There and Back Again: A Traineeship’s Tale, by Ciara O’Kelly

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In early February, I moved to Italy for a year-long traineeship with the European University Institute (EUI). As an Irish-Canadian citizen living in Canada, this was an opportunity of a lifetime and an important step in my career as a librarian. I was excited to meet the five other trainees and the wonderful library team there to guide and support us. As I settled into my new work I quickly appreciated the library ‘family’.

In March, the EUI shut down and lockdown began. The virus spread, flights were cancelled, and hotels shut down. It seemed the city was preparing for attack. Everyone stocked up on food and avoided the streets. From my small rented flat in Fiesole I watched the city quiet as birdsong filled the unnaturally still air. Virtual work became a means of keeping occupied and daily phone calls from my supervisor kept me sane. Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, I required three emergency dental appointments for a root canal.

This, combined with endless lockdown extensions, led to my decision to return home. My flight was cancelled two weeks before I left and in a mad panic I called on colleagues for help rebooking and investigating travel and hotel options, finally taking a train to Rome (seven hours, three police checks), then flew to Frankfurt for 17 hours overnight in the airport, on to Toronto, finally arriving in Vancouver 42 hours later. The experience was eerie: empty planes, passengers in hazmat suits, air attendants in PPE gowns and masks, and deserted airports. I stayed in touch with family and library staff as I went, updating them on the strange experience.

To my surprise, everything seemed quite normal in Canada. People chatted on the streets, there were no police checks and I could wander freely. Not being able to hug my family due to the two-week quarantine period, however, was a surreal experience. I took advantage of the many parks and beaches, stretching my cramped muscles and glorying in the freedom. I was glad to continue working from home, and stayed in contact with colleagues. Eager to return, but cautious about a possible second wave, I appreciated how supportive library colleagues and administration were, telling me to wait until I felt safe; but I felt I was missing out on experiences I very much wanted to be part of.

Finally returning to Italy in early August, the trip was a mere 15 hours, there were no flight cancellations, and only one airport check upon arrival. A colleague kindly offered me her apartment to complete the two-week quarantine, then after two restless weeks, I was delighted to be back at work, and felt very welcomed.

This traineeship has been an enriching experience for me. It has given me a better understanding of the workflow in a library environment as well as a broader range of skills, knowledge and tools that I can apply as I move forward in my career. I have met some wonderful people along the way and even during lockdown I was given opportunities to learn and grow professionally. Despite the anxiety and uncertainty of the last few months, I have no regrets. While these are hard times, I feel it’s important to remain hopeful and look towards the future: ‘andrà tutto bene’.