Happy birthday to me!

By Lisa Nagavci

The last week of my stay in Israel, as an exchange student, I remember the day before I left still thinking I was going to stay there for a couple of more months, depending on whatever is going to happen after the COVID-19 situation. I remember luckily right before the first positive cases of COVID-19 in Israel happened, the Albanian Embassy in Israel got in touch with all of the Albanian students from Kosovo, so we got to meet everyone and get their contacts. And I remember the day before our mini-graduation one person from the Embassy contacted us and asked us whether we were staying in Israel or not. And, having a long discussion with them, we realized that it was probably best for us to come home because of the last flight from Israel to Albania. By that point, the airport in Kosovo was closed, so the last flight from Israel to Albania was the day after. It was a very last-minute spontaneous decision when we decided, “Okay, we’re going back home tomorrow.” 

I remember the last few days being very chaotic, one, because I was sort of excited to go back home, but, at the same time, all of my friends were leaving and it was the last time I was going to see them. And also the day after, we were going to have a graduation. We were supposed to have a big graduation ceremony, but because of all the regulations and social distancing rules, we weren’t allowed to have that. So, on the very last day, the school held a sort of mini-graduation. It was all outside very socially distanced, and there wasn’t much going on. It wasn’t a ceremony. It was mostly us just taking pictures. I remember my flight being one hour after that, so I and the other students from Kosovo and my friends just took some pictures and then quickly packed everything we had left to pack and just went straight to the airport.

I remember it was such a last-minute decision, we didn’t have enough money to pay for the bus ride. The trains by that point weren’t working either because the entire country was in lockdown. So we just gathered some change we had, and luckily we had enough to go to the airport. Usually, I have a bad experience with airports because I do not like how crowded they are, but I remember the Tel Aviv airport being almost completely empty and seeing only three or four people there. So that was actually nice for me. I really enjoyed that. 

We went to the plane, but at that point, it still didn’t hit me that I was going back home because it was so rushed. I remember being sort of emotional, having cried at the graduation but still being scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen and I knew that we were supposed to be quarantined when I went back home. So I remember it was a very confusing trip back home. For the first time ever, I enjoyed flying because the planes were also very empty, so I remember having a whole aisle to myself and not having to get close to people, not having to feel suffocated. I could put my legs up and have a great time and have a great nap.

The whole issue with us going back home was that, because we were flying from Israel to Albania, someone was supposed to come to pick us up at the airport. And I remember us contacting a few embassies. We contacted the Kosovo embassy in Turkey, and then we contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There was a lot of contacting people that went on because we had to find someone to pick us up, and our parents at that time weren’t really willing to, because that also meant they had to be quarantined for two weeks with us in the city dorms. But, after a lot of trying and then failing to get someone to pick us up, one of my friend’s dad volunteered and then he greeted us at the Albanian airport in Tirana. 

He was wearing one of those hazmat suits. I don’t know how he got one, but basically he was trying to be safe and everything. The ride from Albania to Kosovo was really funny, especially when we arrived at the border. All the policemen there were scared of us when we told them that we were coming back from Israel from a flight. I remember everyone yelling at us to stay in the car, but we hadn’t had fresh air in a few hours, so we very quietly went outside and just went to the corner of the border trying to get away from everyone just to breathe. They asked us so many questions, they did some routines they were supposed to do, and then we left the border, went heading to the city dorms.

I remember the moment I got there, I just wanted to burst into tears because the student dorms are very close to my home and I could see my apartment and my neighborhood from there, but I couldn’t leave. It was actually the first time I had seen the student dorms from inside. They always seemed smaller when I saw them as I walked around the city. But when I actually went in there, I saw a lot of buildings, and there were a bunch of doctors staying far away from us, yelling at us not to get close, asking us all these questions. I just remember being so tired and so emotional for having to just leave Israel so early. I think a tear came out. I’m not completely sure, but I think I almost started crying.

Basically, after all these questions, at that point, we hadn’t had any sleep for twelve hours, we had to wait, we had a very long layover in Istanbul, and we basically got sent into our rooms. Luckily, I wasn’t staying in the student dorms alone because some friends were also with me. They had studied in Israel with me. I was in a room with one of my closest friends , so that was really nice.

But I remember the first moment when we got into the room, we found out we were in this tiny room with two beds and almost no space to walk through. So my friends and I just panicked and opened the windows because we needed air and felt very claustrophobic. We just started cleaning and disinfecting everything because they gave us some cleaning supplies, which was really nice of them, and also toiletries like shampoo and toothpaste and stuff like that. So it was nice that we got to clean ourselves again, even though the rooms were disinfected before we went in. It was nice to reassure ourselves like, “Hey, everything is clean.” I remember taking a very long nap right after I got into the room.

And then getting dinner for the first time on the first day, we saw the food, and it was basically cafeteria food, like how you would have in any cafeteria. It wasn’t that bad, but, knowing that my home was two minutes away, where I could have very delicious homemade food, was really sad. And also I don’t think it was enough food. We got very hungry there because we had nothing else to do other than think about when we were getting breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Also, both my roommate and I, at the time, were very heavy sleepers, so we never heard when breakfast came, and we just missed breakfast every day. So we had two meals every day, and not even very good meals. But it was all right.

I think that the whole two weeks that we were supposed to stay there started off well. Yes, it was stressful and we panicked in the beginning, but we still had fun and laughed. But, by the end of the two weeks, I remember not even talking to my friend once. We just woke up, stayed on our phones the entire day, and did not have even the smallest conversation. So by the two weeks, we started to miss our privacy and tired of our friends. I love them with all my heart, but, after two weeks, we were just so tired of each other and never wanted to see each other again.

The saddest thing was that, halfway through the quarantine, I turned 18. You grow up with all these ideas of your 18th birthday being amazing, you’re going to have a party, and everything. You’re finally an adult. And I basically celebrated my 18th birthday over a loaf of bread because that is all we had in the room. But it was really nice. My friends from back at school in Israel, we all — I remember it was 2:00 am when my best friend wrote in the school group like, “Hey, we’re having a Zoom meeting for Lisa’s birthday,” but everyone was asleep, so there was like five people in the meeting, and four of them weren’t even people I was close with. They just happened to be awake. They told me, “Happy birthday,” and that was it. That was a good day because I was getting a lot of messages from my friends, and mostly friends I was not going to see for a very very long time. I definitely cried a little bit on my birthday. I don’t know, the messages really just got to me and it made me emotional.

That was pretty much it. My birthday was the lowest and the highest point of quarantine. By the end of the two weeks, we were just so excited to go back home. And all the way through quarantine, my parents would come. They obviously weren’t allowed into the student dorms, but I would see them from the window waving. They would wave at me and call me on the phone. And I have pictures of me in the window just looking at them with a very sad face, but it was still nice. Then two weeks were done.

I don’t have much memory of them because they went by so slowly and were so uneventful. Absolutely nothing happened, and I just remember finally leaving and going to hug my parents. The first time I told them was “All right, I know our home is two minutes away, but take a longer route just so I can see the city again and see people again.” We went to a market and we bought strawberries, and they bought all my favorite foods, and I just went back home and it was the biggest relief ever. But then after that, I was supposed to self-quarantine in my home for two weeks, so I pretty much did not leave, I did not go outside for an entire month.

The first time I went outside, it was still with police hours when we were only allowed to go outside for an hour [and a half] a day and stuff like that, so I basically went to a shop downstairs, bought a chocolate, and came back, and that was pretty much how my entire quarantine went.

The dorms had different buildings. We were in a building and then my friend’s dad, who was also quarantined for two weeks, was in another building. We were not allowed to leave our buildings at all. We were four friends quarantined, four people from the same school quarantined, so I and a friend and two other friends were in another room. They were on another floor. And, technically, we weren’t really allowed to leave, but a lot of people were anyway. Even when we went outside, we would see our neighbors socializing and smoking out in the hallway. So technically we weren’t allowed to leave, but because all four of us came from the same place and were quarantined on campus for three weeks already, they [the officials] kind of let us see each other from time to time as long as we didn’t talk to anyone else.

In the beginning, at first, our parents were allowed to bring us some food. After that, they [the officials] created some rules that allowed people to bring food only for quarantined women who are pregnant or diabetic. But, in the beginning, when our parents were bringing us food, we weren’t even allowed to go downstairs to get it. We had to wait for people working there, like the volunteers, to bring it up to our rooms. That’s pretty much it.

I called my friends from school and my parents a lot. Also, at the time, we still had assignments to finish, pretty important assignments as well. But I always tried to stay awake to try to finish everything, but, while I was quarantined in the dorms, I remember not doing anything for school, because I just couldn’t concentrate. I tried something here and there. We were quarantined, but we still had schoolwork to do.

Lisa Nagavci is a student residing in Prishtina. Ms. Nagavci shares a first-person account about her experiences while in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Illustration by Renea Begolli