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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: August 2006

Another Secret Garden

Every major tourist destination has its centerpiece. Paris has its Eiffel Tower, New York has its Times Square, Sidney has its opera. But when you actually live in these places, sooner or later you will start discovering hidden gems. Places not highlighted in glossy tourism brochures. Places that resonate with the bass strings of your soul. I call them "secret gardens".

In Prague, my favorite secret garden is Novotneho Lavka. It is a small platform overlooking a weir on the Vltava River. If you get there at night, you will see two very distinct water surfaces. The one underneath the weir, where lights flicker restlessly on feuding ripples like colors on Claude Monet's "La Cathedrale de Rouen", and the one above the weir, where the water surface glistens smoothly like an art nouveau poster of Alfons Mucha. If you ever get to Prague, ask for the Museum of Bedrich Smetana. The place is right there.

This weekend I finally discovered my "secret garden" in the greater Washington, DC area. But you won't find it on the National Mall, nor is it in the neighborhood of Dupont Circle or Adams Morgan. You have to hop on I-270, take exit 9B and head for the Washingtonian Center in Gaithersburg, to a locale known to locals as Rio.

You will find a little lake with a simple fountain ensconced in one of its inlets and separated from the main body by an elegantly arching wooden bridge. The lake's shores are encircled by cemented paths and boardwalks that provide easy access to plentiful shops, cozy restaurants and a movie theater. If you go for a leisurely walk, you will also find benches populated by bronze life-size animals. But not to worry, the creatures are bashfully wall-flowering on the side so two people can easily fit in. If you are looking to spend a relaxed Friday night at a trendy place, yet away from the trendy crowds, check it out. You may like it.

And if you have the same infatuation with neon lights reflecting off the water surface as I do, you may even love it.


Your Conversation Mode: Baseball or Soccer?

In my lifetime I have seen talk fests galore and at some point I noticed that most conversations fall into one of the following two categories: either they are highly formal and structured, typically rendered by distinguished British ladies over a cup of tea at 5 o'clock; or they are spontaneous and unrestrained, bound only by the laws of the jungle and vigorously practiced by savages unversed in the arts of higher etiquette.

The first mode reminds me of baseball - plays have their scripted roles, the game is quite predictable, but also more prone to showcase its subtleties because nuances are always easier to spot in an ordered and regimented environment. The possession of the ball is predetermined by the rules of the game, which means that if one side is pitching the other side has no chance of taking the ball away from them. Much like when Lady Macbeth speaks, no one else will dare jump into her oratory.

The second mode is more like soccer - a freely flowing action, configurations of players continuously changing with no telling what's going to happen next. The ball possession is up for grabs and can switch at any given moment. People engaged in this mode of conversation can interrupt each other at will, and they often do, wrestling the floor from each other like a bunch of tiger cubs playing with one spool of wool.

Which mode of conversation is preferable is a matter of taste. The baseball-mode is more polite and suitable for strangers, but I almost always prefer the soccer-mode for it better conveys the passion for the subject. It is also very adaptive and when you want the discussion to reach a point, no idle talk can withstand its brutal evolutionary razor. When someone starts rambling, the rest of the pack will butt in and rescue the original direction.

But then again, such mode can easily slip into a brawl, and there are definitely times in life when a little structure goes a long way to keeping things in check. Times when you want a dance instead of a melee.

Pluto is a planet, Goofy isn't

Pluto is definitely one of my favorite planets. An outlier wending its way so far out that the Sun must seem like a mere bright dot from its frozen surface and the whole intergalactic space is just a stone's throw away. The ninth planet discovered when I was merely -31 years of age. The mysterious orb. If I was a planet, I'd love to be a Pluto, the guardian dog circling the outskirts of our world on a very flimsy leash.

Yet today, at the astronomical congress in Prague, Pluto was stripped of its planetary status and with it of all the attendant perks. No more frolicking in youngster's memory, no more luring NASA space crafts into its lonely kingdom, no more guest appearances on TV trivia shows. In a few years, it will regress from a household name to an obscure item in almanacs of cranky astronomers.

I know it is just a small rock and the eccentricity of its orbit is a tad higher than is customary for the Newton law abiding denizens of the Solar System, but it has been inciting our imagination for nearly 80 years and it has earned a firm place in our culture.

A friend of mine has a pair of rabbits and when I once asked him whether he would ever eat them, he said with a lick of indignation: "I don't eat anything that has a name". And I think we should follow the suit here and not demote any celestial body to which we have given a moniker.


And the vultures fly low

Today we went to a Greek restaurant for a lunch and as we were sitting at our table, I thought how cool it would be, if there were vultures flying above us, hovering alertly just beneath the ceiling, their wide wings silently slicing the air, their talons ready to pounce on an unsuspecting carcass of souvlaki. I told my colleagues about this, but they didn't think it would be cool at all.

August 9, 1991 (Newark, NJ)

On August 9, exactly 15 years ago, I landed at the Newark International Airport, weaved my way through the immigration maze and prolapsed into a go-go hood where people where uttering words that in no way resembled those from my English textbooks. The cultural impact was overwhelming. The buzzing hub of an airport, the New Jersey turnpike, the continuous flow of people and honking cars made me feel like a baby that was just born into a completely unwomblike environment.

What a shock! Having taken a bus to Prague, then a train to Frankfurt and finally a Continental flight to Newark - I underwent a gradating sequence of traveling crescendos which snatched me from my sleepy hometown in Eastern Bohemia and hurled me into the vortex of a metropolitan area whose population was larger than that of the whole Czechoslovakia. Gingerly, I made my first steps in the New World.

Today, the ratio between my Czech and American years became 29 to 15, so mathematically speaking I should be one third American and two thirds Czech. But life is not governed by the rules of arithmetics. I actually consider myself both Czech and American and I am grateful for that because, having friends on both sides of the Atlantic, it feels like living two lives at the same time.

The Czech Republic is like a mother to me. I have indisputable blood ties to that country. I was raised in its warm embrace and educated in its brick schools. I ate Czech bread and I drank Czech beer. The United States on the other hand is like a wife. I chose to live in this country. I found it special enough to spend the rest of my days in it.

I love both countries dearly. One of them is the world's sole superpower, the other one is just a picturesque valley in the middle of Europe. One of them will haul you into seemingly infinite stretches of land, the other one will haunt you in centuries old castles. And driving across the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco is just as memorable as walking across the Charles Bridge in Prague. The streamlined performance versus attentive contemplation. Both worlds have their pros and cons.

Sometimes, however, one has to make a choice. Like at this year's World Cup, where the Team USA played their first match against the Czech Republic. Without a moment's hesitation I chose to root for the Czechs. After all, it was the Czechs who gave me my first soccer bruises and that's what counts in this department. If you were born in say St Louis you also wouldn't root for the Red Sox just because you moved to Boston. There! You can divorce your wife, but you can't divorce your Mom.


Leave it to Weaver

Baseball is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. Tonight, the Cardinals started their four game series against the Cincinnati Reds. Considering their recent performance (2-8), the Reds must have smelled the blood in the air and with it the chance of becoming the top dog of the NL Central. When I started watching the webcast I expected a drawn out battle with an uncertain ending. But today's dose of chocolate was sweet rather than bitter. The Cards pulverized the second team in their division 13-1.

Yesterday I bought the piano sheet for the Feather Theme from the movie "Forest Gump". It looked deceptively simple. Written in A major, it has a simple flitting melody and a baseline rhythmically breathing its As and Es. But when I started practicing it, I realized that its simplicity is just a delusion and that my right hand not only doesn't know what my left hand is doing, but somehow it doesn't want to know. As if the two parts were rhythmically incompatible.

On the surface of things, the Cardinals' lopsided victory looked simple too. But I am sure Jeff Weaver, the starting pitcher, spent endless hours to get his rhythm right. Having struggled through three games in fits and starts, he delivered six unwavering innings. Thanks to him, the victory seemed as effortless as if it was the falling feather from the movie.

The good news is that the next three pitchers in line are Anthony Reyes, who halted the recent eight game skid, Jason Marquis, who leads the NL in victories (12) and finally Chris Carpenter, who happens to be Chris Carpenter. The bad news is that the Reds know what is at stake here. This is probably their last train to Banbury Cross and they will run their bases hard to catch it. Run, Forrest, run!

To drum up some acoustic support, the club has even been selling the seats for half-price and offering $1 hotdogs to boot. Yet neither cheap seats nor cheap hotdogs could lure the lukewarm Cincinnatians into the ballpark. It belonged to St Louis.

In the movie, Little Jenny says: "Dear God, make me a bird."

Jeff Weaver became one tonight.

McLean, 101F

Today I woke up as a fish. I swam to the bathroom, took a cold bubble bath, had some corn snowflakes for breakfast and went to work. My Honda submarine successfully avoided several icebergs floating over the Old Chain Bridge Road. The waters were freezing and I had to keep an eye on my engine so it wouldn't overcool. At 10am I arrived in the office, where I was snowed under with work for the entire day. The AC had been raging on the whole previous night, so it really felt more like an on-ice than off-ice. I took a short lunch-break with my officemates, the Penguin, Snowhite, the Cross Country Skier, the Eskimo, the Abominable Snowman, and Eric. I made some favorable comments about Snowwhite's permafrost garden and she smiled at me coldly. While we munched on shredded icicles, we discussed the principles of igloo architecture, the threats of global cooling and why the Cardinals' victorious spirit was suddenly put on ice.

After work I swam to the movies to see the Ice Age 3 and then I went to the gym to exercise on a snow blower. Yeah, for a fish a snow blower is a blast. On my way home I heard this story on a radio about another fish who won a lottery and in a fit of joy leaped out of the water briefly and was instantaneously fried to death. When I returned home, my bedroom was turned into a hollow glacier in the middle of which I recognized the gloomy ghost of Franz Kafka tying the shoelaces on his ice-skates. But I didn't have to worry about insurance or anything. My Allstate agent put "-icy" in my policy long time ago.

Requiem for a Fallen Feather

Sadly, our actions do not live in vacuum. They are always seen against the backdrop of other people's actions, of moods, of situations we are in, of circumstances unseen and unforeseen. And that is part of the reason why what we do and what we say sometimes comes out right and sometimes it doesn't. So life sometimes gives us what we want for free, and sometimes it won't give it to us at all, no matter how much we are willing to pay for it.

Yesterday I lost a friend. A person so unique that I never really learned how to talk to her. Whenever someone disappears from my life, a slow moving caravan of recollections passes over the desert of my mind. Memories of misunderstandings that were never clarified, of conversations that never started, of invitations that were turned down, they all plough silently through the indifferent sand. And in the night when the caravan slips into its oasis, all those wasted opportunities solidify into tiny sharp daggers. My cuddly little tentmates.

Libera me, Domine,
de morte aeterna,
in die illa tremenda.


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