Sunday, November 06, 2005

An Unfortunate Side-effect of Cross Border Travel

Being of vigorous constitution, I leapt from my grassy bed the moment I heard this rumbling noise and immediately banged my head on the branch of a tree. I fumbled around in the darkness for something to grab hold of. My nervous hands eventually found warm flesh.
"Ming!" I cried. "Rouse yourself! For we are under attack! there is an earthquake! there is ... "
I never finished my train of thought, for a harsh voice cut through my distressed cries.
"Who the devil are you?" snapped the voice. I immediately realised my error; in my semi-conscious state, I had laid my hands on a poor passerby. I gave the fellow my name and explained my purpose, and asked who he was.
"My name," he replied tersely, "Matters not. I am a thief, and you have interrupted me in my felonious pursuits; for I was just on my way to rob the house of a particular rich fellow I know of."
"Then be off, villain!" cried I. "I'll have no truck with purveyors of purloined goods! Get out of my sight!!"
Having thus dispatched with this voice in the night, I began to search around for Ming again. Before long, the sun had brought his broad face above the horizon and cast warm light around the world. The rays revealed a very curious sight. Ming was lying some way off in the fields - the result, I was later to learn, of his peculiar habit of performing acrobatic acts in his sleep.* Ming, I observed, was sleeping on the edge of a broad peninsula of land, and just beyond him lay long meadows, which seemed to be slipping by, rather like a ship departing from the moorings of the bay. It was indeed a curious feeling looking upon this phenomenon; what mechanical force, I wondered, could move the land around me in this manner?
I continued to scan the horizon, and realised that I was in fact wrong in this assumption; for it was not, in fact, the land around us that was moving, but the land on which Ming and I were settled. This peninsula was the ship departing from the moorings of the bay, and Ming and I were two travellers upon it. And who knew where it was headed?
As Ming and I continued to take in this curious scene, my eye was caught by a sight some fields away. There was our friend Natalia, sitting away from the moving peninsula of land on which we found ourselves, stroking her electric guitar with one hand and waving goodbye to us with her other.

"Where on earth are we?" puffed Ming, coming up to me and laying his hand on my right shoulder.
"And how on earth did we get here?" I asked, rubbing my left shoulder.
"Never have two better questions been asked," said another voice, coming up and laying its hand my other shoulder.

* 'Narcoflexy', the habit of performing acts of bodily dexterity such as Tango dancing, knife-juggling, or acrobacy in ones sleep: one of the more peculiar medical habits which our scientists have only recently discovered.

The hand that belonged to the voice was long and thin, with a small watch strapped upon it with a large black band. The hand was connected to a nondescript set of shoulders by means of the usual appendage. The face that belonged to the hand was short and squat, with it's nose bent in one direction and it's eyes continually shifting in the other. The face was connected via a flat neck to a tall body, which was clad in a jacket, and little else.
The face blinked at me for a few seconds, then reached into it's pocket for a notebook and a pen. Then the face realised that it didn't have a pocket, and delegated the task to the hand. The hand asked the body whether it was alright, then retrieved a notebook and a pen from the right-hand jacket pocket, and then placed the notebook into the other hand. Since the body did not have another hand, the notebook was immediately dropped down a rabbit-hole, and the face blinked at it for a few seconds.
The face opened its mouth and the voice spoke, "Dash it all! That's the third notebook I've lost today!"
Uncharacteristically confused, I burst out with the question: "Where ARE we?"
The face of the man smiled. "We are nowhere. But then again, we are everywhere. Or then again, we were everywhere yesterday. And today? Who knows." The man stared at us directly for a few seconds, blinked, then extended his one arm out wide.
"Welcome," he said, "To the City-State of Trans Allosquia."

I must here interrupt my brief narrative with an explanatory note.

Trans Allosquia, as every good Lithuanian child knows, has a very curious history indeed. This curious history goes back right to the Dark Ages (which are otherwise known as the Nineteen Twenties.) In the chaos that followed the first world war, many conflicting ideologies fought amongst themselves for control of the continent of Europe. The Vienesse, for instance, were right into the waltz, while the people of Lichtalbania thought that the snappy rhythmns of the tango were the modern thing. Invariably, it was the innocent people, who just wanted to sit at home and read a good book instead of go out and dance the night away, that suffered. They were continually conscripted into gigantic cross border dancing competitions, events at which they were expected to defend their fellow dancers by hurling weapons such as butterflies and other small avian creatures at the opposition, at the same time singing their national songs and poems.
Naturally, everyone got heartily sick and tired of this, which led to the famous 1932 PETITION TO THE FEDERATION OF NATIONS, where a number of Lichtalbanians got together, and signed a document which said that they shouldn't be forced to go to these dancing competitions, when all they wanted to do was sit at home with the latest thriller by Poet Agner Morxyffyn*. Unfortunately, at that time, the Federation of Nations was controlled by a particularly enthusiastic devotee of the gavotte, who declared (much to the annoyance of just about everybody) that from now on, dancing competitions would be compulsory right across the world and, in those nations where it was already compulsory, they would be Even More So**.
For a small group of disaffected book readers in Lichtalbania, this was the last straw. One night, when the Dancing Police came around to their house to take them to that night's Dancing Competition (and in Lichtalbania, Dancing Competitions happened every night), they declared an act of ultimate defiance: they would Sit This One Out, Thankyou. They had a Nice Cup of Cocoa, they had their Socks On And the Fire as well, and they were up to a Very Nice Chapter in their book. It was good of them to ask them along to the dance, but they would have to refuse.
This simple act of defiance got some people very annoyed. If those book-readers could stay at home, why couldn't they? It wasn't that they didn't like the chance to tango, but they'd much rather tango at home. Nation-wide chaos was the result, which led the ruler of Lichtalbania at the time - a devoted tango dancer - to call for harsh penalties for Tango Evaders.
Things looked pretty grim, and at one point might have broken out into open hostilities, with orchestras and tango tutors being conscripted left, right, and centre.

Eventually, the book readers decided that they had simply had enough: they would leave their nation for once and for all. Or, more accurately they decided to leave everyone else behind, and take their nation with them. So, late one night, when everyone but them were dancing in one of the town houses (which qualified as looking the other way) they hooked up a great set of wheels on the corners of their nation, and drove off.***
This revivified and unique nation was given a new name: Trans Allosquia.

*Although he is not well-known now, Agner Morxyffyn's use of the Dactylic Heptameter thrilled millions in the early years of the twentieth century.
** There was a great deal of debate at the time over what the 'Even More So' clause in the compulsory dancing legislation meant. Some legal scholars argued that the amount of dancing competitions should be doubled, while others felt this was too lenient. Some people even thought that they should be increased fourfold, but because they were minuet dancers, no one listened to them.
*** The dancers came out later that night, but, finding there was just a big black hole where their nation had been, decided to go back inside. They kept on dancing the tango until, four days later, a river found its way into the hole and flooded it out, creating one of the larger lake systems in Eastern Europe.

Our companion agreed to walk with us to the city, Allosq, and on the way, he kept us entertained with tales of his life as a border-guard.
"Fall-offs are quite common," he said. "Barely a week goes by without some foolish child or drunk straying too near the borders of our country and falls off the edge. It is one of the occupational hazards of a place such as ours; a nation-in-transit.
"Once, the child of a local dignitary dropped off whilst we were visiting Norway, and it was not discovered until we were halfway across the Russian continent. We had to stop and go all the way back. Along the way, we caused several earthquakes, and created a new mountain range south of the Urals. In my opinion, the child was more trouble than he was worth"
At lunch, we became hungry and agitated, but our companion, seeing our vexation, thoughtfully approached a nearby peasant woman, and confiscated a goose from her. The peasant woman frowned and muttered something about his mother. He jumped a little, then asked the peasant woman, please, if she would like to come to dinner? She turned her nose up. He was quite welcome to her goose, she replied, if he knew how to pluck it.
By that time, the goose was well and truly cooked, and we drew it from the fire and served up portions for all four of us. The border-guard drew his portion towards himself, and resumed his narrative, telling us a little about his early life.
"I have lived in this little nation all my life," he said. "I was born in a small town, not far from the city. My mother was reading a book at the time. She was so surprised, that she forgot to turn the page. No-one had warned her that she was about to give birth: and in fact, she did not meet my father until several years later. It was due to these unusual, but not impossible circumstances that I was born out of wedlock."
Upon hearing this unusual story, the peasant woman burst into cackles of laughter and slapped the border-guard several times on the back. She then uttered several short, sharp words in an unknown language that may or may not have been profanities. At this, the border-guard looked a little put out, and nodded at us, as if to say, 'it is time to go.'
The afternoon was long, but no longer than our walk. The moon appeared at our sides, a pale companion; then the blue-red sky dropped away to reveal thousands of pin-pricks of light: the stars.
Finally, we surmounted a hill; far down below, in the gathering darkness, a thousand more golden stars glittered and danced: it was the City of Allosq.

Dear reader, what is there to say about our stay in Allosq, the city of light, the ruling capital of Trans Allosquia? There must be many tales to tell of the many lives we encountered.
And it would take a lifetime to tell them, oh reader, or they could not be told at all. But perhaps I can offer these few, meagre observations about life in that city.
We found our way to an inn that evening, and were told by the travellers within - for what person in Trans Allosquia is not a traveller? - that the city was making its way across the European continent to the northenmost tip, barely below the Arctic, for the summer. We learnt that when winter came around, the nation would turn and make its way back across the vast European continent to more temperate southern climes.
As we slept in our lumpy hammocks that night, we were occasionally awakened from our deep slumber by the chthonic rumblings and groanings of the nation, as it travelled across the tectonic plates of Eastern Europe to its northern destination. It was not for many nights that Ming and I became accustomed to this characteristic of Trans Allosquia. As we walked through the long, narrow streets of the city during the day, we observed how the inhabitants had become accustomed to tying their small, everyday objects to the shelves, in order that they might not fall off during a particularly violent jolting of the ground; and when they went to bed of a night, I am told, they secured themselves in the beds with several coils of rope.
I never quite learned by what mechanism the nation travelled: one professor I asked told me that it was all due to 'Geotechtonic Gyroscopy'; another informed me that it was due to 'Neophysical Reconstructionism'. On the other hand, a young lad I ran into on the streets* reliably informed me that the entire nation was carried on the backs of an army of gigantic tortoises. I asked him then, what happened when the tortoises died? He replied that he did not know, and went off with his brow furrowed in a very worried manner.

All of the citizens, I soon found, lived in mortal fear of their nation overbalancing. There were a whole set of rules and regulations and bylaws concerning this eventuality. This was at first rather curious to me: surely such a thing could not happen? But later, I was informed by several reliable personages that such an event could happen, and that indeed it once did happen: in the nineteen sixties, during a period of increasing international trade, the flow of personages in and out of their nation was such that, one day, the land developed a noticeable tilt. It was not until a visiting dignitary from Lichtenstein slid off the edge and into the molten magma below that people noticed it. With an admirable foresight, the Mayor of Allosq organised an event later to be called 'The Great Balancing', where he gathered up all the lively youths in the city. He then ordered them all to stand at one edge of their nation until The Tilt righted itself. Unfortunately, the nation began to tilt too far in the other direction, and he had to direct the youths to quickly run to the other side of the continent.
Thus, it was by judicious administration, not to mention the healthy and vigorous nature of the nation's youth, that a catastrophe was avoided.

Ah, Allosq: fondly, I think of you. In the years to come, when I grow old and grey and the cares of age, and infirmity, and sickness weigh me down, I shall nod and smile and think back happily upon you. I shall remember the golden nights in the taverns, the glimmering ale, the winking eyes of the farmers; I shall remember the morning we spent breakfasting with the mayor, who had sent a deputation when he heard that we were in town; and I shall remember the grins of the urchins of the streets, as they ran about our feet, waving their arms in the air.

*I was taking part in an athletics competition at the time.

Reader, suffice to say that we had grown quite attached to life in the fair city of Allosq, but for one thing. I hesitate, even now, to inform you of it, for the weeks we spent were indeed pleasurable, and the people were amongst the most hospitable that we were to ever encounter in our travels.
It was this: Trans Allosquia, not content with being a nation on the move through Europe, was also perpetually at motion within itself. The towers, houses, streets, and even forests were in perpetual motion, jostling for position according to some pre-ordained timetable. I do not know why this was so: it was explained to me, by several people, that this increased 'efficiency' in some way, but I could not see how.
It had most disconcerting effects: one would walk in to the inn of an evening and retire to bed. In the morning, one would arise and stretch one's arms; perhaps crying, 'Hey ho, morning again!' But upon exiting the inn, would see a completely different street to that which one had come off.
On one occasion, Ming and I were travelling by train to a suburb on the outskirts of Allosq, only to find that, by the train had reached the station were due to get off at, the station was no longer there: it was intolerable! Ming and I were forced to walk for several hours before we finally reached our destination.
Suffice to say, we quickly tired of this life, permanently in motion, and longed for somewhere quieter.

We had our chance soon enough: for early one morning, with a final groan and shudder (causing us to flop, head first out of our beds) the nation came to it's summer resting place. When we learned of this, Ming and I decided that it was time for us to depart. We packed our belongings, and by the late afternoon, we had crossed the borders of Trans Allosquia. We had no idea where we were, but then, as we reasoned amongst ourselves, nobody ever does. With a spring in our step, we set off to find shelter for the night.