Alumni Experiencing the COVID-19 Pandemic Abroad

Paul Libiszowski ’74
Paris, France 

I’ve traveled most of my life working in international development as a manager of finance and operations in the area of public health. Over the years, I’ve worked on projects, in national offices, regional offices, and headquarters—twice in New York and once in Geneva. I have worked in 27 countries and lived in seven countries, and I now live in Paris. 

I am retired and recovering from a somewhat benign brain tumor. Fortunately, I got over most of the two years of treatment just before COVID-19 arrived in France. Since then we had a lockdown that required us to fill out a form every time we went out. If the times on the form were wrong, we were fined 136 euros. In July and August, however, we had a break; things were getting better so we stayed in Spain for a couple of months. Now, however, the levels are rising again so we are quite careful with our masks and keep a distance from people; I hold my breath when there are too many people around. Normally we take the Metro, but now we ride bikes to stay clear of people. 

Juliette Siegfried ’85 
Leiden, Netherlands

The Netherlands has been both more and less strict than the United States and other countries in Europe. We had a pretty complete lockdown for two months between mid-March and mid-May, and then another gradual shut down in September with the second wave. We watch the U.S. with wonder: open bars and restaurants, and clubs and bars with limited capacity events? Hard to imagine here; we aren’t even having small house parties anymore. 

It has been extremely disheartening to see the lack of shared values among Americans, particularly values we believe in as Quakers or from having gone to a Quaker school: diversity, consensus, and pacifism. 

I have a background in medical editing, writing, and translating business. You would think we’d do well in this situation, but we have struggled. Translation simply isn’t needed or wanted right now. Most of our clients are in Spain, which has been hit very hard by the pandemic so they are struggling in many ways. We are earning about half of what we normally do. Fortunately, the government here provides help for small businesses. It is very complicated to navigate (especially in Dutch!), and I have applied for some subsidies and am hopeful they will come through. 

Christina (Onesti) Willoughby ’78
Edinburgh, Scotland

I have long been a “Philadelphian abroad.” I have been living in Scotland for nearly four years, where I relocated after many years in London. Scotland went into total lockdown in March 2020, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, for over three months. We were only allowed out of our homes for a maximum of one hour per day; this was to include daily outdoor exercise and “essential food shopping.” Absolutely nothing else was open, including schools, and those who could work from home did so. Those who could not work went onto what was then a new government job retention scheme, “furlough”; 80 percent of one’s salary was paid in this manner. This scheme remained in effect until the end of October and was extended to this March. This may mean that many people will have been paid not to work for an entire year. Many businesses—both large and small—are now collapsing or are on verge of bankruptcy. Many people have already lost their jobs, and it is expected that many, many more will do so once furlough ceases to exist in a few months. 

My work is at a standstill, as film and television production shut down. Simply nothing was happening for a long time. Furthermore, I am involved in raising production finance, chiefly from other countries, and setting up international co-productions and selling programming to others overseas. This normally requires extensive travel. A “normal” year would see me visiting foreign broadcasters and investors regularly, as well as attending many international film and TV festivals, such as Cannes, Sundance, Tribeca, and Toronto. A lot of trade shows and competitions have gone virtual, but it simply isn’t the same. 

Here in Scotland during the pandemic, neighbors set up a group to help the elderly. Everyone made sure others had food and medications. Community spirit was at an all-time high. This hasn’t changed much as the months have passed. I have seen people’s strength of character shining through. I think everyone’s inner Light has become more obvious and pronounced. There is, of course, a strong Quaker community in the U.K., but we are unable to meet in person during the pandemic. Zoom is not really a replacement, but it has helped us share time together. With many groups meeting internationally, this is particularly comforting. 

I am also taking time each day, on my own, to be more mindful and sit in silence for a while. I find it steadying and helpful. It has become a soothing habit that I will keep once we have a new normal. I am very grateful for the tremendous education I received at Friends Select from first grade to senior year. I do suffer from anxiety from time to time, but overall, I think I have an inner core of calm that is a direct result of my Quaker education.