‘Everyone Was Freaking Out’: Sisters with Local Ties Return from Europe

Twins were in Spain when President Trump announced new travel restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus

By Samantha Dietel, Editor in Chief

Last week, two West Bend graduates were uncertain that they would be able to return home to the United States.

Hannah and Ally Bensen, twin sisters who both graduated from West Bend East High School in 2017, returned home Friday after their college study abroad programs in Madrid, Spain were suspended due to the global COVID-19 outbreak. Shortly after their programs were interrupted, President Trump announced a European Union travel ban in the evening March 11.

Because Trump’s speech did not make it clear that Americans citizens coming from Europe were not restricted by the ban, Hannah immediately received a stream of frantic messages from her friends in the U.S. and fellow classmates in Spain.

“Everyone was freaking out and it was pandemonium for a few hours as we began to think about what would happen,” Hannah said.

Prior to Trump’s announcement, Hannah and Ally had booked flights to leave Spain on Saturday. The Spanish government had already ordered that all schools and universities close for two weeks, but considering the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the sisters suspected that schools would stay closed much longer. Hannah explained that she and her peers questioned whether it would be safe to stay in Spain much longer.

After Trump’s speech, they felt a greater urgency to leave the country as quickly as possible, though it was later clarified that American citizens would still be able to come home as normal once the ban took effect Friday at midnight.

Ally, left, and Hannah Bensen pose for a photo in Retiro Park, one of the largest parks in Madrid. Photo courtesy of Hannah Bensen.

Ally, who majors in Spanish and international studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, of course felt a mixture of sadness and grief over leaving Madrid after only two months.

“But after Trump had his speech, I just was feeling pretty anxious to get home because I had really no idea how complicated it was going to be to be let back into the (U.S.),” Ally said. “So I think I just pushed aside any feelings of sadness over my program ending, because I know that this essentially affects almost everyone worldwide. I was mostly just really anxious to get home and hoping that all my friends would be able to get home.”

Hannah, an international politics and economics major at Middlebury College in Vermont, dealt with similar feelings of loss as she left Madrid.

“Before Wednesday when the travel ban occured, I thought I would at least have a few days left in Madrid to explore the city a little bit more, maybe grieve and say goodbye to some of the places and people that I had experienced and met,” Hannah said. “But then slowly it became clear that wouldn’t be happening.”

‘It was just mass chaos’

Grief turned to anxiety when the sisters tried to book new flights after Trump’s speech. They found that flights out of Europe had increased dramatically in price and many travel sites would not function due to the heavy traffic. The Bensens thought that they had booked and received confirmation for a Friday flight out of Spain, but because the site crashed, they had to look for different tickets.

“There was a huge rush of everyone trying to book flights, to get in before that deadline because we had really no idea what was going on,” Ally said. “It was just mass chaos and confusion within myself and the other kids in my program.”

Hannah and Ally’s parents stepped in that night to book them tickets out of Spain for Thursday so that they could make it back to the U.S. before the Friday at midnight deadline. This sparked a series of four flights: Madrid to Brussels, to London, to Detroit, then finally to O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

“It was definitely a super stressful time, but because the situation was changing so rapidly, it was almost like adrenaline was kind of carrying me through the whole situation,” Hannah said.

Beth Bensen, Hannah and Ally’s mom, is relieved that her daughters are home.

“I certainly feel a sense of loss for study abroad students and all of the high school and college students who had their semesters so significantly altered,” Beth said. “So it’s certainly saddening, but we understood the need for the public health policy.”

Now that Hannah and Ally have returned to Wisconsin, they are self-quarantining for two weeks in their parents’ home. Because they went through Customs in Detroit before the implementation of the travel ban, they received no specific instructions for how to proceed, despite their possible exposure to COVID-19 while abroad.

Hannah Bensen, right, and her friend Dani Espinosa, who was a part of Bensen’s program at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, pose for a photo in the Alhambra. The Alhambra is an ancient castle in Granada, Spain. Photo courtesy of Bensen.

While passing through Customs, the sisters were asked how long they had been out of the country and what the purpose was for their travel. They were not asked what countries they had been to.

Though the sisters were not instructed to self-quarantine and isolate themselves, they felt it was their moral and social responsibility to do so, considering the chance that they could be carrying the virus despite not showing symptoms.

‘People were not taking it very seriously’

Both sisters explained that before they had left Madrid, native Spaniards were generally relaxed and, for the most part, continued life as normal despite the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

“People were pretty unconcerned with the coronavirus, which was really confusing to my sister and I because our worlds had been turned upside with having to leave,” Ally said. “People were still running through the parks and going to restaurants and eating tapas. People were really just not taking it very seriously.”

Hannah says that the landlord of her Madrid apartment would remind her not to worry, that the virus would not affect her because she was young and healthy. But attitudes started to change when schools, restaurants, bars and clubs started to close down just before the Bensens left the country.

“You kind of began to get this feeling that Spanish life as you knew it was going to be drastically altered,” Hannah said. “Just because the Spanish way of life is so relaxed and a big part of Spanish life is socializing and plazas and parks and restaurants and cafés, and once that started to change, I think that’s when I began to realize that this is a very real situation and this is not normal.”

Since the Bensens left Spain, the entire nation has been placed under a lockdown. Spain now has the second-highest amount of COVID-19 deaths in Europe, the continent that the World Health Organization (WHO) has now called the epicenter of the virus.

Considering the severity of the pandemic in Spain, Hannah is grateful to have been able to flee the country.

“I feel so lucky to have been able to get out of Spain, but a lot of people are either not able to or because Madrid or Spain is their home, they might not want to leave,” Hannah said. “I think I’m still grappling with this sense of privilege almost, as being able to leave a place where life has very much been drastically altered, but a lot of people were not able to do so and will not be able to do so.”

Ally recognizes that the virus has impacted everyone, from kindergarteners to the elderly, which makes it hard for her to grieve for her lost study abroad program.

“I’m kind of trying to keep everything in perspective and take things one day at a time and just stay positive and be grateful for the time that I did have in Madrid, even though I am very sad that I had to come home early,” Ally said. “I know that it’s affecting so many people that I can’t really feel too bad individually for myself.”

(Top image: Ally, left, and Hannah Bensen pose for a photo outside the Royal Palace of Madrid. Despite attending different American universities, both sisters were able to study abroad together in Spain, where Hannah studied at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and Ally studied at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Photo courtesy of Hannah Bensen.)

Hannah, left, and Ally Bensen pose for a photo in front of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Photo courtesy of Hannah Bensen.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “‘Everyone Was Freaking Out’: Sisters with Local Ties Return from Europe

  1. Ms. Di Bernardo

    Fantastic Article. Glad Hannah and Ally are home safe.

  2. Mr. DeLain

    Great article Sam- I taught the Bensens and theirs is another crazy story because of the pandemic. Thanks

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