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Learning the Alphabet
By Emmanuel Marshall- Raw Safari.com
Nicky wanders over and drops his bag beside me, he’s a suntanned guy with dusty grey hair and a baggy windbreaker.
He introduces himself like this:
“My name is Nicky. I speak bits of English. I am not an expert but I am lucky. I live in London for several years.”
We shake hands.
Cars go past and I stick my thumb in the air.
I’m very tired and a bit despondent.
“I think you are getting a ride better over there”, Nicky tells me.
He points at the tightly curving road that joins the highway to the motorway.
I nod skeptically.
I think there’s more traffic there for sure, I agree. But there’s no space for anyone to stop. It looks a bit risky.
I’ve been harassed by the police half a dozen times in the last week for hitching on highways and I’m over it.
“That road going south” Nicky tells me, “that road is for Greece. You want to go to Greece, right?”
“Look, look”, Nicky says. He leaves his bag on the curb beside me and strides over to the motorway ramp. He stands in the middle of the road. A van comes down the ramp toward the motorway. Nicky waves his arms and yells something Bulgarian at the driver.
The van driver brakes. He doesn’t have a choice. Nicky is blocking the road. As soon as the van slows down, Nicky is at the side window, yelling something at the driver. The van accelerates and drives away down the motorway ramp.
Nicky repeats this performance with the next three vehicles that come down the ramp. He is fearless. Cars honk their horns, people swerve around him. He yells and waves, and gesticulates.
I can’t help but laugh. How does a hitchhiker like this guy survive long enough to get grey hair?
“Have cigarette?” Nicky asks me. I shake my head. I don’t. “OK, OK”, he says.
He walks over to the service station cafe. There are bunch of people smoking on the curb outside. In Bulgaria there are always a bunch of people smoking and chucking their butts on the curb outside service stations. Apparently petroleum is not flammable in the Balkans.
Nicky goes from one person to the next, waving his arms, grinning, slapping shoulders. Two minutes later he returns to me with two cigarettes and hands one to me.
I get my last two cans of IPA out of my tucker bag and we settle on the curb to smoke and drink.
“Can speak German?” Nicky asks me.
I shake my head.
“I will instructing you in the alphabet!” Nicky declares. He digs around in his bag and gets out a chewed ballpoint and a piece of paper. “English alphabet has twenty-six letters, Cyrillic alphabet is thirteen… three zero”, Nicky proclaims. He begins to scribble furiously on the paper, writing the English alphabet, with the Cyrillic counterpart beside it. “Sounds are different”, Nicky tells me. “Some are the same as English, but” - Nicky waves his finger in the air - “most are different. OK. Listen.”
Nicky takes a long pull from his can of beer and clears his throat.
He sounds out the characters he is writing.
“Sh-t! Ssshhh-tuh! Guh. GUH!”
I attempt to imitate his pronunciation, with limited success.
Nicky laughs encouragingly. We take a break from language class.
After a while, we both have another go at hitchhiking.
He tries to persuade me to try out his spot on the corner, but I err on the side of caution and stay in the service station driveway.
Neither of us gets a ride.
“When you visit with the city of Sofia next time visit in the summer”, Nicky instructs me. It’s not so good in the the winter. Come in summer. You can sleep at my home in the city.” He takes out his pen and paper again and writes down his address in sprawling block caps. He presses the address and the paper with the alphabet into my hand.
“Cheers!” he says. We drink.
How long have you been hitchhiking? I ask him.
Nicky screws up his eyes and thinks for a moment. “Two-six. Twenty-six years”, he tells me. “But, I am getting a car for the recent ten years.”
Oh, you have a car?
“Yes. But the engineering is not perfect. Actually, it doesn’t work. So I continue to hitchhike.”
“What happened to your car’s engine?” I ask him. “When did it break down?”
Nicky does some more mental arithmetic.
“Nine years before. Never mind. Hitchhiking is better for the environment.”
Nicky finishes his beer and reinvigorated, heads back to the motorway ramp. I watch, bemused as he struts and weaves around vehicles; yelling, waving. He looks like a drunk tourist in Pamplona running with the bulls.
He isn’t having much success, but neither am I. The faces I see through the windshields do not mirror my smile. The people in the cars passing me look suspicious at best, or even hostile. Sometimes they make vague gestures as if trying to say they aren’t going my way, but no-one actually stops to find out where I’m going.
Nicky runs over to me, grinning and out of breath. “Race! Race!” He yells, grabs his bag and runs back toward the ramp. There’s a van waiting for him on the corner.
He did it, the crazy bastard. He got a ride.
Nicky yells a few final incomprehensible words of advice at me as he runs to get his ride.
“Happy trails!” I call after him. “I love you Nicky!”
The van rolls away onto the motorway. Nicky is a hitchhiker. He doesn’t look back. He knows I’ll get a ride and we’ll see each other again.
I carefully tuck his address and the alphabet into my wallet. I grab my bag and move to the motorway ramp. I stick out my thumb again. The faces going past me behind glass are cold and distant, but I can’t help smiling from ear to ear.
I wave at the passing drivers with exaggerated enthusiasm.
I practice my cyrillic pronunciation.
Sh-t! Ssshhh-TUH! Guh. GUH!
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