A brief forward to this piece: it’s been months since I’ve finished this story, yet something has been holding me back from publishing it. Perhaps it’s because it represents the end of my miniature saga, tying together all the loose ends and giving me little new material. Perhaps it’s because I briefly wanted to keep my last experiences to myself, as my own little story for me alone. But most likely it’s that publishing this piece is publishing those last memories of that attempt at living abroad, that were cut too short due to the coronavirus. Putting this in type is a concession, a surrender to the fates, that yes, that adventure is officially over (which, of course, it has been). Back when the virus was still new, when we were unaccustomed to its presence and full of uncertainty, I didn’t know when my next adventure would be. So I didn’t want to let this one go. But time (perhaps too much) has passed. The pandemic is far from over, and to repeat the now tired cliche, we have adjusted to this new normal. Life, as it always does, goes on. And the new adventures will come. So with that in mind, I felt it finally time to tell the last piece of my most recent story…
Around me the air darkened as afternoon faded into night in the city of Tel Aviv. The day’s warmth hadn’t yet dissipated, and I sat outside on a patio chair with my eyes fixed to my phone. I was looking at statistics of Covid 19, with the growing case numbers, the new countries closing, and it was finally sinking in that this virus was much, much more than simply a bad flu strain. My eyes began to glaze over from staring at a screen, and turned my face towards the sky to let my mind wander. After working so hard just to get here…what was I supposed to do next?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For this story to make sense, we have to go back, more than a month before, to the coast of Morocco.
I was working with a boutique hotel in Morocco for the winter while my days in the Schengen zone refilled. On the days I wasn’t getting lost in the winding medina, surfing on the Atlantic, or working with the hotel, I was making my plans for the spring when I would finally return to Europe. From Morocco I was going to fly into the UK and stay in London with a friend of mine for a week, but after that was still unplanned. I had sent out applications to various workaways and language schools, and while part of me felt like I should return to France where I had become comfortable, I knew in my heart I really yearned for a couple very specific places.
For those of you who don’t know me personally, I kind of have a thing for Ancient Greece. Ever since I was 7 years old and I found my first mythology book in my elementary school library, I was enthralled with the culture ever since, to the point that I would eventually get my Bachelors degree in art history and history specializing in Ancient Greece. Along with this, I’m Italian by heritage, and grew up with essences of the culture throughout my life. So as a result of all this, Italy and Greece have always been the top of my list of places to at least attempt to live.
When I first attempted to live in Europe I went to France, because I had studied the language all four years of high school and it seemed the more “logical” and “safer” option. And though I enjoyed the country immensely, I could never shake the feeling that it wasn’t where I actually wanted to be. Certainly I wouldn’t be disappointed living elsewhere in Europe, but I basically only dream of my two little countries of the Mediterranean. So during my days in North Africa, I sent out new applications daily, started teaching myself Greek in January, and basically did everything I could to manifest what I wanted so badly to happen.
In the first week of January, I got an email from a language school in Athens. I had been accepted to work for the entire spring, and a temporary apartment in the center of the city would be provided. I was more than ecstatic. It was a sense of pure joy that I probably hadn’t felt since childhood, because I was finally, finally getting an opportunity to live in the place of my dreams. There was only one problem: while this school helped with accommodation, it wasn’t paid. The fact that I had scraped by with my shrinking funds as long as I did was already a gift from the gods, and I wasn’t sure how much freelance writing I would be able to get done and get paid for while also working at the school. Nonetheless, I kept preparing for Greece; I upped my language courses, scoured over maps, and devoted arguably too much of my time in Morocco towards my next destination.
The first day of February, I received another email, this time from a language school in Naples, Italy. I had also been accepted there, they would help with accommodation…and they paid. I was now put into a dilemma: attempt to live in the literal country of my dreams but without a sure income, or take the next best option and a little more financial security? After a long day of thinking and many glasses of wine, logic won over my heart, and I decided to accept the Italian offer. It certainly wasn’t a bad second choice, and I was grateful I was accepted to both in the first place. Besides, Greece wasn’t going anywhere, right? So I contacted the Italian school, booked my flight from London, and switched my Greek lessons for Italian ones.
But a few short weeks later, something new blew in from the east: Covid 19.
As we all know by now, cases and infections exploded in Italy, emanating out of the Lombardy Region. The situation only got progressively worse as it got closer and closer to the day I was supposed to leave Morocco for Europe, but I still wasn’t swayed away. Back in the early stages of the global outbreak I admit to being naïve about the virus. I didn’t believe it was that serious, and assumed that it was just a bad flu strain that mainly affected the elderly and immuno-compromised. Even the Italian representative of the language school I was communicating with didn’t believe in the seriousness of the virus, and joked that it was only the stodgy old northerners getting it. So even as I prepared to leave Morocco for the UK on the last day of February, my plans to go to Italy persisted, thinking at worst I would have to be extra cautious about being hygienic.
That was, until Italy closed the country from outside travel.
I couldn’t go to Italy, I had turned down the position in Greece (which even if I hadn’t, Greece responded faster to the virus than many European countries and closed early), and I now only had only a week before my original scheduled flight left London. So paralleling my mad rush for a job in France months before, I cut my leisure time in London short and spent my days glued to my laptop, trying to find something, anything to land myself in the Mediterranean. Between my stubbornness and belief that the virus still wasn’t that bad, I refused to fall back to the United States. I had gotten this far along in my attempts to live in Europe and I wasn’t going to go down without a fight. Before I had left Africa my Moroccan friends had consistently joked about me going to Italy, saying that I should just come straight back to Morocco to avoid the virus. In hindsight, they were probably right, because as I sent out applications and tried to make connections, more and more cases grew across Europe, and more countries started to close public life. At that point, I began looking all over the Mediterranean and not just in Europe. North Africa again? Sure. Middle east? Why not. All I knew was that I didn’t want to go back to the states, I wanted to go somewhere I had never been, and I was going to do anything to make it happen.
A couple of days before I was scheduled to leave, I got an email. It was from a Workaway in Tel Aviv, with a job where I would work at the reception of a hostel in exchange for lodging. It was the first acceptance response I had gotten, and it was all I had. So I accepted, rebooked my flights, and in a couple of days (not counting some brief accidental time in Warsaw) was on a plane to the middle east.
Which brings us back to where this article began, with me sitting on the back patio of a hostel on a balmy spring night, and me finally coming to terms with the seriousness of the virus. A few days after arriving in the country, Israel announced the closure of all indoor public spaces, including hotels and hostels like the one I was supposed to be working in. Many European countries had already closed their borders for incoming travel of non-citizens, and it probably wasn’t going to be long before Israel followed suit.
So…what now? The list of uncertainties kept growing. How long would the virus last? How long would I be able to support myself in Tel Aviv, a city rivaling NYC and LA in living costs? How much time did I have to figure out a plan before Israel and or the United States closed the borders? If I was to stay in Tel Aviv, how long would I be able to survive living in this hostel? (Which, as an aside, ended up being a hot mess of an establishment that may get its own article in the future) I bounced my thoughts off various people: my parents, my good friends in the states, even the guys I hooked up with in Tel Aviv. One of my hook ups, may the gods bless him, even offered to let me stay with him in his apartment rent free, which I would have accepted until his virus-paranoid roommate shut down the idea of letting an international traveler stay in the house.
A week after I arrived in the city, I stood on the rooftop balcony of the hostel, watching the building lights switch on one by one till the sky was a deep purple-black and the city sparkled like the stars. With a pain in my chest, I knew that I probably should go home. I went inside, booked one of the last flights out of the country, and the next day was on a 12 hour flight to NYC.
As I write this, I sit outside in the sunlight of southern California, in my family home where I grew up. In a strange twist of irony, buying those last minute plane tickets from Israel to California basically drained me of the rest of the money I had left, and landed back in California more or less broke, at my family’s place, and back to what certainly felt like square one.
Except I know that it isn’t. My logic knows that eventually the virus will end, and lives will eventually shift to some level of normalcy. What this experience reminded me of, and really what my whole attempt at living in Europe reminded me of, is that no matter how much we attempt to plan, organize, and dictate our futures, we never really know how the fates are going to weave our lives. Inevitably one thing will come up, another will shift, and sometimes we may even change our minds. Regardless, I think it’s important for us not only as travelers, but as people, to internalize the notion that life won’t always be what we expect it to be. We have to learn to roll with waves, jump the obstacles, and keep going, no matter the circumstances. It’s easy to let uncertainty scare you, and I know I am just as easily hit by fear and doubt as anyone else. But maybe we just need to change how we frame it all. Instead of looking at the mysteries of the future with anxiety, perhaps we just need to look at them as adventure, the great story of our lives, with action, or drama, or triumph, waiting to unfold.
So if you need me, catch me here in the California sun. But you better come soon, because before you know it, I’ll be back across an ocean, chasing where I know I’m destined to be…wherever that may be.
Meet Austin: a 25 year old from California chasing the dream of living in Europe. Keep up with his writing and adventures on IG.