by Laurie Steed

A text from the The Alone Together series, an initiative of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation

We're in the time of COVID-19, and I'm in the southernmost country in the world, save for New Zealand and Antarctica.

Restrictions are in place, although I read that ours are nothing like the lockdowns elsewhere around the world. Most days I feel lucky, although this is not luck that you'd necessarily want. It's fate at its purest; my parents moved from the United Kingdom more than forty years ago and settled us first in New Zealand, and then Australia. There but for the grace of a job offer go I and my family into most people's current reality.

The days are long and tiring, but only in the sense that I have two young children who need snuggles, sandwiches, and hour-long marathons of Just Dance. I first walked at night to calm my mind, and then ran until a knee began to ache. I took to riding; it's cold, and some days I ride in squares and circles, pushing, waiting, stop and stand, as though I might wait out these days in my geographical cul-de-sac.

My days are filled with screens: with meetings, catch-ups, and email correspondence. It's as though my professional world now suddenly has a volume switch. Unlike my friends on Facebook, I don't need to post a picture of myself when I was twenty-years-old because I feel like I am twenty years old. I'm eating better now – there's something about the slowing of time that encourages one to create waves of colour in one's food. Still, I am otherwise Coked up (of the cola variety), stirred up (of the emotional variety), and longing, always for the days I spent walking around the streets of Sofia.

When I think of Sofia, I see Banitsa, and shops whose windows are barely at knee level. I see myself over and over, trying to explain myself. For some reason this never tires any of the people I speak to. I'm trying, and failing, to speak Bulgarian, and they're trying to sound out what on earth it is that I might be saying – and so we talk in stilted, broken, but happy conversation.

Wandering out of Sofia towards the coast, in search of words I've not yet found. A day in Sozopol with Zarev, a bearded beast of a man, writer, and deep thinker. We're sat opposite in a restaurant, hands clasped together, speaking slowly but passionately, a translator at our side. Minutes. Hours. Turning into stillness.

In time, turning to words on a page, only they come so slowly. Book number two has become book number three and may in time be number four.

Still, I miss a city. That city. Its food and people. Because Sofia, like Perth, was open, and it's the openness I miss, more than anything else.

There is something about a closed-up city that can break you. But it doesn't have to. It's a choice, like smiling. Like listening. Like taking one's hand when they've begun to cry.

When I am older, I will tell my sons about a book called The Bear that began with a shared conversation in Sozopol, translated and interpreted as I went. I will mention that I wrote it because I missed connection and I longed for the slowing of time. I will tell them this, knowing that the slowing of time is a gift akin to the clinking of ice, or the way my palm fits snuggly behind my now toddler's knee-cap.

I will tell them this because from there I see links, lines, and dangling threads that drew us together. Because I see them still, even in isolation, when looking out of my office window. A cul-de-sac, it seems. Only there's a pathway, right at the back of the frame.

It seems there are always paths back. Ways out of one place and into the other, if you look far enough into the distance.

The Alone Together series presents literary work by Sozopol Seminars’ faculty and fellows written in the confines of our authors’ homes during the coronavirus outbreak in an attempt to connect each other and to carry on the magic and spirit of the Seminars, which for the first time in thirteen memorable years has had to be canceled. The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation asked writers from five different continents to look through the windows of their studies, literally and metaphorically, and share their literary imagination. The project was launched in March 2020 and culminated in the end of May 2020.


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