Foreigners Go Home: Being an Expat During a Pandemic


I was in my office in the business district of Madrid when we found out that the first COVID case had landed in Spain. We all started hollering about how it was ‘the end of days!’ But we’d all lived through so many epidemic scares which had eventually turned into nothing, that we didn’t even consider actually panicking. Ebola, who’s she?

When it turned into 200 cases and we were sent home from work, I stood on the metro with my handbag full of half-opened snacks and clutching my second screen. Trying to remember if I’d left any food in the fridge (I had), I looked around me at the carriage full of other people similarly loaded. We looked at each other as if to say, ‘weird, huh?’

My housemate and I were out shopping when we found out that we were living in the epicentre of the pandemic. But it kind of felt like a novelty. We couldn’t bring ourselves to worry about a global pandemic, so instead we made jokes about the strangeness of it all.

The stay-at-home order came through a few moments later, when the government announced that the entire country was going into lockdown. You could leave your house to go to the supermarket, the pharmacy, to seek medical aid, or to help someone in need, but for no other reason.

So, my housemate and I laughed, and went about getting supplies. We were still very cautious and understood that the threat was real, so we stayed within our neighbourhood, only going to our local shops and avoiding the crowded ones as much as possible. It was a nice sunny day so we popped into the local secondhand shop, and I treated myself to a new handbag and a blazer. My housemate bought me a necklace for my upcoming birthday. It was a pretty good day.

We could only laugh about it, because if we thought about it too hard it would have broken what little spirit we had left.

We were two weeks into our confinement, in a small flat with windows only overlooking the street, when we found out that both cases and deaths were soaring, and that we’d been asked to stay inside for another two weeks. One thing I had never noticed about my apartment before, is that you could only see the actual sky if you stuck your head right out of the living room window. Between the apartment blocks around us was one small patch of blue.

The two weeks had passed, and we were told to stay indoors for yet another two weeks.

We learned to tell the difference between the different noises that the ambulances made, and there was one particularly melodic woop-woop-woop that we would dance to when it went past.

We learned that our neighbourhood was the worst affected in Madrid, and that Madrid was the worst in Spain… and that Spain was the worst in the whole of Europe. It was funny, in a very morbid way. We could only laugh about it, because if we thought about it too hard it would have broken what little spirit we had left.

We started collecting the wine bottles we were getting through, lining them up behind the television. It stopped being funny, and when we took them out to the bin the weight of them nearly broke our arms.

After those two weeks, we were ordered to stay indoors for another two weeks, and I think that was the most heartbroken I had ever been. Deaths had peaked, and the police were stopping people in the street to check everyone’s shopping bags. You were only allowed out for necessities, and if they thought your trip didn’t qualify, you’d be threatened with a fine.

I had my birthday party over Zoom.

I watched my friends back in England post Instagram stories from their local parks or their gardens. “We’ve all got to get through this together” they’d say. I looked at my single patch of sky, no bigger than the palm of my hand, and wanted to wring their necks. You have no idea. I thought to myself.

We noticed that we got lightheaded if we were outside for too long. We found ourselves rushing back from the supermarket because we got dizzy being out with that much fresh air and sky. I wish I was joking or exaggerating, but we really did feel like moles. I can honestly say I now understand how people can become agoraphobic.

I even panic-bought an exercise bike on Amazon just in case the lockdown happened again.

Now, in December, we’ve left the confinement measures behind us, and we’re back to good old-fashioned social distancing. But the three month confinement, with stretches of 5 days without leaving our apartment, have left a scar.

My housemate has decided to leave Madrid. He, myself, and many others, love being foreigners in a country as beautiful as Spain. Once you have your paperwork in order, are committed to learning the language, and are settled into a routine, it’s not so different to living somewhere in your home country. My friends who have never left England tell me how brave I was for moving away, but honestly, there’s no bravery in sitting in a plaza eating patatas bravas.

Foreigner life is not without its pains of course, but you ignore those because it’s worth it.

Here, we get to be the one with the most interesting stories when we go back home for a visit. We get to meet people from all over the world, and we get to feel like we’re really making the most out of our lives because we’ve found our chosen home. The sunny weather and significantly better food are an added bonus.

But now, I’m seeing a mass-exodus of friends and acquaintances from this city that we shared together, which we swore we’d love for the rest of our lives.

Tiny apartments and cramped streets, however beautiful and full of life, just don’t seem to cut it anymore. Many people I know have fled to Valencia or Málaga to be near the beach. Others, like my housemate, have decided it’s time to go back to their home countries, tired of only seeing their family through screens.

It feels a little bit redundant to say that 2020 has shown me how fragile life can be, because that’s all anyone is talking about! However, I can talk about the effect it’s having on me and my fellow expats/immigrants.

Many of us are starting to turn around and look at the homes we’ve left behind, and the families who feel much further away than they did before. We feel tired of having to translate, or wait for the official translation of the latest life-altering updates. Not being sure of where we’re allowed to go and what we’re allowed to do becomes twice as frustrating when the language barrier adds to the mess.

But as Marie Forleo says, ‘everything is figureoutable.’ If now is the time to go back home, then now is the time. Our chosen homes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

If we choose to return one day, our chosen homes may change and old friends may disappear, but those places will never lose the qualities which made us fall in love with them in the first place. Giving up our residency will hurt at first, and for us Brits re-applying after Brexit won’t exactly be a joy. But home, wherever it is, will always triumph over bureaucracy.

So foreigners, if you want to, go home.

A big thank you to Ellen, the author of this article! Take a look at her blog and follow her on Instagram:

Article author: Ellen Merryweather
Instagram: ellie_healthyweather


  1. I am going to tell my students to read this article. Incredible we have been through all that. It’s not funny because we cannot be funny about all this mess… but it’s witty and thought-provoking.

  2. Great article Ellie…enjoyed reading your perspective, hoping that 2021 will see us getting back to some “normality “ whatever that is!!

  3. Thank you Ellen, for such a descriptive insight into life in Madrid as a young person in a pandemic. Stay safe.

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