I have to say that I made my decision to leave with great reluctance. I was prepared to stay and shelter in place. However, the necessary measures taken by the Austrian government to ensure the safety of its population were becoming steadily more restrictive and changing my ability to do what I had come to Austria for. In addition to the changes in my professional activities, other changes mandated by the need for social distancing meant no concerts or plays or opportunities to use the museum pass that I had eagerly purchased. No more rehearsals for the Grazer Universitätsorchester that I had just joined. Someday I will look forward to playing Borodin symphony #2, which was programmed for this semester. I hope the orchestra can still have its concert in June. I could still go for walks, I could still enjoy hearing German around me, I had great internet so I could chat with people at home when I need to. But the inability to travel on the local level filled me with a low-level unease because it resonated on the international level too. For me, as a Germanist, it was particularly difficult to leave Austria—in addition, I did feel much safer in a number of ways in Austria under the current circumstances. However, my family is in North Carolina. So, by the last week of March, both the head and the heart agreed that the time had come to return to the US.
During my last week in Graz, however, I had one of those serendipitous experiences that reminded me why international exchange programs like Fulbright are so important. I was taking my glass recycling out to the containers behind our building—I had a lovely apartment on the sixth floor of a building on the edge of the Stadtpark in Graz. Though the building thankfully had an elevator, I usually took the stairs—in times of social distancing, six flights of stairs offer good opportunity for exercise! My building had two medical practices, a beauty salon, an architectural firm, a real-estate office, and seven flats that seemed to be mostly second residences and/or rentals (like the one I was in). I seldom saw anyone in the building, even on the weekdays. Imagine my surprise on this Sunday morning when I encountered an older woman opening the front door in front of me. I stopped, to try to keep at least a meter between us, and I fully expected her to let the door close behind her rather than holding it open for me—neither of us had long enough arms to keep us at a proper distance! But she did hold the door, I thanked her, and we laughed that we could stay mostly apart from one another and still be polite and neighborly. We actually struck up a conversation as we walked away from our building: how are things going, how interesting to experience such solitude (we were each living alone), how unfortunate that I was in Austria at this particular time, how our need to isolate reminded my neighbor of stories she had heard about people in hiding during the Second World War, how challenging it was to work at home, how lovely it was to connect. We only spoke for about 8–10 minutes, but it was a delightful interchange.