In March 2020 The Outlook caught up with Nicole Hermanson, Vandana Luedtke and Cheryl Lyons, three people connected to Outlook who are living abroad during the pandemic. Months later, and in the grip of a second wave, we checked in with them to see how their countries are faring and what Christmas celebrations will look like for each of them.
Nicole Hermanson, daughter of Milo and Santhy Hermanson, has lived in Italy for the past 10 years. Although there have been dark days for the country, Nicole senses reason for optimism. “COVID is still the main topic of conversation in all of Italy,” she said. “We are currently in our second wave, but with the slight view of light at the end of the tunnel.”
After being on complete lockdown for several months, authorities began to allow travel around the country, and friends and family could visit freely. But soon after, the situation changed. “In September schools opened back up and all looked good for a month or so,” Nicole explained, “but then slowly classes were being shut down and eventually the high schools were all moved to distance learning.”
At the beginning of November citizens found themselves in another type of lockdown. Although not as strict as the one in the spring, people have been highly encouraged to stay in as much as possible. “The region that I am in is, and has been, the hardest hit region, but as of a few days ago we went down to the orange (zone), even if there are still thousands of new cases every day,” she said. “Now there is talk that we will soon be in yellow, but to be honest I don’t see how that is possible with still so many ongoing cases.”
Early in the pandemic Italians were facing limited opportunities to go grocery shopping, but that has eased a bit. Shopper’s temperatures aren’t necessarily taken now, and people are free to shop when they need to, but distancing rules apply and non-essential items cannot be purchased.
In November Nicole resumed teaching English classes, although still online. She and her students are missing in-person classes, but Nicole has adjusted well, and even sees some advantages. “I must say as social as I am, I have really enjoyed just staying home especially now that the weather has turned colder,” she shared. “Looking out my window on this rainy day makes me happy to not have to go out.”
She said it had snowed in Milan earlier in the week, one f a day or two of snowfall they typically get each winter. It doesn’t stick around for more than a few hours, but provides a reminder of what she left behind in Saskatchewan. “I can’t say I really miss the snow, but looking at pictures my mom and brother send me makes me miss it a little. It just looks so beautiful and there is nothing like being inside with a hot drink watching it fall.”
Those glimpses of life ‘back home’ have been appreciated, and so has the contact she’s had with those wanting to know how she’s been doing. “When the world first started hearing of this virus, and Italy was often in the news, I was receiving so many emails and messages asking how I was. I felt so loved and it was amazing to know I was in so many thoughts. Of course now that everyone is in the full swing of things, I am not alone in dealing with this new way of life.”
With just days until Christmas, people in Italy are facing restrictions similar to most Canadians. “We are in the exact same situation as you guys are dealing with there in regards to Christmas and the holidays,” Nicole said. “In theory as it stands now, there will be no movement between regions from the 17th of December to the 7th of January.” This is changing the anticipation of celebrations.
On December 25 most families enjoy a big meal and a game called Tombola, similar to Bingo, where the host will have 20 or 30 small wrapped gifts to give to winners. “The whole family will get involved no matter how many people are gathered,” Nicole explained. The thought of limiting that Christmas gathering to a single household is something people are struggling with and Nicole understands their disappointment. But being separated from family is something she has learned to deal with and is grateful for other ways to connect. “For me being away from my whole family, I am already not physically present. But luckily, with technology I have been able to keep up with all the happenings.” Even if restrictions are further limited, Nicole knows she will be okay. “I know that I will either stay with friends if we are allowed, and if we aren’t then I am perfectly fine on my own.”
The holiday atmosphere in Milan is very different this year. Traditional Christmas markets aren’t open so people are missing strolling through decorated booths and admiring specially handcrafted gifts. There are also fewer light displays around the city, said to be out of respect for those who have died or are in hospital.
It is all reflective of a year that has been hard for her country. “It was a shock back in the spring as Italy was one of the first countries hit hard,” she said. With the second wave she has had people close to her test positive for COVID, and the continued stress of possibly being exposed increases. “The fear to go around and live in the way we are used to has taken a toll on many,” she said. But she feels fortunate. “For me, I am not suffering at all, and for that I am truly, truly grateful.”
Nicole is aware of the COVID numbers in Saskatchewan and her heart goes out to everyone here. She has a message of encouragement as the holidays approach. “Don’t dwell on the fact that this Christmas will be different. The true meaning still remains the same. Be thankful for all that you have and take each day as a blessing.”
Vandana Luedtke, daughter of Delwyn and Shelley Luedtke is living in Philippines, the country that had the first COVID death outside of China. Tough restrictions from the start changed life in many ways, which was then compounded by the impact of typhoons. “Our life is full of uncertainties,” she remarked.
Preparing for what can’t be prepared for has become something of a theme since beginning her Nursing training in Manila. She is currently under water restrictions because of typhoons, while the pandemic continues to affect access to food. “We may not leave our areas without a bunch of paperwork. If our temperature spikes we document it and have to bring it with us so they know how we are.”
Businesses are to be open for limited hours only, so line-ups are common. However, some owners feel they have no choice but to try and stay open. “People are desperate to have their business open, so in doing so they are breaking the rules to provide income for their families,” she said.
No bulk buying is permitted, so they cannot take more than two tins of soup or loaves of bread. She has a fridge and a mini-freezer so feels fortunate. Some families have to shop daily, so a designated individual becomes the runner for households, especially for the elderly, spending hours each week trying to get hold of essentials.
In terms of her education, she is experiencing the same situation as students the world over—everything has moved online. Some of the public schools have been struggling. “Lack of communication is huge,” she said. Schools cannot function efficiently, or the teachers are unavailable because of flooded emails. Her school is private, and has been able to meet needs a bit better, but students are having to provide their own supplies, like instruments for lab work.
“The toughest part of the pandemic is lack of freedom,” Vandana revealed, “lack of connection, and lack of a fulfilling day. It makes the term cabin fever real.” With so much time spent at a computer attending classes and doing homework, she knows how important it is to try and get outside, but with restrictions it can be “a crazy full day just to get some fruit or a loaf of bread.”
This is Vandana’s second Christmas in Philippines but it will be much different from the one she first experienced. She enjoyed the months-long celebration, the feasting and caroling last year with her boyfriend’s family. “They spend the day cooking and cleaning, and at midnight sit down and share stories of the year, with all generations feasting on food. This is a tradition that allows them to spend the entire day together,” she shared. She appreciated the excitement people brought and the conversations that were had while all the cooking was happening. “To put in all the hard work as a team, and then sit down and eat, is something incredible,” she remarked.
This year it will be much quieter. “We are planning to stay indoors with some popcorn and watch some Christmas movies,” she said. Given the challenges of school over the last few months she is looking forward to time relaxing. “Since most of the traditions involve dumplings, we are planning to make some, jam out to Christmas music and eat together.”
There is a noticeable lack of festive spirit and she will greatly miss the dancing and the fireworks she experienced last year. “Filipinos are known for their ethnic dances and skills. The younger children often will perform something for their parents, relatives, and grandparents.” Also, New Year’s Eve featured an impressive display of fireworks. “The entire sky, from every single direction is lit up with fireworks. Everyone is there for one another, ringing in the new year with a blast. It’s a sight to behold,” she said. “Even Disney can’t top how many fireworks are going off at one time. None of it is orchestrated, but the sight of so many is what is fun to see.”
Amidst the heat, rain and typhoons she is missing the snow. “Yes! Almost every day we talk about it,” she remarked. “It’s something beautiful to look at. It’s a feeling of comfort and home for us. The rain alone is about as much snow as you guys get, causing flooding, mudslides, and more.” This makes the impact of the pandemic even more troublesome since low-income families aren’t able to make repairs, rebuild, or get medical help.
It’s all part of a year that has been filled with ups and downs. “The attitude of many of us is ‘just keep pushing,’” she remarked. “We are simply taking it one day at a time.” She is quick to point out that the year has brought positive things, too. “The most uplifting thing would have to be the connections I have made in school. Not only are some of my classmates from all over the world, but I get to see different cultures of Filipinos as they are on different islands. It’s been a culture shock, but a wonderful one because of technology.”
Her Christmas wish is that we would all continue to love one another through these tough times. “Everyone is going through them, all over the world. If we can truly love one another in hard times, think how much better the world could be after the pandemic.”
Cheryl Lyons, daughter of Loretta, former Outlook kindergarten teacher, and the late Blake Lyons, has lived and worked in Ukraine for the past 17 years. Her town of Rzhyshchiv had not yet experienced the “full blast of this storm” back in March, but COVID is now in the community.
“There aren’t a lot of reliable tests here in Ukraine,” Cheryl indicated, “so those who have been tested positive were actually negative and vice versa.” There have been a number of deaths in her town related to COVID, and she has had friends with symptoms, some who have had to be hospitalized. Thankfully the virus has not spread rapidly. “Living in a small community without a fully operational hospital poses some concern if COVID were to hit hard here like it has in other parts of the country,” she explained.
Since March masks have been required in public buildings, but other measures are changing so regularly it is hard to keep up. “We have designated a man from our church, who works with the police, to monitor the changes and let us know what we can and cannot do,” she said. But grocery stores have remained open and shelves fully stocked so people are grateful for that.
Although much of Cheryl’s outreach work and volunteer English teaching have been suspended, some good things have happened, too. “There is usually a bright side to things, if you choose to look for them,” she remarked. “Since the doors closed at the schools, I ended up being able to continue on with an English Kindergarten which my Mom and I started when she was here last year. It has been great. So far only our church families are involved but hopefully in the future we will be able to open it up to the public. For now though, I have the privilege of investing into four young lives and for this I am very thankful!”
Back in March Cheryl shared the story of Timothy, a little boy who had been scheduled for a biopsy to investigate a growth on his neck, but whose appointment had been cancelled because hospitals in Kyiv were not proceeding with medical treatments not deemed essential. Cheryl’s update on Timothy’s condition is truly amazing. “All of their appointments had been cancelled due to the lockdown this past spring, but as time went on the lump in Timothy’s neck began to shrink! When they were finally able to go in and see the doctor, months later, the doctor was ‘surprised’ to find that the lump was gone and it has stayed that way. We are so thankful that God chose to answer our many prayers this way.”
It was all part of a year she describes as great; “full of some interesting and stretching moments, but great nonetheless.” An online book study with women from her church was a blessing. Called ‘Calm My Anxious Heart’ by Linda Dillow, Cheryl summarized the book this way: You cannot trust Me (God) if you do not know Me (God). “This for me has been the most encouraging and challenging reminder of this past year,” she shared.
Ukraine usually sees snow in late December and into January but for the past few years Cheryl’s town has had virtually none at all. A new shovel purchased last year sat unused by her door all winter. “I do miss the beauty of snow for sure,” she shared. The temperature drops to about -8 at night, “warm for all of you in Saskatchewan, a bit on the cold side for us here in Ukraine!”
As Christmas approaches, her community is facing the same uncertainty as people everywhere. “We are in the same boat here. There is talk about having a complete shutdown over the holidays but that has still not been confirmed. As a church body we are still hoping to be able to get together for a meal around the 23rd of December. Time will tell if this happens or not.” If there is no shutdown, Cheryl hopes to spend Christmas Day with two fellow missionaries.
She encourages everyone to remember the true reason for this season; “that Jesus laid aside His crown in Heaven and came down to earth as a baby so that through His death and resurrection, we can freely come to Him in repentance and choose Him to be the ruler of our lives!” Cheryl said this truth remains the same no matter how crazy the world gets. “For those who have put their trust in Him, we are never alone and we can live each day with hope, peace and joy. And when our time comes to leave this world, we can be certain that we will be with Him forever in Heaven.”