April 12, 2020
For the last month, I’ve been receiving emails from the US Embassy in Bucharest: health alerts, travel advisories, and increased warnings to return to the United States, unless I’m prepared to “remain abroad for an indefinite period.” Then, a few days ago, the inevitable came: Commercial flights to and from the U.S. have been suspended.
It’s day 29 of social isolation, and I’m currently writing this from our office–the place I’ve turned into my journalism “classroom” for the last four weeks. The windows are open, the birds are chirping, and the warm sun is streaming in; though all I can focus on is the fact that someone in the neighborhood is playing La Bouche’s 1995 hit “Be my Lover.” Loudly.
I admit that normally Eurodance music makes me smile. Not because I like it, mind you, but because it’s a reminder that I’m in a different country. Romania in particular seems to have an affinity for music that became popular just after the 1989 revolution; which makes sense if you think about it. Decades of enduring oppressive communist rule (which included government-regulated radio and television) finally comes to an end, why not celebrate with a little Tina Turner?
These little cultural nuances are why I’ve lived abroad for so long. That, and the fact that international school teachers get enough time and benefits to travel, or regularly return home for long visits with family.
My husband and I were supposed to go to Armenia and Georgia last summer. I’d spend the first month at home in Florida, while Luke stayed in Romania with the dog. Then, when I returned, we’d set off on our adventure. But things didn’t go to plan. A simple outpatient surgery revealed cancer, and I struggled to heal–both physically and mentally–in time for our departure, so we canceled and spent the rest of July and part of August in Bucharest taking long walks in the parks, visiting the local farmer’s markets and cooking.
When school started, so did my countdown to surgery. In December, I had my thyroid removed, along with 22 lymph nodes, something called a thyroglossal duct cyst, and part of my hyoid bone. During recovery, my mom “milked” my drainage tubes and fed me chicken soup. Dad brought me ice every hour. Luke downloaded an app to organize pills and measured my fluid output (now that is true love). And when the time came, my brother-in-law even snipped my stitches and pulled the long, plastic tubes out of my neck.
It was hard going back to Bucharest. My family and I all held each other a little tighter and longer than usual outside the gate. My mother and sister cried, and I felt guilty for leaving.
It’s been 11 years since we first gathered at Tampa International–me with several suitcases in tow. At the time, the US was in a recession and I had lost my job. I was also nursing a broken heart, and moving to South Korea to teach English to kindergarteners sounded like the right thing to do–even though I had zero teaching experience, nor any desire to be around school-aged children.
The moment I landed in Seoul, everything changed. I was captivated by the foreignness of everything–the language, the neon signs, the fact that I didn’t look like anyone else. And this sense of excitement and curiosity stayed with me for the next year-and-a-half. It drove me to backpack around Southeast Asia for four months following my contract, led me to South America to learn Spanish and dance salsa, and to Shanghai to fall in love with food–and a handsome Australian teacher who would eventually become my husband.
I’ve thought about going back to Florida many times, but something’s always stopped me. Would I be able to make enough money? Would I stay a teacher or try to go back to writing? Would I get bored, or would it be nice to feel “settled”?
When our school decided to close four weeks ago, 25% of staff members returned to their home countries. We didn’t know it at the time, but when this number was disclosed a week later, I wondered if staying had been the right call.
Romania’s healthcare system ranks the weakest in Europe–occupying last place (35th) in the European Health Consumer Index (EHCI) for the second year in a row. Locals complain about long wait times, poor treatment outcomes, a lack of qualified practitioners, the expectation to bribe nurses, and a lack of medical procedure options and pharmaceuticals. Six weeks ago, the country ran out of my thyroid replacement medicine and it’s still not available.
Luckily, I was able to secure the medicine through a coworker and am fortunate that I can continue to heal at home. Blood tests can wait. Scans can wait. Radiation can wait.
But I worry about the less fortunate and the infected. Romania’s economy was struggling long before the pandemic, and with so little money being invested into the healthcare system, there aren’t enough hospitals. And the hospitals that exist are either unequipped (public) or too expensive (private).
What will happen to the Roma women selling flowers on the street corner? The old factory workers who’ve turned to driving taxis? The million-plus Romanians living and working in Italy, who people fear might come back to celebrate Easter with family?
I’ve been watching the news less and less these days, and Facetiming my family more and more. My parents sit together on the couch and take turns telling me stories–finishing one another’s sentences like one of those couples on When Harry Met Sally. My niece got an iPad, and with it, Kid’s Messenger. We take turns sending videos back and forth with funny filters: sometimes I’m a pizza, other times a wicked witch or an alien. She’s often a traffic cop.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to see them again in person. We thought we’d be together in March, when I’d return for radiation. Then, my parents were looking at flights to visit in April. When that fell through, they were considering meeting us in Australia this summer. This morning, we found out that the island is closing its borders through the end of the year.
Technology connects us, but the feeling of isolation remains. The physical distance has never seemed greater; and lately, I’ve been daydreaming of what it might be like to return to Florida once this is all over. What it might be like to feel settled.