Being an Expat in Times of Coronavirus

“Should I stay or should I go now?

If I go there will be trouble

And if I stay it will be double”

The Clash

Coronavirus has messed up all of our lives. But this mess comes with all different kinds of contexts and nuances. In my case, I am an expat — a Portuguese citizen living in Hungary — and found myself having to make a hard decision:

should I stay or should I go?

During the first month of the coronavirus presence in Europe, this wasn’t even a question. I was living in Hungary, I had my job, my apartment, my life. I was planning on going through this in Budapest, of course. But I had no idea what life was about to look like.

During that week in mid-March, everything changed. European countries started to report high numbers of infected people and, of course, Hungary also had positive cases. But it just so happened that the first infected people were Iranian citizens who lived in Budapest. The ultra-conservative Hungarian government, led by Viktor Orbán, did not hesitate for one second in blaming foreigners for the dissemination of the virus in Hungary. “Our experience is that primarily foreigners brought in the disease, and that it is spreading among foreigners”, he stated on March 13th. More would follow on this — but let’s stay there, in that week in mid-March.

Budapest. Photo by Diana Bernardo.

For the first time in 1.5 years living in Hungary, I felt uncomfortable being a foreigner in the country. I was mostly scared of what would happen if I caught the virus. There were some terrible stories coming out about how the Iranians were being treated in the Hungarian hospitals and I did not want to end up in a situation like that. The whole world wasn’t making any sense, but this wasn’t either: the city that had given me so much joy in the previous months suddenly felt like an unsafe place.

More and more European countries started closing their borders. I am extremely privileged to have been born in the EU (EEC, at the time), and always took freedom of movement for granted. I left Portugal at 21, moved to France, to the UK, back to Portugal, and on to Hungary without a single problem. But I did all this with the lightness of heart of someone who knows that she’s always one flight away from home, family and friends.

For the first time in my expat life, this changed. In that week in mid-March, nobody knew how things would evolve, so you had to assume the worst: that borders would close, and nobody would be allowed in or out of the countries. So, I had to make a decision:

should I stay or should I go?

Both sides had a strong case. If I decided to stay, I didn’t know when I could see my family again. And that can be bearable in normal conditions but then this started daunting on me: what if something happens? With the virus out there, it’s likely. So, what if it does? What if my family gets the virus and I cannot be there for them? Or what if I get it, I am all alone in Hungary, and my family cannot get to me?

I had a million other reasons weighting on the other side but this one was enough to convince me. So, I had my answer:

should I stay or should I go? Go!

I was lucky enough to be able to work from home, so this was a very quick decision. I bought a flight on Saturday and flew out on Monday. That final weekend in Budapest was one of the weirdest of my life.

I packed my bag, not even sure of what to put in it. Stay at home clothes, I suppose. But it was mid-March and Spring was about to start. Until when would this last? Should I pack Summer clothes too? What kind of things does one need during a quarantine?

That weekend, I took walks through the city. This was back when people were still allowed outside. I kept my distance from everybody, but I needed it, I needed my goodbyes. It feels so weird to walk on the streets of the city you call home knowing that you will be leaving, and you have no idea when you will be back. And when you do, you have no idea what you will go back to.

Most people have their lives on pause these days. But that weekend felt like giving up on life. I fought really hard to build the life I have there. And it just felt like life slapped me in the face and shouted: “I have other plans”. So, I bowed my head and obeyed.

Lisbon. Photo from Unsplash.

On Monday, I took the flight from Budapest to Lisbon. My parents were waiting for me at the airport, with masks on. We shared a house, keeping all the possible distance for two weeks, until my self-imposed quarantine ended.

I am now living in Portugal with my family, and I have no idea until when. But I still work for a company in Budapest, I pay my taxes in Hungary, and I pay the rent of the studio where I live, and where I left most of my belongings. I spend a good part of my days in quarantine studying the Hungarian language, because I want to be fluent when I am back. But will I ever be back? When? And what will Budapest look like? Will I be able to pick my life up from where I left off? Or has that life come to an abrupt end, forever?

In the past month, the Hungarian Prime-Minister went on to make the country look like it is living in a dictatorship. His hatred for foreigners is loud and clear, and the law he passed is not even clear about who is allowed to enter the country these days. Hungarian nationals are allowed, but what about EU citizens with a valid resident permit, and who work and pay taxes in Hungary? Supposedly, we can go in, but that is not clear. Which, in my case, would be fine for now because I don’t intend to go back while things are still like this. But when borders finally start opening, will I be allowed entrance to the country where I live?

It is like living in the limbo. You are never whole anywhere. You are in one place and you miss the other. You make a decision and a small part of you regrets it. But the biggest part of you still thinks it was the right choice.

But I have been an expat for too many years now to know that this feeling has nothing to do with the coronavirus. It is the nature of an emigrant’s life: the moment we decide to leave the country, we are never whole again.

I am home and I miss home.

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