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Richard Noble

..strolling no-man’s land, past barbed wire and watchtowers, plagued by an over-resourced backpack and a defunct travel guide, I thought that this is perhaps the most audacious act undertaken in my unadorned suburban life.
Ever since my infant toes were strong enough to sustain an optimistic lunge towards the unconquered third bookshelf, maps have fascinated me. Our household atlas sports telling scars from sudden sojourns to the shag. For a three-year-old it was just heaps of colours and stuff. The real bewitchment lay with the lines. Finger-tracing, you unwittingly traversed mountains and deserts, continents and seas. Meandering lines doglegged like bad golf shots. Parabolas arced across the top, dotted ones in between. Bold black lines segregated colours like some exhaustive painting-by-numbers masterpiece.

By the time I was eight, I had a pet chook and country. I knew all the geographical stats of Somalia and would startle my Scrabbling brothers with Mogadishu on a triple word score. Duly, I trivialized to unsuspecting people about world capitals and subsequently remain single and avoided.

The aching demands of teenhood came as a welcome panacea. Acne, cricket and fart jokes absorbed great slivers of my time. The twenties passed with only occasional travel-shop double-takes and with my first 501s and a monstrous tub of hairgel, opposition sex were, if not finding me irresistible, at least occasionally interesting. I managed to wangle one’s attention for the good part of four years, with only intermittent references to global townships. So it was that, some time after we took ‘a drive’ and had ‘the talk’, I found myself nervously addressing the bold black line divorcing Turkey from Bulgaria.

I had never crossed a border on foot before.
Indeed, my worldly detritus was four spanking new passport stamps and membership of the Air New Zealand Junior Jet Set Club.
I surveyed my frontier. Manning it were two decidedly dodgy looking officials armed with large machine guns and really big moustaches. ‘Midnight Express’ and ‘cavity search’ dogged me in Vegas neon as I approached with the one forward, two back waltz of the shit-scared.
‘Meer Harber,’ my most proficient phrasebook greeting with clasped buttocks.
‘Merhaba,’ grinned Mustapha One stamping my passport so vigorously it sprung staples and scattered scrawny crows skywards.
‘Alihas muladik.’ He waved me westwards with a bristly smile.
I gushed, ‘Gooly gooly,’ and scarpered into the void.

Smiling I went and smiling I would come again. Albeit with a distinctly calmer sphincter.
Courage is not listed amongst my assets. It has never manifested itself unannounced in a crisis and fails to get a guernsey on my CV. Consequently, strolling no-man’s land, past barbed wire and watchtowers, plagued by an over-resourced backpack and a defunct travel guide, I thought that this is perhaps the most audacious act undertaken in my unadorned suburban life. Behind lay the roaring raki hangovers of Turkey. To my left, Greece. Home of the nude discus and forever a synonym for dubious sex and a nice summer side-salad. Ahead on this anonymous road contained within the bold black line of my childhood atlas crouched Bulgaria, land of…of...well, as I tragically informed Betty Garagounnis during a critical courtship moment, the capital of Sofia.

I expected all manner of Communist paraphernalia. Tanks, red bunting, big hats. Alternatively, disappointingly, a fat man reclined in a pokey plain guardhouse.
"I bored. Ees boring job. Fiftee levva a weeek to park my substanshal arrss on thees splinta-ridden chair. Mee an amachyure dramateest and undeescovered rock-god manning thees bluddee boring border…EVVA SINCA MY BABEE LEFT ME…BOOM BOOM...I FINDA NEW….ahhhh, what ees thees?"
I approached with the swagger of a man who has negotiated minefields. Having toyed with the Mustapha twins, surely Boris was a doddle.
‘G’day.’ My winningest smile. I knew bugger-all Bulgar.
He looked at me still reclined. A cold fag slung, maybe forgotten, maybe tomorrow’s, from the side of his mouth. Boris did not smile.
I handed over my passport which he examined like a boy unleashed on his first girly mag. An agonizing display of scrutiny and bewilderment highlighted by a wonderful Marlon Brando cigarette-lighting cameo.
‘Yoo Ostrayleeana?’
Puff. Pause. Flick, flick. Exhale.
‘Why do yoo cumming to Bullgaiiireea?’
Diplomacy is on my CV. Wedged firmly between "hard working" and "punctual," it has enabled me to stay free of public bar injuries.
‘I have heard so much about your wonderful country, I thought I’d take a look. Rila Monastery, Black Sea, the Danube.’
The names rattled off my tongue like fond schoolmates.
‘Oohhhh Reela…….niiice.’
Puff. Pause. Exhale.
‘Where do yoo going now?’
These questions were un-nerving. Had I been suddenly flung into a Monty Python scene? I mentally prepared a favourite colour.
‘Because it’s the capital and I thought maybe a good place to start.’

I will vouch my Thomas Cooks on the former. The latter was the pure conjecture of early panic. Pausing again, Boris angled his outstandingly big hat back with a stubby finger before announcing dramatically, ‘There are verree bad man in Sofeea. Yoo know…. ..Mafeea. They rob yoo, mug yoo, maybee eeven keel yoo!’
Panic set in concrete. Dread is a word deserving of more syllables.
Puff. Pause. Scratch, scratch.
I was concluding border duties to be weekend rehab for Bulgaria’s unbalanced when Boris abruptly hurtled forward and endorsed my lonely passport with the bureaucratic flourish of misplaced officialdom.
‘But yoo going Ostrayleeana. Yoo going and see our beyewdeefull cuntree. Maybee one days, weeth luck, yoo getting to tell grandkeeds about our beyewdeefull cuntree!’
He handed me my book beaming. His mouth revealed missing teeth, the cigarette resuming benign status in it’s corner, a theatrical prop.
‘Thankyou,’ I blurted pathetically.
My pack suddenly felt way light. The marble chessboard, a regrettable bazaar bargain, no longer backhoed my skeletal shoulders. I felt a man pardoned from menial duties like a clerk chucking a sickie on a beachworthy day. Striding away, I turned and shouted, ‘Purple!’
Boris gave me his best quizzical James Dean.
‘My favourite colour is purple!’
Tramping the road toward Sofia the sun embracing my head, I thought I heard birdsong carried past upon the wind.


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