Expats in Lockdown is a special series – a collection of interviews with expats around the world and how we’re all dealing with the coronavirus outbreak as best as we can. None of us have an instruction manual for times like these, especially while living abroad. My mission with this series is therefore simple – to show you how similar our experiences can be despite living in different countries.
The rawest interview I’ve done so far for this series is with my dear friend, an Italian long-term expat, whose family is in Northern Italy (the area in Europe which is hit hardest by Covid-19), while she lives in Denmark.
The impact of the measures against the spread of coronavirus on her life busts open how the virus has made expats lose their most important freedom – being able to travel and be with family and friends, a freedom that often keeps us going while living in a foreign country.
On top of that, she has also been hit by losing her job at a restaurant as a result of the lockdown in Denmark. Regardless of it all, what impresses me the most about my friend is her strength and sense of calm while being bombarded with “unintentional terror” from her friends and family in Italy.
Before you continue reading, full disclosure, this was the interview that broke through the shock and denial stage for me in terms of coping with the new normal that is life in lockdown. So please give yourself some time and extra self-care after reading this interview – if you need it.
Katherine: Even though I know your story, I’d like the readers to also know how you ended up in Denmark?
I first came to Denmark in 2011 as an exchange student during my Bachelor’s. But since then I’ve been back and forth between Italy and Denmark for different lengths of time.
First, I returned to Denmark to get a Master’s degree here and then went back to Italy to get a second Master’s. During that last attempt in Italy I finally realized that Italy isn’t for me so I came back to Denmark again. I worked for a bit but I kept feeling like I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I decided to go traveling to find myself, to put it in a cheesy way (laughs).
I went to Asia on my own and while I was traveling there I met the person who would be my future boss in Cambodia. I love working with food and wine so I ended up working in that industry for about a year.
But now, since January, I am back in Denmark again because that’s where I feel at home. This time I returned not on my own but with my boyfriend who’s from the UK. The intention, before all of this chaos, was to find a normal job, find a nice home and settle down.
Katherine: What is it that makes you feel at home in Denmark?
It sounds a bit fluffy but it’s the atmosphere. Specifically the balance between work and social life. Danes love spending their spare time with their friends and family and I think that’s a very beautiful value to have. Which is a bit funny because I don’t have that much free time (laughs).
The relationships I have in Denmark are also way less superficial. I’ve been lucky to have beeen surrounded by Danes from day one so I’ve been able to get to know them a lot. That’s quite different from other people who move to Denmark and don’t end up getting to know many Danes.
In comparison to Danes, Italians tend to be a bit more superficial. That annoys me. I noticed that big time when I went back to Italy the last time after I had lived in Denmark for a several years in a row. The friendships that I had formed in Denmark by then, even if I didn’t see them very often, they were way deeper compared to the friendships that I had in Italy.
Katherine: You’ve gone back and forth between different countries over the last 9 years. Looking back, what would you say is the hardest thing for you about living abroad?
Your friends are scattered all over. But you really just want to have them all in one place. I’ve thought so many times “oh if only this person or that person could meet, they would get on so well and then we could be a nice group of friends altogether”. But it’s impossible.
I miss the daily routines you can have with a friend or being able to make spontaneous plans. That’s something you simply can’t do in this life.
Another thing that I’m starting to think more and more about is being away from my parents as they get older. I feel it’s a bit sad. As I also thought it was sad that I missed my sister and brother growing up since I’m several years older than them. So every time I would visit I would notice how they’ve become taller or that my brother’s voice has changed. Just missing all the small developments in their lives is a bit sad.
Katherine: I get that. And these days we’re all being told to stay away from being in close quarters with people anyway, so let’s get into the hard part of this interview.
Was there a particular moment when the spread of coronavirus started to have an impact on your life?
I wanted to surprise my mom for her birthday and go visit her in Italy. Her birthday was on 15th March. Although I got a green light from work I was also watching the news and I could see that things were not going in a good direction. So I waited to buy the tickets. But 10 days ago they closed the borders in Italy altogether.
I mean, you could still fly in but I wasn’t sure that I could fly out again or whether Denmark would let me in at all. These days being Italian is not a good thing. They could just put me in quarantine but then I’d have no income. It sounds a bit harsh, but I really had to ask myself if my mom is worth all this. That’s when the gravity of the situation really hit me.
Since then I’ve had quite a lot of thoughts about the freedoms we have. Or, well, the freedoms we used to have.
I used to think that if I wanted to go back to Italy to visit my family then I could just do that. I could even do it every weekend if I had the money. But now someone is telling me “no, you can’t do that”. That has had a very big impact on me mentally.
Another silly thing is that since I just moved back from Cambodia, I’ve only managed to bring my winter clothes here from back home. All of my spring and summer clothes are still in Italy. I had planned on going to Italy in April or May to get my stuff. But now it seems that I won’t be able to get them.
I don’t know if Denmark would reject a package from Italy. Or if someone in Germany sees a package from Italy and just dumps it in a trash can. That aside, the thought of asking my mom to go to the mail also scares me. I don’t want to send her into some office with other people. That’s not safe and I don’t want to put her in danger just so I could have some t-shirts and a jacket.
You just take so many things for granted. You go through life thinking “of course I can do that whenever I want to” and now you realize that you can’t.
Also in relation to my job in the service industry. I always thought that I can always find a job as a waitress even if everything else goes wrong. I’m a great waitress. And now, well, no (laughs). Not at all.
For instance, the restaurant where I’ve been working since coming back to Denmark was shut down yesterday [note: 3 days after lockdown in Denmark was implemented]. Like every other restaurant in Denmark.
The service industry was one of the only certainties I had in life and it’s no longer a certainty. That’s quite scary. You always need to have a Plan B or even a Plan C apparently.
Also, when I was at the restaurant on Thursday, after the prime minister said that they were closing the borders, I can’t tell you how many people we had coming in saying that they had lost their job and asking if we needed anyone. We had to tell all of them that we don’t need anyone. The effect of the lockdown and border closure on the service industry was immediate – they had just barely announced it and already people started to come in asking for jobs.
There’s a big chance that the economy in Italy is going to collapse also, and we’re already known for having economic problems. So I do wonder how my family is going to survive this in terms of jobs. My father’s a doctor so he will have a job, but what about my mother? Or will my sister and brother find a job when they’re done studying?
Katherine: On that note, how is your family coping with their new reality?
There’s a bit of tension at home because theirs is a special situation.
My dad has been working non-stop for a month now. From Monday to Friday he is in a hospital where there are patients that have the virus. On Saturdays and Sundays he meets different people as part of the group that decides how to handle the borders, how to contain people, how to quarantine other people, should we keep the restaurants open or should we close them. All these kind of decisions. And then he has to implement them by cascading the information.
So when he comes home, he finds three people that are stuck at home. They can’t go to school, university or to work. On top of that, one of the three people is a little bit paranoid about my dad bringing the virus home.
So my mom is sleeping in the living room and he is sleeping in the bedroom. We have two bathrooms at home so my dad is using one of them and the rest of the family are using the other one. My mom literally goes after everything he touches and cleans it. You can imagine the tension.
I know from my sister that any little thing is good enough of a reason to lose it a little and get angry. At first I thought maybe it’s just my family being a bit dysfunctional (laughs).
But then I realized after talking to other people that everyone’s in exactly the same situation. Everything is a reason, THE reason, to get angry and shout at each other, to let off some steam.
They’re all losing it a little bit in different ways because they all have their own problems now as a result of the virus.
Fortunately they have a dog so they’re taking it out in turns for long walks. The poor dog is probably sick and tired from having to walk so much (laughs).
Katherine: To bring it back to you again, how are you coping being locked down here in Denmark while your family is going insane in Italy?
I go for walks – although my family is telling me not to. I’m not very prone to panicking but I think that as long as I don’t go close to people or touch anything it’s okay for me to go out. I was forced to work until last weekend so even if I felt that it’s a bit of a problem to be so close to guests, I still had to go to work.
But I do think it’s a bit weird because everyone in Italy is telling me to enjoy being able to leave the house because “you’re just a bit delayed, just wait a few weeks and you’re going to be just like us”. They’re not doing it consciously, but they are spreading some terror.
So I am enjoying the freedoms that I still have as much as I can (laughs). I don’t tell them too much because I feel that if I told them that I went for a run they’d probably go mad. It is very awkward nevertheless.
At the restaurant it was also very awkward. People were asking other guests to sit further away or stand away from them. If you cough because a little bit of pepper got stuck in your throat then people just stare at each other and think that they’re going to die.
But I think I haven’t completely realized it all yet. You ask me how I’m coping and I don’t think it has completely hit me yet. It’s still kind of in the background. I know a lot of people being affected by the virus, I hear a lot from them, but it hasn’t hit me quite in the same way because we are still allowed to leave the house here in Denmark.
If anything, I’m mostly just worried about my dad because he is in direct contact with people and he has diabetes. So he is not the strongest man.
Sometimes when you feel a bit dark then you start to think “what if I’m not going to see him anymore?” or “what if I’m not going to be able to hug my family?” But when those thoughts come, I tell myself “this hasn’t happened so don’t let this overwhelm you, if it does happen, you will take it from there”.
It’s a choice not to let the unknown consume you.
Katherine is a clarity coach for expats who can’t decide whether to stay or go. She has combined her PhD research on internationals dealing with change, professional expertise in change management and insight from serial expat and repat life into a powerful signature coaching method. Katherine’s mission is to help expats create fulfilling lives that feel both fun and secure (yes, that’s possible!).