I said goodbye to everyone, old and new. I said goodbye to my flat, where everything had taken place in the previous 11 months, the last 4 of which with new people around. Taken out the trash. Taken my luggage down 3 flights of stairs. Had a chat with the old néni of the first floor, who wished me good luck with my life.
And I was off. My ESC had ended. During a crazy, crazy time.
I didn't realize the size of the pandemic until the moment I step foot on Budapest airport. I travelled through it several times, and it has always been full of people, coming and going, suitcases all around. Then, the 15th May, it was empty. Only 4 flights on the departing side of the board. None on the arrivals. It was like coming out of a happy bubble and being pushed into reality, the one of a post-apocalyptic world where everything is the exact opposite as you remembered. I was wearing a face mask, of course, and I had with me a pair of gloves. The only ones I was able to find were the ones inside an old hair color box. Thanks to my boss, who drove me from Nyiregyhaza, I arrived 3 hours earlier, also with the fear that I would have had to go through several controls before boarding. There were signs on the ground, telling you were to stand in line. Security officers were there as well to correct your position, if you were one step out of the yellow circle. Our temperature was checked before the check in. We were given papers to sign before landing in Rome. Even though our flight was organized by the Embassy, we needed to have a clear reason for why we where going back to Italy: mine was the end of the ESC project, for others reunion with the family. No plasure travel for sure. That wasn't the only paper I had to sign and hand over that day.
All the shops inside the airport were closed, but one or two bars in the departure terminal. No screaming children running around, no going back and forth waiting for boarding. For me, it was completely surreal. Everyone was wearing a face mask, only one seat was available per bench. Once boarded, we were given another paper to sign, and the middle seat in each row was kept empty for social distancing reason. But the flight was all booked, so even with those places left empty it still felt like another flight around Europe. Then we landed in Rome. The nice old man sitting across the empty place told me he had to drive 5 hours to get home. A mom of two (and one on the way) was facing a 3 hours drive. Her children were a little sad, they had to stay away from dad for another two weeks due to quarantine, compulsory for anyone arriving from abroad. I, for my part, was on my way to another flight, then a 3 hours drive home.
Things in Rome were even more surreal. Italy being the center of the pandemic, measures were even stricter. My temperature was checked I don't know how many times, I handed over my papers, passport and Sardinian permit to the police 3 times. Only 3 flights were leaving Rome that evening. The last one was mine, at 21.50. There were more police officers there than there were passengers. The last bar closed at 7. Everything was cleaner than an operating room, hand sanitazers all over. In the waiting room, out of 30 seat only 10 were actually available for seating. If my mathematical skills don't fail me, we were less than 30 waiting for the flight. Everything went smoothly but for a little altercation right before boarding. Sardinia being one of the least effected regions of Italy, everyone willing to enter the island had to have a special permit, signed by the Governor before even thinking about booking the flight: you had to be a sardinian resident with a specific reason to enter. This reason was, coming back home. Without this permit, didn't matter if you had the boarding pass with you, the flight attendants had to leave you on the ground. One couple didn't have this permit, so they started shouting in the middle of the boarding area, threatening legal action if they weren't allowed into the plane. 'I'm really back', my brain thought. I boarded the flight, on the very last seat back. I don't know if this couple was able to board the plane. With me were students from London, old ladies coming all the way from Argentina, an old couple going home after a couple of days in Rome for medical reasons. And we were all speaking with that thick, unmistakable sardinian accent we from the island are always made fun of.
Cagliari, the lights of the city. Hand over the documents, again. Temperature check. Permit and passport check. Luggage. And my taxi driver waiting for me outside the airport doors. No one was allowed to come and pick me up once landed, because they would have had to join me in quarantine. Only taxi drivers had the permit to go back and forth, always following strict rules. It was 23.30, but I was fully awake. I had the first true conversation about how the quarantine had hit my part of Italy. I've know this taxi driver for years, he lives in the villege next to mine, and he has always been a smiley and cheerful person. But that night, telling me about the stuff he and everyone else had had to go through during those terrifying months, it felt like he had changed completely.
Then, Arzana. Home at last. 1 a.m. My mom was waiting for me outside, face mask and gloves on. No hugs allowed. But one question was allowed, the most important of them all: 'Should I bring you something to eat?'. Stereoptype: still confirmed. After I submitted my last online document, stating that I was going on quarantine, the basement became home for the next 14 days. Internet was not great, but I had some suggested readings to get deep into (thanks again, Ric and Andre). A jigsaw puzzle to finish, which my sister and I had started some 2 years before - and yes, I did put the last piece on it, on my last day of quarantine! Calls and texts with friends, I'll be forever greatful to Sasha for being there for me, again. One thing I liked really much: I was allowed to walk in the garden, and I spent those sunny evenings eating cherries and strawberries enjoying the silence of the countryside.
Second day after quarantine, I decided to go for some groceries. I saw the places I used to walk from childhood on, the same rusty buildings, the same old men and nonne peeking from the windows. Less people around, for sure. Less cars, which is a good thing. The familiar faces were hidden behind colorful masks, but the voices were the same ones I remembered. I inquired after sons and nieces, brothers and uncles and neighbours and grandparents. I smelled the perfumes I had been longing for thoughout the previous 8 months. The thick, rustic smell of the countryside. Home.
Nevertheless, I am yet to unpack. My luggage is lying on the floor of my room, still full. I've only taken out the little farewell gifts from my ESC friends, their letters and notes are beside me while I write. I'm seeing a cloudy sky from my window, and the cherry tree, the pink and yellow houses of my neighbourhood. But the shuffle just played a song that brought me back to Hungary. 3 weeks after my return, I am feeling nostalgic. For places. Smells. Sounds. People, mainly. But this is a good nostalgia. It means that the things I have experienced during my ESC, the skills I have learned, the people I have grown closer with are so meaningful that my brain just doesn't want to put them aside. In a way, I feel like this chapter of my life is yet to end, before a new adventure begins. And this future adventure will be, without any doubt, connected with the world of Nyiregyhaza.
I couldn't be any happier.