Liz Rieth is a junior journalism and Spanish major and writes “Sincerely, Liz” for The Daily News. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.
I wasn’t ready to go.
I stood looking at a fiery sunset as it descended behind the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains. In front of the mountains, hundreds of colorful panderías, apartments and plazas dotted Granada. My heart felt heavy as I took in the view. That night, I said my final goodbye to this Spanish scene.
I left the next morning to travel 4,000 miles back to Indiana. My final Andalusian sunset should have been months from now.
Two-and-a-half months ago, I packed my bags and left all I knew in America for the chance to study abroad in Granada.
When I arrived, I discovered my new home was better than anything I had dreamed.
Granada, Spain sat rooted in ancient Islamic culture and medieval Spanish Catholicism. Decorated in cathedrals and Moorish castles, it felt like a fairy tale had come to life in southern Spain. On top of all that, I lived with a Spanish abuela who spoiled me as if I were her own granddaughter.
In the midst of this dream, a pandemic woke me up.
The COVID-19 pandemic sent me home and turned my world upside down. Grief of the experiences that could have been filled my heart. The virus shook my faith, making me cry out to God in ways I never had before.
Even before I knew I would leave Spain, fear of the coronavirus impacted me. Just a short plane ride from Rome, Spain could feel the panic across the sea when the outbreak reached northern Italy.
Then, the virus spread like wildfire. Within weeks, all my travel plans were thrown into disarray. I was lucky to travel to Paris.
A week later, President Donald Trump held a press conference regarding the virus in the middle of the night in Spain. I went to bed with my nerves on edge — I had no idea what the next morning would hold. I woke up at 4 a.m. after hours of tossing and turning.
Trump announced the suspension of travel from Europe to the United States.
Friends and family asked what would happen to me, but I didn’t know. A million questions and fears raced through my mind.
I managed to get to sleep an hour later and eventually get up for classes. Then I received an email from my study abroad program informing me I had to return home. My world stopped.
Nearly every American student received a similar email. Suddenly, classes seemed irrelevant, life itself seemed irrelevant. The air was filled with silence as the reality of our situation slowly set in.
The clock ticked away our last hours in Spain.
The European Travel Ban sent thousands of American students home forcing them to leave in the middle of their studies.
I couldn’t believe it — at the start of March, Spain had only several hundred positive cases, now, the number had risen above 4,000 (the country currently has more than 270,000 cases).
As students across Europe learned of their new reality, many searched for methods to cope. I saw students try alcohol, crying or shopping to ease the pain.
For me, I tried to run away from my emotions in isolation. I hid in my room, trying to hide away from reality. However, God provided a way to find peace the same day my heart was broken.
My Bible study in Granada planned a time of worship that week. Coincidentally, the time happened to be on the same day I learned I was going home. While I was initially tempted to stay home, something in me urged me to go to the worship anyway. So, I went.
Held in a park, a few friends and I sat in the grass and dirt. My friend picked up her Bible and began to read, I don’t remember what, but I remember the feeling of peace I felt. Then, another person picked up a guitar and we raised our voices in praise.
It felt strange praising God as the world fell apart, but it felt good. The Spaniards around us were likely to not understand our English songs, but I felt emboldened singing publicly. Guitar chords mingled with vocals filling our corner of the park.
At the end of worship, tears were on my face. Not tears of grief, but tears of peace.
The next few days I watched as the country I had come to love shut down when on March 13 Spain declared a state of emergency.
Tourist locations that were once brimming with people emptied. The city looked like a ghost town.
A brief moment of noise came the next evening. A message was sent around Spain urging every citizen to applaud those fighting COVID-19 at 10 p.m.
In my apartment, I saw and heard a chorus applause come from every corner of Granada when the hour struck. Each citizen stood in their window cheering. Some even played the national anthem while others yelled “¡Vive España!”
The next day, my Spanish abuela helped me pack my bags. Helpful as always, she put on a smile despite knowing it was my last night with her.
The excitement of the journey I had two-and-a-half months earlier was gone. My prayers teemed with questions about my safety, the travel ban and God’s will.
All I knew to do was to keep praying.
I started my 48-hour journey home merely four days after receiving the email. It took two flight cancellations, one flight delay and one missed flight to get home.
After flying from Granada to Madrid, a flight delay caused me to miss my next flight. Due to the ban, the next available flight to the U.S. was 24 hours later. Madrid was the center of the outbreak in Spain — nearly everything had shut down there. Only one food vendor remained open in the airport.
Unsure how I would endure the next day, my new flight ticket happened to be first-class. That ticket provided me with access to the first-class lounge where there was free food, a bed and a shower. The shower felt like luxury in the shutting down airport. God provided for me even amid utter chaos.
But, coming home brought a barrage of emotional highs and lows. Some days I felt normal, others a mess.
I shifted between sadness to anger at home. Online classes and quarantine began, cutting me off from the world and tying me to my laptop. The friends and experiences I left in Spain haunted my moments. An introvert, I tried to shove away my emotions and hide them from those around me.
I couldn’t hide them. Instead, they spilled out in mood swings and harsh words. I didn’t feel like myself.
Unsure how to heal and process my grief, I called friends asking for counsel. One friend had returned from Asia, struggling with many similar emotions. As we compared stories, she shared that even in the midst of this, she felt secure with God beside her.
Her certainty pierced through my grief carrying hope.
Dutch watchmaker and Christian Corrie ten Boom wrote about her security in God during World War II.
Corrie and her family hid Jews in her home until they were caught and sent to a concentration camp. Faced with unimaginable horrors, Corrie and her family prayed constantly. Corrie later wrote in her book the “Hiding Place” the hope she held in those situations.
“When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don't throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer,” she wrote.
While I’m unsure of what lies ahead, her words encourage me to trust the conductor. Even as I still face an unpredictable future, I cling to the conductor, not to all that’s been left behind.
Contact Liz Rieth with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @liz_rieth.