'Home is where the heart is', the old saying goes. Her adventure in European life barely begun, Vivi Herrera felt her homes recede further and further away as she and the students of the 4Cities Urban Studies master degree saw their classroom, their city of Vienna, and soon the borders of Europe locked-down. Vivi found shelter in enforced stillness.
Dizziness. Tightness in the chest. Difficulty of breathing. No, it was not Covid-19, but these were the sensations I had the first week of the confinement, after Tuesday, 10th March, me and my other 38 classmates – friends – from 4Cities Cohort 12 attended the classroom at the University of Vienna without knowing that it would be, perhaps, the last day we would take a lecture physically.
Four times. It was only four times that we were able to take a physical lecture at a university where we will probably never step back again until our thesis defense in a year. A week before, we started this second semester in a new city that we were excited about: for the incredible public transportation it has, for the upcoming hot season, or for the view that our classroom had to the Votive Church's Neo-Gothic style roof, which became a postcard for many of our Instagram stories and was now replaced by snapshots that reflected the emptiness: of the supermarket shelves for the panic shopping, of the city streets or the trains that some of us were able to take before the borders closed to go home.
Vineyards of the Kahlenberg in winter. Photo by Vivi Herrara
Home. It was that feeling of being at home that I needed that morning of March 17th, when I woke up with symptoms of anxiety that, one could say, are very similar – without the intention of putting the seriousness of both sufferings into competition – to those said to characterise Covid-19. Less than two weeks ago I was installed in what will be my room until the end of June in Ottakring, the 16th district of Vienna, and no, I could not call it home yet. For a moment I thought about going back to Mexico City. I imagined what it would be like to be there trying to follow e-learning with a seven-hour time difference. I started to reckon: participating in the discussion forum on Wednesdays at 10 am in Vienna would mean being up at 3 am in México. No way! Despite the fact that, there, I could have the company of my family – my parents and two sisters – and my closest friends, returning to the country where I was born was not a possibility for me, because from there it would be even harder to follow the activities of the master's course. Much less because I remembered all that it had cost me, not only entering the programme, but also returning to Europe. I lived here for almost a year in 2015, I was on a one-month trip in the winter of 2018, and the idea of coming back to stay had become a goal that I had a hard time achieving again. I knew I had to stay here, but I still didn’t know where to find the peace of mind that the feeling of being at home gives.
'I knew I had to stay here, but I still didn’t know where to find the peace of mind that the feeling of being at home gives.'
Madrid: It appeared as an option because that’s the place where I lived five years ago, and it is the closest thing I have to a home here in Europe. I was there two weeks before going to Brussels to start the first semester, there’s where the last semester of the programme will take place and there’s where the guy who was my previous partner lives – and who is now a very special person to me – together with his little dog, who was also mine during the four years we were together. One way or another, I always end up returning to Madrid, but now it wasn’t possible. By the second week of March, Spain had become the epicenter of Coronavirus and the idea of moving there was crazy. I took a break. I breathed. I took a step back to look at my possibilities in perspective.
An answer: I had a hard time finding it. I often exchange my ideas to see if they make sense before making a decision, and I do this with the people who know me best, but most of them were still sleeping on the other side of the world. There was only me, so I came back to myself and got an answer: "You don't find peace of mind in a physical place. It's not in the apartment of the ex-boyfriend you still love, or in the city where you feel at home, or with the people you call family. Wherever you go, you won't find it. You don't have to move around much. You find peace of mind within you."
There it was! I didn’t have to go anywhere to find a home and my peace of mind. Within the crisis, I concluded that each person has herself or himself to cope with these weird times and, at best, change for better. At least that is what I decided: to stop, take some time to breathe and return to myself, because from there I can find the answers to start improving; at the micro scale that is me and, why not?, to the macro scale that is the world. And apparently it made sense. Without looking for it, I found a person to whom my idea made sense after it was published on Instagram. Aya Itani, my classmate and friend on the programme, who sent me a message:
'"Could peace of mind be found in a physical space?", I read in the screenshot...'
– "OMG, Vivi. I just translated your quote and look what I was writing meanwhile for my thesis. It was as it if is a direct answer to my research question."
"Could peace of mind be found in a physical space?", I read in the screenshot of the document that Aya sent to me. There it was: unintentionally, my breakdown even gave academic input to someone.
I don't know how many more people I can make sense to. We don't know if we can get back to the University of Vienna in the short term. Nor does the government know exactly when to lift the lockdown. There are a lot of things I don't know yet, and we don't know, and they don't know. But at least I know that in this and any other time of uncertainty I do have one certainty: me.
This story was shared by Vivi Herrera, a Mexican student of Urban Studies, currently living in Vienna.
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