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Allexander Shpatov


"Believe it or not, an elephant was shot here" - the guide points towards the main steps of Sofia University, then turns toward the park with the Soviet monument and tells the group how it used to be the zoo, how way back in ’69 some freshmen snuck inside and let all the animals out of their cages, how the police, scared by the elephant and rumors about Prague Spring, immediately opened fire even though the zookeepers had already arrived, how once again thanks to the Czechs no one said so much as a word about it in the newspapers and how in the end all the freshmen were tossed into labor camps, while the animals were packed off to another place much farther from downtown with concrete cages suited to the purpose and the spirit of the times.

There’s no point in rehashing Wikipedia, plus what are the chances that anybody in the group would remember what year parliament had been built, who the architect was and that it is actually called "The National Assembly," rather than parliament? That’s why he always added a little something of his own in the tours. When he was in a good mood and had a cool group like the one today - he would even slip in whole new stories and landmarks that nobody here even suspected existed.

Now, for instance, they’re in front of St. Alexander Nevsky and the guide recalls that when they decided to guild the dome, it turned out they didn’t have any gold - after all, the country was gearing up for the Balkan Wars and all its resources had to go towards that. But Sofianites started a campaign, three dentists lined up in front of the unfinished cathedral and in four short weeks armed with only pliers and incense, they had extracted more than ten thousand gold teeth from the mouths of otherwise miserly laymen, some of whom had come from as far as Ruse or Turnovo especially to that end, so enthusiastic were they to see the church finished.

But there’s no way he can make up the bombing raids of World War II. He just points at the Englishmen and Americans in the group and leaves them to nurse their guilty consciences. To comfort the little girl in the yellow jacket who immediately gets angry at her mother, as if she personally were to blame, he also tells them about the miracle that saved St. Sophia after a bomb fell through its roof, landed on the ancient mosaic floors, but merely bounced off and rolled under the altar, without exploding. Then he goes on to explain to everyone that the city got its name precisely thanks to this basilica, it was one the first things people saw, when entering the city. And St. Sophia means "Holy Wisdom," Divine Logos, in case they didn’t know. "Philo-soph-y" comes exactly from the same root. In fact, the city should really be called Saint Sophia, like San Francisco, Sao Paolo or Saint Petersburg, for example.

Then they head towards the Military Club and as they pass the old Turkish barracks he tells them how rebels set the whole city ablaze to take revenge for the hanging of Vassil Levski, and how thanks to the April Uprising that followed there was not a single old house left downtown, and when they reach the yellow cobblestones1, he gathers them all together, points at a furrow in the road and explains that on this exact spot, the Mercedes of one of Bulgaria’s most powerful and shady businessmen was blown up, because no matter how many SUVs full of bodyguards he had protecting him, traffic is traffic and there’s no getting around it - they should keep that in mind, in case any of them are mafiosos or drive armored Mercedes. This is one of his requisite jokes and he surely would have drawn it out even longer if the little girl in the yellow jacket hadn’t tugged at her mother and pointed at the yellow cobblestones.

"What is it, sweetie?" The guide breaks off his latest story, but the girl feels shy and turns to her mother.

"Mommy, don’t you see? It’s theYellow Brick Road!" Of course, it’s a road with yellow bricks, honey, what else could it be, the mother replies drily, glancing rather anxiously at the suddenly inspired guide, who immediately jumps at this response and tells the little girl that he has something really special to show her - the others can follow along if they like. 

The Yellow Brick Road, why hadn’t he thought of it until now! The road from the Wizard of Oz, the ancient via Diagonalis from Rome to Constantinople, which Dorothy follows to reach the Emerald City. Now there’s a story!

Practically running, the guide leads them on, paying no attention whatsoever to the Russian Church, despite the fact that the group is ready and willing to snap at least a gigabyte and a half in front of it. They merely pass by the place where the mausoleum with the mummy had been - the mummy had refused to burn when they tried to cremate it - past the royal palace, on whose grounds rise the two ancient hills of Serdica, and past the national bank, whose vault was dug right on top of an underground river, which was why gold seemed to pour in there of its own accord, and only a minute later they are in the underpass in front of the Presidency, where the guide grasps the little girl’s hand and leads her to the very end of the Yellow Brick Road. 

Of course, only the foundations of the gate have survived, as well as the paving stones worn smooth by time and thousands of feet, but imagination fills in the rest. The gigantic doors with golden studs and door knockers held in lion’s teeth, the flags waving from the tops of the five-cornered towers, the stern guards behind the crenellated wall and, of course, the wondrous Emerald City, which Dorothy would enter to find the Wizard of Oz, who alone could help her fly home to Kansas. So it is real, mom, the little girl jumps up and down, pointing at the ruins, we’ll finally get to go home again, right? The mother doesn’t know what to say, in any case she’s sort of forgotten what happens in the Wizard of Oz, but like all the others in the group, she doesn’t believe a word the guide says, it is as clear as day that he’s been making stuff up the whole time, but what else could he do in such a dull city? There’s no way three dentists could have yanked so many teeth on their own and car bombs leave far more serious traces. To say nothing of this last story - she just wonders if he does that trick with the Yellow Brick Road every time so as to cut the tour short, or only pulls it out it when there are kids in the group. 

The group soon starts grumbling about wasting so much time in front of a pile of rocks, so the guide finally tears himself away from the gate and leads them back up the stairs. They come out of the underpass right when the sun is setting over the boulevard in front of them and exactly at that moment from somewhere near Lyulin a tornado swoops down on top of them, following the wave of green lights on the boulevard and only a minute later the vortex will have lifted them into the air to carry them far and wide through the skies of the world - returning everyone to where they belong.




1. Laid down in 1909 on the occasion of King Ferdinand’s wedding, the yellow cobblestones on Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd have become one of Sofia’s biggest landmarks. A bit slippery in the winter, though. [back]



© Allexander Shpatov
© E-magazine LiterNet, 20.05.2015, № 5 (186)