Clarksville, TN – In March, Austin Peay State University (APSU) student Angel Arrington sat in her bedroom in Memphis, marking off days on a chalkboard the same way people do in prison movies.
She had escaped France two hours before that country’s borders closed, and now she was in quarantine at home, bored and hoping she didn’t develop any symptoms of the COVID-19 Coronavirus.
“I never liked germs,” she said. “People call me a germaphobe.”
Arrington didn’t get sick, but as the long days in isolation passed, she began to feel an ache in her chest about having to leave her study abroad experience in France.
For two months, the city of Orléans was her home – a place where she made friends and grew in confidence as a French speaker – only for her to be suddenly whisked away in an attempt to outrun a global pandemic.
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” she said. “It was that type of panic.”
As a high school student in Memphis, Arrington excelled at studying French, and she developed a growing interest in languages and foreign cultures.
A few years later, she found herself three hours north, studying chemistry at Austin Peay State University with a French minor. During her junior year, she decided to spend a semester in France, studying and living at the Université d’Orléans.
“When I first got there, I did not like it,” she said. “I was fascinated by everything, and I wanted to make incredible memories, but once I was there, it was such a culture shock. I felt out of place, and I was having a hard time.”
Over the next few weeks, she grew more comfortable as her confidence grew. In February, she celebrated her 21st birthday in Paris, and when the celebrating died down, she realized she was beginning to feel more at home in France.
“After my birthday and after getting into a routine and knowing more about Orléans and France itself, I started to find my stride,” she said. “I knew the language. My vocabulary and confidence grew. I didn’t feel like a tourist anymore. I didn’t need to look at my phone to find where we were going. And our phones started to call Orléans home.”
A growing threat
In January, before Arrington left Memphis, her mom told her about a new virus in China. Over the next few weeks, her mom kept her posted about the virus’s progression.
“It wasn’t that severe at first, but once it started to pick up, she would send article after article in our family chat,” she said. “She sent me Theraflu. She was on it.”
In the winter, French schools close for a week for a winter holiday. Arrington and her friend, APSU student Madison Morgan, talked about using the break to visit Italy. Then they learned that Italy was shutting its borders.
“When that happened, that’s when it felt close,” she said. “When it started picking up in Europe, my family didn’t want to get to the point where they couldn’t get me. My Nanna said, ‘you have plenty of pictures. Come home.’ They knew it was going to get worse.”
Early one morning in March, Arrington and Madison received a call from Dr. Marissa Chandler, APSU director of Study Abroad and International Exchange. She told them Austin Peay was moving fully online for the rest of the semester, and the two women’s study abroad was coming to an end. A flight was booked for the next Thursday.
That weekend, the two APSU students decided to make one last visit to Paris. The city was much quieter than when Arrington celebrated her 21st birthday just a few weeks before.
“It was like a ghost town; it was very awkward,” she said. “It was sort of beautiful because it was so quiet. You could look at the streets and art without people flooding it, but at the same time that made it so much more insane – one of the busiest cities in the world and no one on the street at all.”
The two students ended up in a park with a statue of Joan of Arc. A few people were around, protesting something, and the girls bought snacks at a boulangerie and took in one of their last moments in the fabled city.
“We sat in front of the statue, listening to the wind and people protesting,” Arrington said. “It was spring in Paris. And we had to leave.”
A day later, the students were in an Orlean residence hall, doing laundry. French President Emmanuel Macron was delivering a speech that did little to hold their interest.
“He was talking for about five minutes, we were about to turn it off, and then he dropped the bomb. I will never forget it,” Arrington said. Beginning the next day at noon, no one would be able to fly out of France’s Charles De Gaulle Airport.
“We looked at each other like a movie scene,” she said. “No one was speaking. In a weird, out-of-body experience, I split in two, looked at myself and said we got to go.”
An American friend of theirs, not from Austin Peay, was also in the room.
“We hugged each other and said, ‘good luck, I hope you make it out,’” Arrington said. “We darted across campus.”
All they knew was they had to get to Paris, which was about two hours away. Outside, in the dark campus, Arrington cried for a moment. Then they called Chandler.
“She told us not to worry about the flight, all we needed to do that night was get to Paris,” Arrington said.
A friend – a French student who had once studied abroad at Austin Peay State University – helped them find a ride to Paris. Around 2 a.m., they checked into the hotel by the airport that Chandler had arranged for them.
Only a few hours later, they headed to the airport.
“It was so weird because it was empty, and then you got to American Airlines and all the American transportation, and it was a huge line of people, they mostly looked like foreign exchange students,” she said. “Our pilot told us we were one of the last ones out. It was a mix of emotions. I was happy not being stuck, but I wasn’t happy I had to leave. It was a disappointed relief.”