These days it is a rather lively situation in the desert, where the residents of the compound of state oil company Saudi Aramco find relaxation at the end of a hot day. Neatly keeping the recommended distance from each other, says Alexander Pirvu, whose father works for Saudi Aramco.
Just a week with his family in Dhahran: that was the plan when Pirvu boarded the plane at the start of his spring break. "The flights were cheap and the weather here was good." Now, three weeks later, his visa (for ninety days) has been extended by one hundred eighty days as a precaution, and he is happy to make time for a Skype session with Cursor. Laughing: “It's not like I have a lot of other things to do. At some point you have studied and read enough for one day.”
Today is the seventh day in a row with almost everything in Saudi Arabia closed, like schools, shopping centers, sports clubs and restaurants. “Only the supermarkets are open. There are three of them here on the compound, I believe,” says Pirvu, who was born in New York but has lived on different continents since. But: "Home is where the wifi connects automatically."
He and his family occasionally leave the compound, Pirvu says, but it is not necessary. The roughly 58 square kilometer site is ‘a city on its own’, with supermarkets, restaurants (currently only open for customers who pick up orders) and its own hospital, which houses seven people with the corona virus at the moment.
Coffee with the cat
However, he spends most of his days in and around his house. “I get up in the morning, drink coffee in the backyard with the cat, then I study outside for a bit; in the morning it is still cool. I have lunch with my mother and sister, who are both at home as well, then go back to study or watch some TV. In the evening, when my father is home, we often go outside for a walk in the desert.”
Studying at a distance is going well so far. “Fortunately, I had all my most important things with me: my camera, my laptop and a microphone, because I still had to work on a group project during that week. So I can work remotely.” He laughs: "I only had enough clothes with me for one week, so I have to wash everything regularly."
For one subject he is currently working on his final report, another subject mainly concerns group work. And that already happened predominantly online before the corona outbreak, Pirvu says - if only to save money on commuting between Eindhoven and Tilburg, a common trip for many Data Science students. Furthermore, according to Pirvu, there is plenty of communication coming from the TU/e “and, as always, I read the messages in Canvas.”
Not too strict
Pirvu says he has a nice place in his house to work, where he can retire a bit. And where he, with his phone on ‘silent’ and his smartwatch off, shuts off from social media which he presents as a tip to others: "Then you are not so easily distracted." Another important thing, according to the student, is taking a break regularly. “And don't be too hard on yourself. Some days you just have less focus or motivation; then I limit myself to some basic planning and organization, for example.”
It's crazy to be back in the place he hasn't lived in since 2014, Pirvu says. And although things could have been worse considering the circumstances: “The Netherlands is my home now, my base. And the place where I want to build my life. So I regret that I can't go back, and that I can't see my friends and colleagues in the Netherlands.”
On the bright side: a friend with whom he attended middle school in Saudi Arabia, who also thought he was having a short spring break, is also stuck in Dhahran. “We sometimes talk to each other online, other times we get in the car in the evening to drive around together. On our way we call our friends in the US and the Netherlands."
Not ‘crazily concerned’
The coronavirus is a prominent topic of conversation, he says. “One friend is really obsessed with all the statistics he can find around the virus. I try to put it into perspective a bit more: I am concerned, but not crazily concerned. But I do follow the advice from the authorities here and take my measures, like wearing a mask and gloves as a precaution when I go to the supermarket. I hope that others around the world do the same, that they follow the guidelines and measures imposed from the government and the WHO.”
He is concerned mainly because of the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the virus. “There are estimates that it will be another two years before we have this under control; other sources are talking about a few months. Nobody knows how long this will last.” His plane ticket has been rebooked to April 5 for the time being, “but the question is whether I will be allowed to leave the country. And whether I can enter the Netherlands.”
But maybe, he thinks out loud, “it would be better to stay here with my family for a while. Because that is actually the best thing in times of crisis.”