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Life has a way of taking you down routes you never imagined.
During the first two years of my twenties I travelled a lot, working in tourism as well as freelancing in the publishing industry. I always thought learning Spanish was beyond me, but I proved myself wrong after going to a language school in Seville, Spain. Not too long after that experience I decided to return to Spain, where I ended up living for about five years. It was never my intention to stay there for quite that long, but once again, life didn't follow my imagined script.
To celebrate my time in Spain I decided to do something I had always wanted to do, namely walk the Camino de Santiago. That was very recently and the wonderful after effects of that adventure are still with me. Now I live in Lund, Sweden, where I am working yet again with the publishing industry.
I was sitting in my parents' home office, at the same desk where my father would sit. My assignment lay tucked in the backpack, unread, unopened. With all that was happening in the world, my literary studies were no longer top priority. It was March 2020, and after a tiny, invisible virus had spread from China to the whole world, like some ancient plague of the Silk Road, the borders had all been closed, and my parents had found themselves stranded in North Africa. The journey from Marrakesh to Copenhagen – once a seamless four hour flight through the clouds – had suddenly been turned into an impossible stretch of rugged mountains, seas and plains. It was as if we were standing on two different ice floes, drifting apart. All I could do was to keep their little editing firm going. As I sat there day after day, the reality of our geographical separation – once rendered mute by air-travel – became increasingly real. They were far away from this wooden desk, these stacks of paper and dusty bookshelves. And yet their presence still lingered in the objects around the room; the desk chair was my father's near constant dwelling place, much to my mother's complaints. And that lamp over there, next to the recliner, there my mother would do her proofreading. On the window shelf the rocks and seashells were a reminder of their past travels and the stories they used to tell. I put away the spreadsheet for a moment and thought of Africa. They were stranded somewhere in rural Morocco, south of the Atlas Mountains. (How significant these geographical details had suddenly become!) I had read about people stranded in foreign countries, people relegated to cramped hotel rooms for weeks and weeks. I was interrupted by the frantic ringing of the phone – that sound both hopeful and terrifying. “Yes?” It was my father. The signal was weak and I had to press the phone to my ear in order to hear him, but he was saying something about an evacuation flight organized by the Swedish embassy. Two jet aircrafts had been given permission to leave Moroccan soil. When? In a few days' time. But seats were limited and my parents had a little to no wi-fi, so it was up to me to find information; airport, departure time, prices… I could hear the worry in my father's voice, contrasting with the calm, reassuring remarks of my mother in the background. I had to be fast, he was saying. My pulse rising, I felt both dizzy and energized. The once so quiet office was boiling. I had the power to help them now – and it was terrifying. Before I threw myself on the computer, I asked him if they were all right, if they had all they needed. “We have each other, son. But your mother misses home.” After some browsing I soon discovered that securing these seats would be more complicated than expected. Each applicant had to be signed up on a list – a lottery of sorts – and the day before departure, the chosen ones would receive an email with a link for booking one seat. As soon as I had signed up my parents on the list I felt a sense of relief. I had done all I could for now, and for a couple of days at least, the pressure had moved elsewhere. The office was quiet once again. During the following couple of days my parents called me several times, asking how I was doing, if I needed any help with the office and if the buds had shown on the great bush outside the window. I told them spring was growing out of every branch, they told me it was getting hotter down there, hotter every day. The day before departure I woke at six in the morning. Barely dressed I stumbled into the office and opened the laptop. No email yet. I went to have breakfast, and as I stood there in the kitchen slicing the bread, I realized how very much I resembled my father; watching the inbox like a hawk, shuffling towards the breakfast table with drowsy eyes and the mind elsewhere. My mother had stopped nagging about these things because, after all, he never nagged about our bad habits. When I returned to the office there it was: an email from the embassy in Morocco! I took a deep breath of relief… Then I realized an email was missing. My mother had not been given a link. I felt nauseous. The air around me became thick and heavy like the bottom of the sea. I called their phone, and they answered cheerily. “Hello dear! Could you book the seats? My heart was racing as I told them. We had received one email, one link, addressed to my father. Silence. I heard sighs, then they talked to each other in low voices. After a pause, my father spoke into the phone: “Can the link be used for booking in anyone's name?” “Looks like it,” I said. I thought I could hear my mother pressing him in her arms, her face buried in the grey stubble of his cheek in an act of love. Then my father spoke: “Book a seat in Mother's name.” I nodded, staring out the window. There they were, embracing each other in a distant hotel room, she closer to home, he a continent away.
Imagine two friends, one on Mars and one on Earth. A silent vacuum separates the two. How could they possibly keep their friendship from cooling off? The answer seems obvious. We now have the technology to send a message from one planet to another faster than it takes to roast a chicken. Online messages are instant and almost entirely free. Is the Internet then the best way of preserving long distance friendships? My friend does not live on Mars, but in a foreign country on Earth. We became friends at a language school in Spain, where people would hang out after class, have lunch and go to tapas bars. It was here that Lorenzo and I bonded. Conversation was fluid, laughs were plentiful. We were both students of philosophy, and it seemed to be the start of a long friendship. But after three weeks everything was interrupted. My time at the school was over, and I was leaving Spain. Would Lorenzo and I stay friends, or would our communication fizzle out across the seas and continents? The day before I left we met in the shadow of the great cathedral. As we stood there and talked we decided we would keep in touch. And we did, in a way. Thinking that instant messages were the easiest, and therefore the best way of staying connected, we started doing what most people do and tried to keep a steady stream of chat messages going. But the chat had a way of exhausting our communication. Our once interesting conversations became superficial. The messages lacked gravity, were carelessly typed and sprinkled with emoticons that somehow cheapened everything. In the end we grew weary of messaging each other. After a while I started wondering about the best way to preserve a long distance friendship. With today´s technology it should be a simple matter, even if one of us lived on Mars. After all, “staying in touch” is easier than ever. Where messages once travelled at the speed of horse hooves or pigeon wings, or even by the wheels of a motorcar, they now travel on the backs of electrons. But as my friendship with Lorenzo was fraying, I started wondering if it's not just a matter of staying in touch, but of how you stay in touch. I kept wondering how people did it in the past, when there was only paper and pen. This led me to an idea that felt hopelessly old fashioned and somewhat insane, but the more I thought about it, the more convincing it seemed. The idea was classical, yet radical, timeless, yet behind the times. The idea was to write letters. Of course I had my doubts about it. This was not a mere postcard with a few lines about my holiday. There would be whole pages in which I mused about some philosophical issue, wrote about life and asked Lorenzo to share what he wanted. I had never written quite this way to anyone before, and it made me feel vulnerable. Who did this sort of thing today? To my great surprise Lorenzo liked the idea. It took a month for the mailman to deliver his reply, but the long wait only increased the significance of the words. He wrote about feeling much more open and honest in a letter than on his phone, and it showed. Suddenly there was a fullness to our communication that had been absent online. There was no longer any limit to how deep or complex one could get. We started writing about the meaning of the alphabetic symbols. We wrote in depth about our lives. And somehow, what I had thought impossible was happening: despite the distance, our friendship was growing. In the past I would have thrown myself in the couch and typed a few lines on the phone with an emoticon or two. It was cheap and easy, and no proof that I valued the friendship more than that. The instant nature of it was an upside, but it paled in significance to sitting down at a desk, grabbing a pen and shutting off all distractions to write a thought out letter that would survive into the future as a testimony to our shared existence on this earth. Every time I sat down to write a letter I felt strangely present. I disappeared into a calm vortex, feeling very much “outside” the frantic rush of the day, connected only to my recipient. And the whole process of writing the letter and paying for its journey was a tangible proof of how one valued the friendship. Furthermore, the handwritten lines conveyed metainformation that the standardised digital fonts lacked. How straight, thin or ugly the letters are, how hard you press with the pen, all these things can show sadness or peace, stress or pedantry, almost like a body language of the pen. The Internet is very good for “staying in touch”. But when it comes to keeping friendships alive, a handwritten letter can offer the next best thing to meeting face to face. So how could a Martian stay friends with an Earthling? I believe handwritten letters would be an effective and down to earth solution, if only a mail service were to be established between the planets. Friendship must to be nourished by a sense of presence, even when we feel separated by millions of miles.