As I was waiting in line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica during my last full day in Rome, I met a group of students from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh who were in my same shoes.
“It feels like a breakup,” one of them said. And she was spot-on.
Leaving Loyola’s John Felice Rome Center (JFRC) and the city of Rome almost two months early really did feel like a breakup. And it certainly wasn’t a mutual one.
Everything was going smoothly for the first month and a half or so. I was experiencing things I had never experienced before, looking at the world in a completely new way and I was the happiest I had ever been.
But, inevitably, things got a bit nasty toward the end.
On Tuesday, Feb. 25, the student body was called to a mandatory meeting where JFRC officials first informed us about the severity of the coronavirus. Because of its presumed origins in Wuhan, China, the disease had always felt distant and unrelated to us, but suddenly it was very close and very serious.
In the minutes leading up to the meeting’s start, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen was playing through the room’s speakers. Nearly every student sang along, and the line “I don’t wanna die” felt a little too real.
This meeting was really the moment our relationship with Rome began to crumble. It’s here JFRC students first learned that quarantine was a potential consequence of traveling to another country since Italy was considered a hotspot. Administration also decided to cancel the school-sponsored weekend trip to Sicily because the first case in Palermo had been confirmed that morning.
Over the next week, confirmed cases in Italy jumped from around 300 to over 1,000 and the entire student body seemed constantly on edge. It seemed like at any given moment you could find someone on the phone with their parents.
Between the cancelation of the Sicily trip and the general fear of leaving the country — not to mention the upcoming midterm exams — no one was quite sure how that weekend was going to play out. Excitement for another weekend of traveling the continent turned into fear of not being able to leave the country — or worse, not being able to return.
As the week progressed, we heard rumors of other universities sending their students home, including New York University’s program in Florence and many of the programs in Milan. Conversations between students always seemed to start with, “How are you doing?” and other niceties but always seemed to end with, “Do you think they’re going to send us home?”
The answer was almost always, “No, I doubt they would do that.” Until Saturday, Feb. 29. I was sitting at dinner with a group of other students and our conversation was inevitably headed toward that one dreaded question.
And this time the answer was overwhelmingly, “Yeah, I just don’t know when.”
Between the previous day and that conversation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had raised Italy from a Level 2 Alert, which encourages enhanced precautions, to a Level 3 Warning, which advised against any unnecessary travel. A Level 4 would mean no one could enter or leave the country.
Just a few hours later, we got the dreaded email. Everyone’s phones vibrated at the same time and just a few seconds later, wails and sobs echoed throughout the building. Even though most of us seemed to know it was coming, it was never real until that moment.
That night and the next few days turned into a mad rush of sorts — we all wanted to squeeze in our last bit of sightseeing and final goodbyes. Everyone wanted just one more bite of pasta, and one more glass of wine because soon it wouldn’t be legal. We wandered Rome for one last look at the Colosseum, one more museum visit because there are so many we never saw, and one more coin toss into the Trevi Fountain (I did three) just to be safe.
Meetings were held and (some) questions were answered, but everyone could tell the faculty were just as sad to see us go as we were.
Each day campus grew emptier and emptier as more and more students boarded flights back to the States. I was on the last group flight out of Rome on Wednesday, March 4.
So yes, Rome dumped me. My last few days were full of all the typical post-breakup feelings — the would-have/should-have/could-haves, the wishing for more time, the realization that you took it for granted.
Rome didn’t even get to meet my parents.
But there is one thing the JFRC faculty kept reassuring us — we are Romans now, and we’ll be back.
So Rome may have dumped me, but I’m not going to let her go that easily.