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Molvanîa

Can you find it on a map?

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Molvanîa? Transylvania, maybe. We all know about Transylvania. And if we're up on our post-USSR geography, we can just about place Moldova. But Molvanîa?

The country lies, according to this new Jetlag guide, at the crossroads of Eastern Europe. It's a "land of contrasts--from its rocky, semi-barren hills to its rocky, semi-barren plains." And like so many countries in Eastern Europe, the place seems to have had more than its share of history, having been overrun by Goths, Tatars, Turks, Huns, Balts, Lombards and a "surprisingly militant band of Spanish nuns." Its first king, Fyodor I, slaughtered a goodly number of its citizens and forced the rest into teaching. Epidemiologists recognize it as the birthplace of whooping cough.

A take-off on Lonely Planet/Rough Guide publications, Molvanîa grounds the reader on such subjects as food and drink, religion and language before getting into the nitty-gritty of sights and accommodations. Travelers will appreciate the table of useful phrases, ranging from common questions such as Sprufki Doh Craszko? ("What is that smell?") to expressions said to be "very rare," for example Krokystrokiskiaskya ("See you again soon").

If you can't master Molvanîan, and let's face it, you can't, then a basic knowledge of the country's customs will hold you in good stead. It's important to know, for instance, that when visiting someone's home in Molvanîa, it's customary to bring a small gift--flowers, say, or firearms, or, if there are children in the household, cigarettes.

Molvanîa succeeds because it has its guidebook clichés down pat, noting of a particular budget accommodation in Lublova that its "rooms are snug and clean, with wooden floors and pillows." The mid-range Hotjl Ozjecmet in Vajana offers service that is "efficient if slightly on the forceful side." And--one of my favorites--"Most people get to Sasava by train or by accident."

This send-up was published last year in Australia to instant acclaim, but has also been assailed as insensitive and bigoted. Yet cultural differences have always been a fertile ground for comedy. Overfed and underdressed, we Americans are certainly objects of fun (or these days, of derision) when we venture abroad. When I checked Molvanîa's index, I was disappointed not to find Ruritania or Hav. Not to mention Nepenthe. Such fictitious locales have been a beguiling literary device since the days of Plato, who dropped references to a lost continent he called Atlantis into his dialogues.

Closer to our own day, Ruritania once enjoyed quite a vogue. It and Molvanîa can't lie more than a few hours apart on the Orient Express, but in spirit they're separated by aeons. English novelist Anthony Hope created the central European kingdom in 1894 as the setting for his great adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda. In Hope's scenario, Ruritania's dissolute king has been secretly abducted and imprisoned in the castle of ... Zenda! This leaves the country's fate in the hands of English look-alike Rudolf Rassendyll, who owes his resemblance to a royal indiscretion some generations back. When Rassendyll falls under the spell of the king's fiancé, he finds himself torn between love and duty. You know the routine.

Hav has a more recent origin. An autonomous peninsula on the coast of Asia Minor, this gently absurd state was celebrated by travel writer Jan Morris in Last Letters from Hav (1985). Like Molvanîa, Hav has seen wave after wave of occupiers, and by now has become an amalgam of every invader, every writer who has spent the season, every refugee who has disappeared into its maze of streets and suburbs. Nor has history come to an end, even if Morris's bittersweet story does. Glimpsing "gray imperfections" on the horizon, she realizes that a fleet of warships is on its way.

Merrier by far is Nepenthe, the Mediterranean island setting of Norman Douglas's South Wind. Published during World War I, the novel is a sprightly satire on human foibles that has delighted generation after generation. Pleased to blame their problems on the constantly blowing sirocco, Nepenthe's inhabitants indulge in eating, drinking, talking, and ... You know the routine.

Inspired by thoughts of Nepenthe, I thought I'd conclude with something in Molvanîan, something about wine, women and song. Something ... celebratory. But after extensive research, the closest I could come is the phrase Wakuz Dro Brugka Spazibo, which apparently means "May God send you a sturdy donkey."

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