"Hunkering Down" - A Student's Quarantine Diary

April 6, 2020

by Talia Dunyak, second-year MA Student in the Department of International Relations

As I write this, it’s been 22 days since the Hungarian government announced that all universities must close their in-person teaching, in a hope to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

I am an American citizen who has been living abroad since 2016. In fall 2018 I moved to Budapest to study International Relations at CEU, and that’s where I’ve been living since – save for spending fall 2019 at CEU’s new Vienna campus. The day before the announcement, I had been at a De-stress with Dogs event organized by the International Relations department. I stood with some of my classmates, discussing what we thought of the recent Covid-19 emails from the university. Little did we know that this would be one of the last times we’d see each other face-to-face for weeks, if not months.

The following day we received another email from the university, this one detailing the new restrictions put in place by the Hungarian government. There was significant confusion as to what all of this meant (not just in general, but what it meant for us students). Soon after, I watched as many of my friends decided whether they should flee back home. Borders were beginning to close, and flights and trains cancelled. Over the next days I met with the few people I could still meet, to say goodbye in person before they headed home to be with their loved ones. I too had to seriously consider whether going home or not was the best decision for myself. After a lot of thought, I decided that my lack of health insurance in the US – as with so many of my fellow Americans – and the hazard of a trans-Atlantic flight was too much of a risk. So now, I am hunkering down in Budapest until this all blows over, however long that might be.

One of the things that I’ve found quite striking throughout this experience is how quickly everything has changed. My one roommate – who also decided to stick it out in Budapest – and I remark almost daily about how one week ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago, and soon enough four weeks ago, we never could have imagined what would be happening today, and how this also means that we have no idea what could happen tomorrow. Since moving to Hungary, I have taken multiple Hungarian language courses at CEU, and although I’m thankful for the level that I now have, I also worry about my limited language skills affecting my ability to understand the new and changing laws. If, God forbid, I get sick, will my lack of proficiency hinder my ability to communicate with healthcare workers? I am thankful for CEU resources such as the health center, but as the virus worsens and strain is put on such resources provided by the university, I have to consider how this might affect me in the coming weeks.

"Once a day I try to go for a walk, or do an online Pilates class to keep myself active."
"Once a day I try to go for a walk, or do an online Pilates class to keep myself active."

My day-to-day life changes very little. Once a day I try to go for a walk, or do an online Pilates class to keep myself active. I stay at home as much as possible. Right now, I find myself diligently working on my final papers and the beginnings of my thesis at my roommate’s desk. She went home, and as her desk is by a bigger window than mine, this allows a few more stray rays of sunshine. Luckily, we are pretty well-stocked with most things in our little flat. In the weeks leading up to the official social distancing announcements, my roommates and I started slowly buying shelf-stable food, cleaning supplies and other toiletries, and now we only go out to the shops to supplement what we already have. I feel lucky that in Hungary people do not seem to be resource hoarding in the way that I see my Facebook friends from the US, Austria and Germany posting about.

"I work on my final papers and the beginnings of my thesis at my roommate’s desk."
"I work on my final papers and the beginnings of my thesis at my roommate’s desk."

The streets are nearly empty and when I look down from the safety of our balcony, I see a few bicyclists and individuals on walks, but none of the normally jubilant crowds enjoying the arrival of spring. When I go for my walk along the Danube, I no longer see families strolling along admiring the trees by the river as they begin to bloom. When I go to the grocery store, I can’t help but notice the many small shops and restaurants that are now shuttered: usually at this time of year their doors are wide open, to let in the fresh air. I find myself looking out the window more and more these days, dreaming that I was out there instead of holed up in here. Dreaming of the celebratory drink that we had planned to get at the end of winter term, of the hours we would have spent in silent solidarity writing our theses this spring, of the quick trips to Estratto with friends for a cappuccino and cake to break up the days working hard at CEU.

Although some might view this as a cliché, one thing that I keep reminding myself (on the days when things seem more hopeless) is the famous Mr. Roger’s quote that is often heard in the US, after tragedy strikes: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And it’s true. A few examples of this from our CEU community. A dear friend of mine started a Facebook group to help provide timely translations of Hungarian proclamations and guidelines, tips for surviving the isolation that many of us feel, and academic and artistic resources for us to peruse. Another friend hopes to lead workshops on how to make reusable cloth masks. The coordinator and head of our department organize frequent social hours via Zoom as a way for us all to check-in with one another, share art and feel part of a community.

As someone who is trapped far away from her familial support, I find solace in the fact that my support system here includes individuals who do not only spend their time thinking of ways to build the community, but also of ways to help others. I find myself hopeful, despite the constant barrage of negative news, that not only will we survive this virus, but that we can come out stronger.