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An Abrupt Ending

Ben Heiden has been back in Berlin since mid-March – in his final letter from Birmingham, he reflects on the end of his stay in the United Kingdom.

Jun 05, 2020

Back at Alexanderplatz, Ben Heiden did not plan on his study abroad in the UK ending like it did.

Back at Alexanderplatz, Ben Heiden did not plan on his study abroad in the UK ending like it did.
Image Credit: personal collection

My adventures in the Queen’s country came to an abrupt and unexpected end. The university shut down. Exams were canceled. The Prime Minister was in intensive care. No one in the UK would have thought it possible just a few weeks earlier.

For us students, it was the last weeks of classes before the end of the school year. We were looking forward to the Easter holidays and to properly celebrating the end of the term and handing in our last term paper. My plan was to return to Birmingham, after visiting Berlin over Easter, to take my exams and finish the school year with my classmates. Our course credits were just within reach – much like the Premier League title for Liverpool after a 30-year wait. If you’re not a football fan: It would have taken a catastrophe to hamper Liverpool’s leading edge. Only the coronavirus pandemic could have kept the team from victory.

But then things started to change very quickly: The situation in Europe came to a head. The first borders were closed. Images from Italy showed overcrowded hospitals. Jens Spahn seemed to been constantly in front of the cameras. It was becoming clear just how serious the situation was.

But England stayed relaxed, mostly because the British government was hesitant to act, and Prime Minister Johnson was still busy shaking hands with everyone. The same weekend that Berlin started to close bars and gyms, Birmingham was still full of parties. People went dancing (“Herd immunity, mate!”) and drank Corona™ beers (“Funny, innit?”). The student union was even offering drink specials to keep people coming in, despite some possible misgivings (“If you have any symptoms, please stay home!”).

Three days later, the university had its first confirmed case of infection. The professor who was infected has since passed away. The UK then started to change its course. Suddenly, there were lockdown restrictions. No one was allowed on campus. There was no more toilet paper at the Aldi supermarket. The crisis had hit Birmingham.

“It felt surreal that everything was suddenly over.”

After having to rebook three times, I finally got a flight from London back to the German capital on March 17. I didn’t really have time to say goodbye. I had been in England since September. I met some great people during that time, experienced a lot, and learned to love the British way of life. It felt surreal that everything was suddenly over.

By now, I have had time to gain some perspective and am arms’ deep in the “creative semester” in Dahlem. Still, I already know where I want to go as soon as the pandemic is over. Even if it isn’t England’s prettiest city, Birmingham has won a special place in my heart. I certainly won’t forget my experiences in the “Second City” anytime soon.

A great deal has changed in England since March. They have acknowledged how serious the situation is, and the National Health Service (NHS) workers have become the new national heroes, deservedly so. Anyone who has seen a video like this one understands why – and hopefully also understands the logic and justification for the measures taken around the world to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Putting on a conspiracy theorist’s tin foil hat is not a political statement. It simply shows that a person lacks solidarity and is egocentric.

Further Information

This was Ben Heiden’s last letter from Birmingham. He is one of eleven students from Freie Universität reporting on their study abroad experiences. You can find all of their letters here.

You can read Ben's letters in English here and in German here.