This semester she was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. What began as the experience of a lifetime ended abruptly when she was forced to leave Italy and return home to quarantine.
Steele flew to Italy on Jan. 27 to begin her study abroad experience. She was traveling to study at Lorenzo de’ Medici University in Florence. At that time the United States had already confirmed its first coronavirus case on Jan. 22 in Washington State. By Jan. 26, Italy confirmed two cases of coronavirus and by Feb. 27, towns were being locked down in response to an outbreak of the virus in the Lombardi region of Northern Italy.
The Smoky Mountain News: When did you first hear about the coronavirus in Italy?
Steele: I remember hearing about China and the coronavirus outbreak through social media, and wasn’t really thinking anything of it, nor was anyone at the time. About a month in, we first started hearing about the outbreak in Northern Italy. I remember thinking it still wasn’t a big deal.
The first thing I heard that made me realize this would impact my experience was when my roommate’s friend, who was attending another university in Florence, was sent home after her school was shut down. I knew then that it would affect Florence as well.
SMN: What were you thinking at that time?
Steele: I was very hopeful. My mindset wasn’t at the point where I thought my university was going to shut down. I was talking to people, talking to my professors, and everyone seemed to be taking it nonchalantly. It seemed like everything was fine. I was set on having that positive mindset. I tried to live in the moment, I kept doing my schoolwork, I kept doing what I was doing.
SMN: When did you receive the news that Appalachian State was sending you home?
Steele: Well I want to say, the day before I got the notification, I went to this small town called Fiesole, and it was one of the best days of my life. It was roaming through this small town, and you really got a grasp of the Italian culture and it was beautiful. We were away from the hectic chaos that was going on in the city, we were out in the rural countryside and it was incredible. I was with a few of my friends, and we found a grassy spot for a picnic. We had Prosecco and no care in the world.
The very next day, Feb. 24, I was sitting in my cooking class and there were only two people in a class that usually has 20. The professor asked me if I had to return home, and at that point I didn’t know yet. At the very end of the class I got the notification that App (State) had emailed me. It said, “we’re requiring that study abroad students return home immediately.”
I sat there and cried in my cooking class, thanked my professor. The class was held in the Lorenzo Food Market, a huge market in Florence, and as I was leaving, I was taking everything in and realized it was probably the last time I was going to be there, ever. Full of tears, I picked up three bottles of wine and went to my friend’s apartment. We sat there and sobbed.
SMN: How did things develop after you were told you had to return home?
Steele: I remember after finding out, that whole week the city felt different. You could tell it was just this cloud of sorrow hanging over Florence. Everyone knew things felt different and that it was going downhill fast. I lived beside the Duomo, which is such a popular tourist area. I got to walk by it every day on my way to get to class and there were always hundreds of people surrounding it. So, to go out there and see maybe 20 people, it was eerie.
SMN: When did you leave Italy?
Steele: I left Italy late at night on March 6. Me and some friends took a cruise-like ship to Barcelona which ended up being a terrible decision. But the reason we took a ship was to avoid airports. So instead we spent 25 hours on a ship to Barcelona. This was a huge ship, could have held 2,000 people and there were about 60 people on board. We roamed around, and it was fun but now I know cruise ships are not for me. We didn’t have any service on the ship and the wi-fi didn’t work. So, we stuffed our faces with croissants and cappuccinos that were surprisingly good for being on a ship.
SMN: At this time (March 6) there were well documented outbreaks of the virus, what was it like to travel?
Steele: It was almost like it wasn’t a thing. The security just checked us in, it didn’t even seem like they cared. Then when we got off the ship there was nobody to look at our passports when we got into Barcelona. We just got off the ship and that was it. No medical testing or questionnaires. That last week in Italy, when the city was so empty, there were some tourists wearing masks. Getting to Barcelona was refreshing at the time because there were people in the city, and everybody just seemed to be going on with their day to day routine. It was like normal life again. People were very laid back about it. But I knew there was more to come.
Italy went into lockdown on March 10, just days after Steele left the country. All restaurants and bars were closed, all sporting events were suspended, public gatherings of people were banned and travel within Italy was severely restricted. At this point, coronavirus cases had been confirmed in all 20 regions of Italy. On March 11, President Trump announced a ban on travel from Europe to the United States for 30 days.
SMN: When did you leave Barcelona, Spain?
Steele: I had been in Barcelona for three days when my parents called me, they seemed really frantic. They told me the president had just released a message that the U.S. would be closing its borders to Europe. So my parents were freaking out a little bit, trying to figure out how to get me home as soon as possible. Soon after the announcement, the White House corrected the statement and we found out that as a U.S. citizen I would be able to re-enter the states. But I still left Spain three days earlier than planned, on March 13. For a moment it had been a relief to get out of Italy, we had finally made it to Spain, and then it became urgent to get out of Spain.
SMN: What was it like to return home?
Steele: When I was in the airport, I did not get tested, people were not wearing masks or gloves, not even the people who work in the airport. I would have assumed the people interacting with all the travelers would have been protected somehow. I went through customs and they asked where I had been, why I was there, why I was returning, and that was it. I arrived Friday, and it was Saturday that the airports apparently started screening people for symptoms. But just on that Friday when I was there the airports were a chaotic mess.
My parents picked me up. They drove two cars to the airport. They said hello, welcomed me home from six feet away, and then I got in a separate car and followed them home. That was an upsetting return. But we had to take precautions seriously, my dad works in a hospital and sees older folks every single day. My grandmother lives here in Waynesville too and she has respiratory issues, so we really had to make sure we were careful.
Getting back home was the beginning of my two-week quarantine. My mom is also in quarantine for two weeks. She’s been holding my hand through all of this, without actually holding my hand.
Having the study abroad experience cut short was tough, I had planned to do all of this growing and I had such high hopes and then all of a sudden it was taken away. So coming back here I keep reminding myself I can still grow, you can’t force growth. Growth happens in time. This whole experience has reminded me to be patient and to be grateful for what is around me. I am so appreciative of how loving, caring and understanding my parents have been.
SMN: What have you gained from this difficult experience?
Steele: I’ve been reminded to put your heart into every day. Find what you love, find the little joys. Whether that’s walking outside, opening your window, making a cup of coffee, find that good. Because when you’re able to find the good, life goes a lot more smoothly. Life isn’t always easy, as we know in a time like this. Live each day with your whole heart, a good mindset, and positive outlook. I’ve been grateful to be in the mountains, to have this beautiful place to be outside.