My time in Linz was too brief, but I made the most of what I got. I made many international friends and experienced a taste of education in Austria, all while seeing this part of the world for the very first time. I did not expect when I started this semester that the coronavirus would become a global pandemic. Witnessing Austrian crisis-response was certainly not an experience I wanted to have. However, I appreciated witnessing firsthand the reaction to stay-at-home orders. These orders were taken very seriously by local people. I know this because I saw very few of them, as well as my fellow international students, during my last two weeks in Austria. This experience made my journey home even more memorable than it should have been.
Every day leading up to my departure looked a little different, but for the most part my schedule followed a pattern. I would wake up and check for American news that came out in the evening, do my homework, go on a walk or see if anyone was in the common kitchen, then check Austrian news at night before bed. I experienced true isolation for the first time when my roommate left to be in her own room. I found out quickly that isolation was the absolute furthest I could get from my intended goals for this semester abroad. My personal expectations of this exchange time included getting better at understanding the local dialect of German. I did not get very far because I did not meet very many people, but I did get better at making purchases in the grocery store. After just a few trips I was able to pick out what the cashier meant, and I could hear and immediately understand the numbers when he or she read out my total.
After seven weeks of experiencing Austrian and other cultures, I had to come home. Even in this I learned how to handle a new situation. I never thought that I would be leaving in the middle of a pandemic. My travel experience was so different from anything I had ever seen. The 6 am tram ride was completely silent. There were only people out on essential business. I was alone during my train ride to Vienna. No one else was in the same train car as me, and my ticket was never checked. I was aware that the pandemic was being taken very seriously, but I did not realize the implications of limited travel until I actually traveled. The international airport in Vienna was essentially deserted when I arrived. After a short flight to Amsterdam I had a two-hour layover. It was here that I started to see the difference in pandemic responses between Austria and America. Only US citizens were on my flight, and it was a full one. There was no room at the gate, so everyone was crowded up against each other. I missed the strict two-meter distance protocol that had been my guiding rule for the past two weeks. It was scary knowing that I would be traveling in such close proximity to other people who could be carriers. Thankfully, I did not get sick while in my quarantine period, but at the time I had no idea my exposure status. For the entirety of my nine-hour flight back to Atlanta, I felt trapped. I did not move for fear of coming into contact with a carrier in the packed plane. Despite the early (and stressful) exit, I feel like I did not waste a single second during my exchange period. Even though I spent most of the semester at home, I did my best to stay connected with my new friends who remained in Linz. Being home really put into perspective for me how important it is to be physically present in every moment.
I am so thankful for the time I was able to spend in Linz. If not as a student, I plan to come back as a tourist so that I can fully experience the city, Upper Austria, and Austria as a whole.