“The thing about trains, it doesn’t matter where they’re going, what matters is deciding to get on.” That’s what the conductor said to the little boy in the 2004 Christmas classic, The Polar Express. It’s also what I said to myself as my plane first lifted off from Boston Logan Airport, en route to Dublin in September 2019 for what I hoped to be a three-year adventure of travelling and meeting new people, with a healthy amount of studying in between.
Perhaps my expectation was too romantic, but what I got was not as advertised. Instead of sweeping journeys across the Ring of Kerry, cycles around the Aran Islands and nights out in Dublin pubs, I got a semester and a half of college before the country, and the world shut down.
I was left stranded in a north Dublin dorm room on an empty DCU campus. My loose group of friends had scattered back to their rural homes across the country, and my family was 4,800 kilometres away.
And they say college is the best years of your life.
But after two years of living overseas, enduring virtual college and sparse social activity, I have found an intimate sense of home in a country that I likely never would have if my romanticised idea of going to Europe for college had become reality.
February 29th, 2020. That’s when the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the Republic of Ireland. I know that because I kept a screenshot of the notification on my phone.
It buzzed in my pocket in the middle of a crowded lecture theatre. It showed it to my friends next to me, squished up against my shoulders in the narrow seats. We joked, trading what we thought were exaggerated remarks about the impending apocalypse, and expressing our giddiness about the potential of some extra days off.
In the following days, I watched Italian Serie A soccer games played in eerily empty stadiums, and the daily national infection count grow on my phone’s lock screen.
My lifestyle did not change until a couple of weeks later when I started a two-week-long internship during a break for our exam study period.
Monday was business as usual. I took a crowded rush-hour bus from campus to Dublin city centre, walked into the office, and introduced myself to my new co-workers, albeit with an awkward and unnatural elbow touch.
When I repeated the same routine the next day, I was greeted in the office by my editor instructing the interns to work from home. “We are just testing out how our newsroom would operate from home,” he said. “We will have you guys back soon afterwards.”
Needless to say, I never saw the inside of that office again.
It quickly became clear that “work from home” meant “go home and don’t work”, as I didn’t hear from my editors, and they stopped responding to my emails.
I also received an email the next day informing me that college would be closed for the next four weeks.
I wasn’t going to let it stop me, though. I flew all this way, left behind my family and friends in America, my support system, my network, and especially Dunkin Donuts, to come to Ireland and enjoy it.
I had four weeks without any responsibility ahead of me, and I was ready to make the most of it. That is, until my mother called me, telling me, without any interest in negotiating, to be on the next flight back to Boston.
So much for my epic European adventure.
I packed up my dorm in a day, savoured one last cup of Barry’s gold blend, and headed back Stateside.
I spent the next six months at home, returning to my local newspaper that I had worked with in high school, and never saw my childhood friends even though we all lived in the same city.
It was an odd time, I was supposed to be in the prime of my college career, but instead, I was right back in my hometown, uninspired and physically restricted.
The next six months went by agonisingly slow, but when the end of August rolled around, the excitement to head back overseas began to ramp up.
Off the rails
The plan was for classes to return to campus, only a couple of times a week and in small groups, but at least I would get to see people again.
But just before I left, plans changed. Cases had spiked, and the university launched ahead with 100 per cent remote learning.
When I arrived, the country looked like a shadow of itself. Everything was closed, roads were empty, and the campus was deserted. All the buildings were locked with the exception of the on-campus convenience store, which had reduced operating hours. The pizza and sandwich shops, which I lived off of in first-year, were vacated.
The campus accommodation was barely populated, mainly by other foreign students, many of whom didn’t speak English.
I still held on to a glimmer of optimism that I hoped would come during our first lecture, where I could at least see the faces of those whom I had just been getting to know when I last spoke to them.
I got up early on the September morning of our first lecture, took a shower, washed my hair, and put on the outfit I had picked out the night before.
When I entered the Zoom call excited for a bit of craic with the class, as was compulsory in the minutes before our lectures of old, I was greeted by a sea of blank screens and letters.
It turns out I had the wrong idea; everybody had their cameras off and was just hoping to get through the day without being seen.
For the next few days, I tried my best to make an effort, but slowly, I crept closer and closer to rolling out of bed and joining a lecture with my camera off before I even put on the kettle.
The energy that once came with a day of college was long gone; it was a constant battle remain focused and committed during a monotonous and unengaging online lecture.
Pijamas became my default outfit, and my dress shirts steadily collected dust in the closet.
As a night owl, my evenings stretched into mornings, and with lectures being recorded, pretty soon, any semblance of structure in a typical lifestyle evaporated.
Back on track
I didn’t become a total cave dweller, though. I still managed to go for walks around Drumcondra, a far cry from the hikes along the Wild Atlantic Way I had envisioned, but still enough to let me clear my head during a stressful week.
On my weekly trips to the grocery store, I got to know some of the people who worked there, and would give them a nod when I saw them. I watched homeowners along the route make incremental progress through their various pandemic renovations, from starting and maintaining a garden, to re-tiling their walkways.
During the mundane days of toiling away in my dorm room, I made sure to leave my window slightly open so I could hear the murmurs of the city, if they weren’t drowned out by the rain.
The smooth voices of RTE radio became ingrained into my day, and the stack of Irish newspapers by my bedside grew larger.
The days were dull, yet the monotony gave way to a profound authenticity that I would not have experienced if not for my bizarre circumstances.
I spent plenty of time in Ireland as a boy; my father is from Cavan, and we would travel there twice a year growing up. My holidaymaker experience became my expectation of Ireland, and when it came time to embark on my journey here for college, that’s the destination I expected to fly into.
But when all the exciting parts became off-limits, I found myself falling in love with a country for the parts nobody talks about; the incongruous yet somehow charming architecture, the low-rise city skylines, and the fact that everything is always a little bit damp even if it’s not raining.
In The Polar Express, every child that boarded the train was taught a lesson, which the conductor punched into their ticket upon their departure from the north pole. This was my lesson.
It took a pandemic to convince me, but at least now I am certain that I enjoy living in the place that I do for the things I could only appreciate when my airport tourist pamphlet became useless.
Heading into final-year, the plan, as it stands, is to be back on campus for classes for the first time since March 2020. It is still liable to change, but if it holds up, the challenge now will be cramming three years of college memories into one, on top of trying to maintain strong academic performance.
No matter what happens, though, I’m really glad I decided to get on that train.