How My Life Abroad Helped Me Cope in This Pandemic

On March 11, I left the office with my laptop. Our office instructed us to do this every day in case of a sudden remote work situation. I stopped at the grocery store on my way home and have been (mostly) here ever since.

These days, I’m reminded of the feeling of isolation I experienced when I lived abroad in Saarbrücken, a small town in Germany. 

It’s not the same as living through a pandemic. But, I think back on that time and how uncertain everything felt. 

However, I am reminded of how building routines and learning to enjoy spending time alone helped me cope with change and kept me moving towards my goals.

How I Started Working Abroad in Germany

Ludwigskirche, a famous landmark in Saarbrücken, Germany
Ludwigskirche, a famous landmark in Saarbrücken, Germany, where Emily lived abroad. (Photo Credit: Kevin Mueller)

After graduating from college in San Diego, I knew that I wanted to live abroad. I knew I wanted to live in a big city and have an international career. After months of applications, interviews, and disappointing rejections, I finally got accepted into a new fellowship from the Robert Bosch Foundation, in Germany.

For my fellowship, I analyzed their international student marketing. This really meant translating all materials into English and being a poster child for the university’s attempt at internationalization. “This is our American,” my colleagues would say, as they introduced me around campus. 

When the Isolation Sets In

After a few weeks, the loneliness and isolation set-in hard. 

On Saturdays, I planned out whole days that revolved around going to town. I would buy groceries or find a new cafe, with the hopes that I might meet people. I felt an urgency to make some friends before the gray European winter arrived.  

But on Sundays, stores were closed. And the loneliness was not easy. 

Instead of exploring the town, there was coffee for one with a book. There was organizing and re-organizing closets and shelves and desk space. There was “how many ways can you make salad” recipes to brainstorm for the week. There were podcasts and phone calls and video chats with family back home. 

Sound familiar?

Eventually, I started new hobbies. I started running and reading poetry. I began running more frequently and for longer periods of time. If I couldn’t get out for a run, I took the advice of Billy Idol and danced around my dorm room with myself to break a sweat. If I was moving, I was happy.

I found that I loved my new pastime of running in the woods with music blaring in my ears. In the evening, I dressed up to eat my dinner for one while I listened to the soothing voice of Ira Glass on This American Life. Some evenings, it felt, he was my only companion. 

How I Created a New Home Abroad

One day, I met a few American Computer Science Ph.D. students at the bus stop who didn’t speak German. They needed someone who spoke German to help them sort out housing and bank accounts, registration, and grocery shopping. It felt good to be useful and make new friends. 

Over time, my circle of friends grew. After four months in Germany, I could celebrate my birthday with a small dinner table of new friends. 

In addition to my new American friends, the table included Uschi, the student registrar in my office. Uschi and I became close through our daily afternoon tandem chats. She registered all students on campus, but felt a particular affinity to the international students, acting as a de-facto mother to us. When we met, she asked if I would stop by later to help her improve her English.

Emily and her friend Uschi at a cafe while living abroad
Myself (left) and Uschi (right) in 2005 at Cafe Odeon (Photo Credit: Emily Commer).

We began to spend every afternoon in her office speaking English over an espresso and a square of dark chocolate. We wrote down new words she learned and their German equivalent. In this way, I also learned a lot of new vocabulary. Soon, we started running together after work in the wooded trails behind the university. She introduced me to other women who ran and we became a regular group. 

Uschi also introduced me to a few young international Ph.D. students that became my closest friends. Before spring, we were having dinner parties, taking bike trips along the river into France, and going on weekend getaways. The relationships I made during that time are some of the strongest relationships in my life. In fact, Uschi is the godmother of my children and we still talk weekly, speaking in German. 


The Privilege of Hope

I consider it a great privilege to be able to safely shelter-in-place at home in Lower Manhattan. A usually boisterous neighborhood, it has grown very quiet. The exception to the silence is the claps and hollers at 7:00 pm each night for essential workers and, sadly, the wail of sirens. 

These days often remind me of those first few months in Germany. In order to stay focused on my work, daily running or dancing with myself is essential. Weekly chats with family, including Uschi, are also vital. I listen to podcasts. I plan out elaborate trips to the grocery store. 

This pandemic has emphasized how interconnected people are around the world. I grieve deeply for those who we have lost, for those who have lost loved ones, for those who are dealing with a lot more while coping with a lot less. I don’t mean to minimize that or compare it to my situation.

I wanted to share my story because my time abroad has helped give me hope. In the midst of our grief, I have hope that this is the start of a future better than what we can imagine. 

Having this hope feels like the greatest privilege of all. 

A view from a new york city window of a rainbow over a building during COVID-19 pandemic
A view out my window of New York City on April 13, 2020, right after the 7:00 pm clap for essential workers (Photo Credit: Emily Commer).