Living & Working Abroad During a Pandemic

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

The year I decided to travel and work abroad affected everyone and changed everything. Before the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, I settled to live in a Harry Potter picturesque boarding school in Germany.

[Photograph: Haubinda Boarding School]

The school’s village Haubinda is surrounded by the nature, forests, hills and fields. Thursday the 13th of February 2020 was my exact date of arrival to Nuremberg airport, and the whole world was already talking about China, Wuhan and Covid-19.

[Photograph: Parade in February]

In my first two weeks in the job as an English Assistant, I was expected to shadow and support the English Teachers in classes with various ages. As my job was only temporary for six months, I tried to fit in quickly with the staff and to adapt to the new environment. Majority of the staff were native Germans, and I realized only later on that my language skills were crucial for me to fully integrate.

I remember the wonderful feeling of waking up each morning at 7:00 am, and knowing that work is just a few steps away! This was liberating, as back home in England I had to travel by train and walk long distances. Let me tell you a little bit about belonging to a Family Household. The school has six separate Family Houses, where the teachers live with their family and also look after the schools children. As an English Assistant, being part of a household meant participating in family evenings, helping the girls with homework, cooking together, and supporting the House Parent. I was introduced to one of the House Parents (who is a staff member at the school), and the six boarding school girls (aged 13 - 18 years old) who live in the house. Every morning, we would eat breakfast together in the cafeteria, chat and discuss about the current matters. The girls have started talking about the increasing numbers of Covid-19 around the world.

After my shadowing experience, I started to prepare myself for Nachhilfes (one-to-one English Tutoring). The best person for advice in the job was my colleague/ flatmate who I lived with at the time. We had a shared kitchen, and it was a sacred space of sharing thoughts, emotions, and ideas, whilst enjoying the delicious tastes of home cooking!

I did struggle at first with the English Tutoring because each child was on a different level and needed their unique lesson plan.

Majority of the time, I would do a lot of research before the class, and after the class, I would evaluate what went well and what can be improved. Sometimes, I would even sit in English classes with the weakest students, so that I can see exactly what they are doing.

In February my real job began, the hours of work were spaced out throughout the day, so it meant I could fit in time for my leisurely pursuits. After private tutoring, I would escape to the forest. I will never forget the first day of heavy snow in Germany and walking in a pure white Winter Wonderland.

[Photograph: Winter Wonderland at Haubinda]

At this moment, life felt perfect, I enjoyed being in the nature and admiring the scenery around me.

[Photograph: In the foreground, you can see the schools animal barn]

It was also a time of joining after school sports clubs, the spa center, and cardio workouts at the local sports center. As an English Assistant, it was my responsibility to support the schools recreational programme. I picked the Table Tennis club, and even though my abilities were not as skilled in a match, it was always a good laugh for the students!

Gradually, the amount of help increased, with more demands and the days felt shorter. This was mainly due to students asking for additional support with their work, out of my working hours, and having a best interest policy, of course I helped. My favorite example of a success story is a mature student Sophia (13th grader). She needed help with her motivation letter to study Medicine at Vilnius University in Lithuania. I can’t remember how many hours I sat down with her, helped her to express her thoughts more clearly, extracted the important information, grammatically corrected the writing, structured and finally proof read the motivation letter.

A month later, I received a thank you email from Sophia for my help, as she successfully got a place to study the six year Medicine course and received the Scholarship!

Breakfast time in the mornings were always focused on the pandemic. It was the new un-escapable norm. I heard that my household table of girls (including the House Parent) are all worried about Covid-19 and the infection rate increasing around the world. Little did I know, but next month I would be taking on the additional responsibility of a House Parent.

In the meantime, the April's school holiday was fast approaching and Germany went into its first official lockdown.

Face masks became compulsory by law whilst grocery shopping or in public transport, and there was generally a feeling of anxiety when stepping outside of the Haubinda village. We were a small community and we certainly didn’t want to bring the virus to the school.

[Photograph: Spring time has arrived]

Even though life came to a sudden halt, I am fortunate enough to say that my lockdown experience was pleasant. Mostly all of the boarding school students went back home to their parents, there were a limited amount of teachers in the area, there was a quality time focus on home cooking/ baking, the forest was nearby, and I used to go for a walk every single day.

[Photograph: My meditation for the mind, body and soul]

For Easter, four beautiful male rabbits were born! It was almost a small blessing from God. On the left, Blondie, followed by Mousy (my rabbit), Ashy and in the background, Brownie. With my colleagues, I would wake up for early sunrises and watch the sunsets with a glass of wine. With my flatmate, I would visit the rabbits each day and it was no surprise that we made a strong bond with the animals. The rabbit which I bonded with relocated to live with me in another house because…

[Photograph: Sunset view on top of a hill]

[Photograph: Meditation sunset prayer time. I invited the public to connect with me in live prayer sessions]

After the April's school holiday and lockdown period, the boarding school started making a lot of changes and following the governments guidelines on health & safety in times of a pandemic. We started to wear face masks and took social distancing seriously, constantly reiterating the rules to the students and reminding them of the importance.

[Photograph: Visual representation of the face masks]

I was asked to take over and to be the House Parent of my household, which also meant relocating. In hard times, I cooperated and agreed to take on the additional responsibility. It meant being the Safeguarding Adult, supporting the pupils throughout their daily school life, helping with English homework, planning family nights, dealing with sensitive matters, reporting incidents and staying up until 10:30 pm to make sure that the girls are asleep. The job itself felt almost 24/7 around the clock, and it was a huge difference from my initial first few months.

Overwhelmed at times, I am thankful for the help and advice from the pedagogical Support Worker. In this situation, the newly adopted pet rabbit became my Mental Health support and companion.

[Photograph: The barn next to the new house. The horses are called Suzette and Moritz!]

[Photograph: The hunter cat Lucky lived in the house with me]

In the new upgraded living environment, I lived on the first floor with my own bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room and a huge garden. It’s a time when I started perfecting my baking skills, making traditional Lithuanian apple pies and regular cakes for the girls.

Even though I could communicate with the girls in the household, there were language barriers. Baking became a way to connect with the girls, to spread happiness, joy and to say thank you.

[Photograph: Baking traditional Lithuanian Apple Pies]

The girls lived on the second floor, and the whole of the third floor was occupied by a German Music Teacher. In the garden, there was a large cherry tree, home grown strawberries and raspberries. For one Familienabend (family night), we travelled to Coburg and went strawberry picking with an English Teacher from the school. The sweet taste of the strawberries cannot be compared to shop bought!

[Photograph: Strawberry picking]

My pet rabbit would run wild to the stable next door to the house, hide in the hay, dig in the sand, eat all of the flowers and plants, and on numerous occasions, he nearly gave me a heart attack!

[Photograph: The flowers in the garden required daily maintenance]

He attracted the attention of the boarding school children and teachers; they would ask about him and the story of how he ended up here with me, they would greet him, and they would treat the premises with respect. It was an unusual behaviour for a temporary English Assistant to adopt a rabbit which is essentially raised for food. As an animal lover, I wanted to give him a better life, and I was very thankful when the school agreed to give him away.

[Photograph: My adopted rabbit enjoying his new environment]

The Summer months were beautiful and warm leading up to the students graduation day. On the 17th of July, I remember receiving a huge bouquet of exquisite flowers from the Headmaster to say thank you for the work, followed by cheers and claps from the children and colleagues. It was an emotional day, and a farewell.

[Photograph: With my colleagues on the last day of work]

[Photograph: Close-up image of the bouquet]

In the next few days, I moved to temporarily vacate in Hallstadt, Bamberg. I was lucky to find this beautiful home, with a generous Landlady, and a garden for my rabbit to run around. By this time, I was truly mentally exhausted from the job and a vacation was needed to recharge.

After my six months school experience, I had huge respect for the Teachers (who also work as House Parents). It's a demanding busy job which is around the clock, and they do amazingly well to manage the lesson planning, having to adapt to the new online teaching, house parenting the boarding school children, as well as trying to balance their own personal family lives.

[Photograph: I relocated to live temporarily in Hallstadt, Bamberg]

Throughout the year of pandemic, I limited all of my traveling on public transport and only went on crucial trips. I also had the responsibility to remain healthy and Covid free, as I couldn't risk to bring the virus back to the house in Hallstadt.

[Photograph: Walking by the lake, near the house in Hallstadt]

I can mention about the surrounding nature and lakes, which helped me to relax, reflect and to heal. I would wake up early in the morning at 6 :00 am, and go for a 1 hour jog/ sprint/ run. To save money, I would pick up bags of hay from the fields for my rabbit. On sunny days, I would ride the bike and explore other nearby locations. There was a popular swimming lake, where a lot of young couples and families enjoyed to spend their free time. In the meantime, I searched for further work in Germany and even signed up with the Federal Unemployment Agency. Even though I was invited for interview opportunities for further work in schools, every potential job was far away in the bigger cities. Every decision and every step was also in consideration for my pet rabbit (who is not the most easiest animal to travel and relocate with).

[Photograph: Colourful umbrella installation in Bamberg]

[Photograph: Enjoying a day out in Bamberg with the colleagues]

Eventually, for various reasons, I made the decision to go back home to England and to take the mixed-breed giant rabbit along with me. With a heavy suitcase (which contained four seasons of clothes!), a heavy rabbit inside his carrier box, and a rucksack, I set off to Frankfurt Airport and stayed overnight at The Sheraton pet-friendly hotel. I flew with Lufthansa, Business Class, and my rabbit had to be in a separate cargo airplane which was organized by Pet Air. It was such a relief once he made it safely to England, and now he's living happily back home with me in Boston, UK.

I learned that quality of life depends on finding a good balance between work and leisurely pursuits. Living in a rural environment nearby nature, lakes, forests, or a park to go for a walk is very important for our wellbeing. Working with children and students comes with its own challenges, but it's very rewarding work. Living in a foreign country without fluency in their language is a hard place to be. We need to put ourselves and our priorities first. In times of struggle, people will help you if you ask. We need to say no more often. We need to open up about Mental Health and to speak up to employers. Most importantly, I learned that living in a foreign country is a character building experience, which makes you a stronger person.
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