, but I am sure that it will involve making unforgettable memories of my unexpected journey.
This is definitely not the exchange experience I was expecting when I got off the plane in December, but it has given me the opportunity to learn more about myself and grow as a person.
I have learnt that I am stronger than I thought I was, that a good routine is invaluable and, most importantly, that I probably shouldn't quit academics and become a baker.