Magazine
May 28, 2020

Coronavirus Cities: California Dreaming Meets Coronavirus Nightmares

After coronavirus hit mid-exchange, Alice Symington stayed on in Santa Barbara – in a city changed utterly as a result of the pandemic.

Alice SymingtonContributing Writer
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Alice Symington

Thanks to the dull-wittedness of President Donald Trump, the US really hasn’t changed that much since I arrived in September for my year abroad.

Unqualified world leaders aside, the impact and devastation of the coronavirus has forced the world to reassess conventional ways of functioning. From online education to virtual dance classes, everything has been adapted to keep society looking somewhat normal, albeit through the lenses of our screens.

But for exchange students on their once-in-a-lifetime experiences abroad, no amount of technology could stand in for the real thing. As the world entered a state of lockdown, many were urged to immediately return home.

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For personal reasons, I did not go back to Cork. I am in the fortunate position of being able to continue my year abroad in America, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Yes, I do drink green smoothies now. No, I haven’t met Oprah – although she does have a house in the hills of Montecito, a mere 21-minute drive away. I am yet to receive an invite, but I’ve laid the foundations for a long-lasting friendship through Instagram DMs.

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So, I have decided to drain my visa for everything it’s worth. Even if my classes are online, I like seeing palm trees from my desk. While the atmosphere of my year-abroad experience is undeniably different, and some great friends have had to leave, I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to stay – to be in the sun and near the beach.

I live in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara. Colloquially referred to as “IV”, Isla Vista consists of 1.8 square miles of real estate overlooking the ocean, with a population of 27,000. Some 97 per cent of these people are students. The rows of fraternity houses, the huge stadiums, and the fact that everybody’s sentences are punctuated by exclamations of “dude”, were all a novelty in September.

And then, in March, California was ushered into a state of total lockdown. Our university’s chancellor advised students to go back to their family homes to isolate, leaving the area deserted, and casting a mournful shadow over my expectations of a full and vivacious year abroad.

The biggest change for me is just how quiet Isla Vista has become. My experience thus far has been of a bustling mini-city on the beach. Until now, the food places have been regularly crawling with students. A constant aroma of fast food and excited chatter used to permeate the air. Music was uniformly playing out of (excessively large) speakers from most houses – day and night. It felt like my daily routine had a soundtrack.

“The biggest change for me is just how quiet Isla Vista has become.”

Alice Symington

Even if my walk to 7-Eleven, that quintessentially American convenience store, was perpetually paired with an unrequested rendition of Justin Bieber’s “Yummy”, there was a harmony and comfort in the incessant babel of people enjoying life here.

I’m glad, despite everything, that I was able to experience over a semester of college here in Isla Vista. Of course, I grieved the loss of UCSB’s spring quarter and lamented having to say goodbye to great friends, experiences and the famous Deltopia street party.

In March, California was ushered into a state of total lockdown. Our university advised students to go back to their family homes to isolate, leaving the area deserted

The memories of which I have surely been deprived are a cause for regret, but I understand that there’s no point in dwelling on what might have been. Besides, I am thankful I get to stay here for a little while longer, and still possess the liberty to run, hike, swim and tan at my leisure – the luxury of which I do not take for granted. Everybody has lost something during this time, and some have lost more than others. Remembering this helps put my predicament into a much more sobering perspective.

I decided to stay in California because I was lucky enough to have the choice and the means to. I have healthcare and I wasn’t that keen on taking an 11-hour flight across the world with the virus at its peak. I also thought that there was an opportunity in staying. I knew what six months at home in West Cork would look like, but I had no idea how this would pan out.

I can see why some might scorn the ignorance and recklessness of such a decision, but I am also 20, in good health, and have no pressing reason to come home just yet. I find a perverse excitement in imagining how my future self will recount to others my other-worldly experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I know I will be grateful to remember that I stayed, of all places, in California.

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