Surviving and Recovering During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Edmond Gagnon

During our last trip to Italy, Cathryn and I booked a food tour during our stay in Venice. It was an amazing experience made possible by the tour operators, Adam and Maya, who were American Expats we became friends with. They moved from California to Venice to start a new business and live abroad. By staying in touch with this couple, I learned first-hand how the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged their city and country. In a letter from Adam, he told us about their experience:

A Letter from Adam and Maya from Venice Bites Food Tours

Maya & Adam Venice Bites Food Tours“Beginning with the New Year in 2020, we were full of hope and excitement because our company, Venice Bites Food Tours, had just been recommended in the 16th edition of the Rick Steves Venice Guide Book.  We knew we had reached the pinnacle — receiving a Rick Steves recommendation is akin to winning an Oscar award for ‘best food tour’.

A Rocky Start Before the Pandemic

We had a tough end-of-season in 2019, because Venice experienced the second-worst flooding event in recorded history during early November. Tourists canceled their holiday plans to Venice out of fear that the city was completely underwater. Most businesses reopened by the end of the first week, but US news outlets reported that Venice looked like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and we were forced to close for the rest of the season.

Come February of 2020, it appeared that Venice was bouncing back. Carnevale had arrived, and hotels, while not full by normal standards, were still booked with tourists and residents alike, enjoying and participating in the annual celebrations. Things were looking up.  

But then we started getting reports about a virus that was already in full swing in China, and how it had found its way to northern Italy. The City of Venice made the difficult decision to close down the rest of Carnevale on February 23rd, and canceled all festivities leading up to Fat Tuesday, two days later.

At first, the government defined specific areas in northern Italy as “red zones”;  town officials closed off a catchment area of around 50,000 people. Then, within days, the red zone areas were widened. Soon, Venice was quarantined from the world.

The Pandemic News Worsens

Every day we would wake up to new news and new restrictions on our movement within Italy, our province, and the city itself. Venice and the Veneto, along with the neighboring Lombardy region, became a cautionary tale. People around the world watched as things became worse and worse here, with so many cases and deaths. The numbers seemed to grow exponentially with each passing day, as did our sense of dread and fear.

The Italian government, both city and regional, did their best to contain the situation in the midst of the pandemic. Restaurants and bars could be opened but had to close at 6:00 pm. They told them that they must keep diners one meter apart. This meant they were only able to fill every other table. It was the death knell for our eateries. With the restrictions, they could see no way to stay open.

Finally, they put a stay-at-home order in place. Only essential workers could leave their home unless shopping for food and supplies or to visit a doctor or pharmacist.  If you find yourself outside your home, you must wear a mask and gloves. You must also carry a self-verification form stating your home address, where you are going, and a testament that you will return directly back home.  

Predicting the Future of Travel

Adam & MayaTravel experts issued a four-phase recovery chart that contains both optimistic and pessimistic views on how long it might take for tourism to recover. The phases are lockdown, easing, returning, and recovery.  Their estimate for how long the lockdown will be 2-4 months. We are currently in month two of lockdown.  

Experts estimate the easing phase to take 4-9 months, which begins right at the end of lockdown. Travel restrictions will begin to let up and gradually return to normal. If Lockdown is over in four months (say, the end of June on the pessimistic side), and the easing phase begins in early July, this phase could potentially last until the end of July, 2021.

The returning phase is when travel demand grows and the economy recovers. They estimated this phase to take another 6-12 months. So again, pessimistically, that’s another year of waiting. Experts project that travel demand will be 40-70% of the 2019 numbers. That takes us to the beginning of August, 2022 before we can expect to be ‘back to normal.’

Finally, in the recovery phase, travel demand will approach pre-COVID levels. Experts expect another 12-18 months of this phase, with a pessimistic end date of February 2024. That’s a very long time for people like us in the travel industry, who have no other means of income. After learning of these estimates, real fear set in. 

What Will Venice Look Like?

Empty Italy StreetsWe also have to wonder about Venice and what this city will look like throughout these phases. How many Venetian-owned-and-operated restaurants will make it? How many Venetians will stay in Venice, hoping to ride this out?

As far as coping, it has been incredibly stressful. Maya contracted pneumonia and Bell’s Palsy, and was admitted to the hospital on April 1st. They immediately tested her for the virus and quarantined her in the hospital for 48 hours. Thankfully, the test returned negative. She continues to battle the aftermath of pneumonia but recovered 95% of the way. To add to the stress of all of this, we feel constantly worried about our families and loved ones, especially our parents. We are 6,700 miles away, with a nine-hour time difference. 

We also feel immense pressure due to money. Since the November flood, we have given only a handful of tours. We have savings, but it’s a race against time trying to anticipate when our money will run out. At what point do we pull the trigger and execute our exit plan? It will come at great financial, emotional, and mental costs.

Facing ‘Recovery’ After the COVID-19 Pandemic

Maya in Hospital during the PandemicOur hopes were so high for 2020 and beyond. After the recommendation from Rick Steves, we thought we’d be able to grow our business, hire a few guides, and add more tours. Now, we are stuck in limbo for the foreseeable future, not knowing how this thing is going to play out. 

We will be home without work for at least twelve months and are coping in different ways. Those ways change daily. There are good days and bad. I do projects around the house and fetch groceries for seniors in our building. Maya is trying to learn guitar. These are small things that help keep our minds and hands busy.

We fear that the money will run out or that we won’t execute the correct plan at the right time because of the pandemic. We are in a vacuum and have no idea how long we will sit in it. Also, we worry for the rest of the world, as we know we are not alone in this fight.”

Wrap Up — The Exit Strategy

After reading this letter, I asked Adam if he could expand on their exit strategy.

“We still own rental property in California (my former home). We hope that the real estate market allows us to sell it at a profit if it comes to it. If we have to leave Venice, we’d use that profit to buy land in Ireland, where we’d begin the next chapter of our lives, and maybe start another business or two.” 

I’ve never met another couple with such resilience and an optimistic long-term game plan. They tackled all obstacles that life’s thrown at them. Cathryn and I wish them health and the best of luck. If you plan a trip to Italy in the near future, please check out ‘Venice Bites’. We, along with Rick Steves, highly recommend them as the best food tour in Venice.  

Edmond Gagnon is a storyteller, author of fiction novels and traveler. He resides in the City of Windsor, in Ontario, Canada with his wife Cathryn.




Valuable Lessons I Learned

by Leesa Truesdell

leesa truesdell paris fashion week travel tales

It’s been a while since my last post, where I spoke about one of my very first pieces: Embracing Uncertainty. Uncertainty means “indefinite or not clearly defined.” When we describe life events fraught with uncertainty such as living abroad, time is a theme that pops up frequently. You have the beginning months where everything seems so new and you feel like a tourist, then, you begin work and establish a sense of routine. Then, seemingly suddenly, the year is about to end! For our time here in Spain, it’s almost the end, and, again, the uncertainty is rearing back up saying, “I am back. Hello, life. What’s next?” I realize that as I get older this type of lifestyle, one that embraces uncertainty, is one that makes me feel like I am growing and learning and not feeling stagnant or misplaced.

“Time has a wonderful way of showing us what really matters.” – Margaret Peters

With each day that passes, I grow as a person. With each opportunity that arises, I try to push myself outside of my comfort zone, working towards that growth. My time abroad has shown me that I don’t know myself as well as I thought. Time spent challenging myself has been the reason for my personal growth. I consider time, even though it’s technically free, to be priceless.

About Me and Who I Am

I started this journey looking for more answers about who I am; I wanted to know as much as I could about Spain because my ancestors were from Mallorca. On my first day at work, I made a presentation to my students called “About Me” in which I spoke about my life, my friends, my country, and most importantly my family. Not too long ago, I was talking to my class and I held up a photo of my grandmother, whom I affectionately called Tata. I told my students the reason why I came to Spain, and why I teach. Time moves on so quickly and life can change in a heartbeat. And, in my case it did.

Looking back, I never imagined that I would not be able to see my grandmother again. Those first days in front of my classes were the beginning of my life in Spain inspired by Tata. It’s been a journey that I will always appreciate because I know that she wanted me to be happy, as she told me in our last happy conversations together. As time moves on, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about her sweet smile or soft voice. I started to teach English because of her. Her life inspired me. Each day I walk into a class, I carry her with me in my heart. She may not be with us any longer but her story lives on through my work.

Leesa and her grandmother Lessons
Leesa and her grandmother

Valuable Lessons in Resilience Abroad

Spain has taught me some valuable lessons, and one of the most important lessons I have learned so far is that you don’t know what tomorrow might bring. I know that I would not have learned the lessons I needed to had I not come to Spain. My soul opened up and my heart has once again embraced another culture that has embraced me back. I am very grateful to have this opportunity.

I felt extremely blessed to have been able to see Tata one more time before she passed. Remember to tell those people in your life how much they mean to you regularly. If they do something to upset you, it’s ok to be upset. Just remember that at the end of the day, time is all we truly have. There are a set number of days on our calendar that we will be here. Live your life, be well, let go, and carry on.

‘Cause you never think that the last time is the last time. You think there will be more. You think you have forever, but you don’t.” – Dr. Meredith Grey

Finding Purpose While Teaching Abroad

“The only thing I know is this: I am full of wounds and still standing on my feet.” – Nikos Kazantzakis

Last time I sat down with Justin Hughes-Coleman, it was August in Madrid. Although we were both sweating bullets at the time, my first impression of Justin stuck with me. I spoke about it in the first article of the Teach Abroad series. Justin and I did not know each other but he quickly revealed himself as someone who was using this time abroad to search within to find his purpose.

The Justin sitting in front of me five months later appears different to how I left him in August. His Madrid story was just beginning then. Now his goals are more defined. He went from soul searching to soul defining.

I asked Justin to think about his favorite quote for this series. When he sent me this, at first, I did not understand why. Why did this sunny-side-up, laid-back, enthusiastic young man send me this quote?

Here is his response to the quote listed at the top of blog

“I only found this quote shortly after arriving in Spain. When I was scrolling online, this quote popped up next to a drawing of a woman sitting in her bed in what appeared a very pensive mood. The quote resonated with me and my battle with depression over the years. It represents my growth from thinking I had to be perfect to forgiving myself and fully accepting who I am. The quote isn’t overly optimistic and fits my personality type, positive but pragmatic.”

arriving in Spain

I have had the pleasure of getting to know Justin and agree with him  that we all need to be more aware of those around us. We should take the time to understand our friends’, families’, and students’ needs. The bottom line is that looking at Justin from the outside, you would never know that he has had his battles with depression.

Justin is doing great in his job and he was excited to share his journey with us about finding purpose teaching abroad. He is exploring new ideas and defining who he wants to become a little bit more each day.

Meet Justin, the soul searcher

Finding Purpose in schoolWhat is a typical day at your school like?

“Each day I have a totally different schedule. So my days are pretty distinct, but usually I have one class that I see every day so I consider them my “homeroom” students.”

How many people do you work with (language assistants included) and how many classes do you teach?

“I think there are around 15-20 teachers at the school. There are also lunchroom staff and groundskeepers but I don’t know how many. There are three other language assistants. I teach eight different classes at different frequencies each week.”

Communication in the school and outside of school

How are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

“This is actually a funny question. Apparently last year my Director didn’t like any of the language assistants and didn’t talk to them much. This year I am constantly asked by her if I can help on projects and I tutor my Director’s son once a week. The other language assistants make fun of me and call me “teacher’s pet”.  I get along with all my teachers even though communication can be extremely difficult at times due to the language barrier. My fellow language assistants and I exercise together twice a week and are planning a vacation together this spring.”

Are you forming bonds with students?

“I love kids. However, I honestly didn’t think I would love these kids as much as I do. I’m very close with many of my students and they are always saying hi and coming up to me outside of school. However, I do need to work on being stricter. Yet I know I can because I see other teachers who are strict with the kids and the kids still want hugs after class.”

auxiliars students abroad

What does the school do to foster these relationships inside and outside of the classroom?

“I don’t know if it is just my personality but I really don’t see the “mean” side of Spaniards I have been warned about from various people, including one of my fellow language assistants. Now I don’t know if teachers talk about me behind my back but to my knowledge all my teachers are very friendly and professional. If they see something I can improve on, they come up to me and tell me directly.”

workbooksHow is material being taught to students?

“The students do the vast majority of their work from workbooks, either hard copy or on iPads. They do have projects they do for each class, about once a month where they have to work with a group in the class.”

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

“I don’t plan many lessons but teachers will ask if I would like to lead the class on a certain day. So I try to come up with fun activities for the kids. That way they learn the material in a high-energy state. For example, I was teaching the kids numbers so I made a bingo game and the kids were so excited. On the exam, most of them got all the numbers questions correct.”

Do you work at a bilingual school? What does that mean to you? What does that mean according to the Comunidad of Madrid?

“I do work at a bilingual school in Tres Cantos, a suburb in northern Madrid. I like the concept of bilingual schools and wish we had them in the USA. There are some flaws with it, for example teaching Spanish history in English makes it feel distant for the kids, but overall I think the concept is excellent.”

What standards are your classroom teachers using to measure the performance of their students?

“Other than overall competency of the material, the 3rd, 5th and 6th-grade teachers are using the Cambridge Assessment language proficiency materials to measure the kids’ English skills. The test preparation pretty much dominates the time I spend with the kids and it is a measure that determines which secondary school the kids go to after primary.”

Does your school have a set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help their students succeed and finding purpose?

“I am not quite sure. The teachers definitely coordinate their intended lessons for the kids with other teachers but I’m not sure if there is an overall shared goal with the teachers.”

Looking back at our first Teach Abroad article, what have you learned most about yourself since your arrival to Spain both in the classroom and out of the classroom?

“I have definitely become more confident in my overall ability just to live life. Looking back, I got an apartment in a country where I don’t know the language. Every day I am talking to Spanish teachers and sometimes Spanish parents about different materials and lessons for their students. I travel to different countries, and around Spain, without the aid of a travel guide. Also, I have learned to trust myself more and allow myself forgiveness if I do make a mistake. I have made friends easier with people while abroad and can even maintain friendships back in the US.”

What are your new goals and/or modifications to previous goals in the new year?

“My new goals this year is how to stay a second year, especially survive over the summer without a steady income. I would love to run a half marathon, also. Furthermore, setting a personal goal of becoming 100% fluent in Spanish is on my list. I am continuing to work towards my overall goal of being a data scientist when I return to the States.”

Finding Purpose and goals

Finding Purpose Is Just the Beginning

After speaking to Justin about his first semester at school, it was clear that he has settled into his life in Spain. Finding purpose while teaching abroad is not the easiest. I recall Justin in August scrambling over finding a piso and five months later it’s irrelevant. Although his piso hunt is history, his journey has just begun. I asked him his thoughts about his journey now compared to our first interview and he smiled. He knew for certain that he was going to reapply for a second year in Spain. All in all, Justin looked great, sounded happy, and is working on defining the purpose of his soul searching while staying true to himself.

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Mr. Brightside. Stay tuned to find out more. Finding purpose can be a struggle, so join our Facebook page. You can keep up to date with our articles and members.

by Leesa Truesdell

Live For Now and Embrace the Spanish Culture

by Leesa Truesdell

Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory Dr. Seuss“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” – Dr. Seuss

As each week passes, our “foreigner shells” crack open piece by piece. Each piece that breaks off, allows us to let go of old preconceived thoughts about the unknown, or doubts of Spain. The more we embrace the Spanish culture by exploring the unknown it becomes our new known.

There are cultural and societal norms that take place by tradition, which means they exist and they are the standard for Spain. For example, part of the Spanish culture and tradition is not to live in the past or the future but to live for the now. This aspect of their culture is a trait that I am looking forward to practicing.

Don’t Let Past Performances Impact Future Relationships

Personally, I believe as a North American I tend to worry too much about how past performances can impact future relationships with regards to employers. For example, I know for many of us, “what if” statements can cause unwarranted stress and serious spiraling into unnecessary places. Does this sound familiar, “If I do X now will it bring me the results I need for Y later?” Really? What if X explodes and Y is nothing more than an anomaly? What then? This is an exaggerated example of spiraling. We tend to overburden ourselves by focusing on what could be or could have been. Living for now is a novel concept that I believe will make all of us healthier happier people while living here.

Live For Now

In Spain, teachers generally are openly affectionate with their students. They hug and kiss their students. Whereas in the United States, it is prohibited to engage in similar conduct with students. For American teachers, this will be an adjustment.

In general, Spanish people are more hands-on culture. For example, they greet with a kiss on both cheeks. Whereas in the United States a greeting is a handshake and maybe a hug. It will be interesting to hear the perspectives of CIEE teachers that we will be following in Madrid. Hearing their cultural observations and experiences at their schools will help everyone understand Spanish culture. For example, if we live in the mindset of thinking for now then there is a lot that can be accomplished over one school year with – our students and our CIEE teachers — today.

Live For Now Including Teaching Experiences

Grand Parents sitting at a park

Seven new CIEE teachers (two of which were a couple traveling together) and one veteran teacher spoke about their teaching and other experiences in Madrid this school year. Tune in for our upcoming We Teach to read about our veteran teacher, Lynnette’s experiences. She will be touching on Spanish culture in and outside the classroom. She will also share her love for Spain and why she can’t bear to leave.