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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: October 2007

No Table Manners Required

Do you ever get tired of being pampered at restaurants?

If the answer is yes, visit Detenice, a small village near Mlada Boleslav, about 40 miles northeast of Prague. Their old brewery adjacent to a modest castle has been remodeled as a medieval tavern and decked out with all the requisite necessities: flickering torches, rough hewn wooden tables, brick arches with a thin veil of soot, nonchalantly strewn straw, and exotic weaponry adorning the walls. But when you start interacting with the personnel, you realize that they added a little twist - a significant part of the experience is a deliberately raw treatment which you get throughout your visit. The waiting staff in the middle ages was obviously ill versed in politeness. Or so the menu warns you.

Be prepared to be served with a jovial: "So, what do you want, yokels?". And if you dare order a Coke, the busboy is likely to roll his eyes and retort: "Ehhhh, suits you well, but your teeth will fall out, buddy". We also saw a guest at the next table who ordered an extra beer. The lackey in worn out clothes caught his request and stopped dead in his tracks: "What? Another beer? I'm gonna get me a pitchfork and teach you about another beer" and indeed, he grabbed a short wooden pitchfork lying by the tap and prodded the guest gently on his rump. But at the end he did fetch him another mug filled with the goldish Pilsener.

If you think no one in their right mind would like such treatment, think again. Buses of tourist agencies, many with foreign license plates, are lining the parking lot and if you don't have a reservation, forget eating there on Friday or Saturday night, despite the gigantic size of the tavern.

Apparently, a little mock roughness sells quite well.


Is there something I should know about?

Sometimes I get a nagging suspicion that life is orchestrated.

Yesterday I was in Prague, sipping coffee with a friend of mine, totally oblivious to the fact that the last train to my hometown leaves at 9.11p, two subway stations away from the place where we were sampling the fine products of Columbian plantations. When we descended to subway, and we did take the stairs by two, we saw the train leave right in front of our noses. It was 8.59 and there was no point waiting for the next one. I summoned all my brain cells for a quick family meeting and in 10 seconds decided to resurface and run the two subway stops to the train station, my coat and backpack included in the project. I cut the parting speech to 3 seconds and shot upstairs. It was lightly drizzling, but there was no time for complaints and I started trotting down the street towards Wenceslaus Square, where I took a brief rest in the form of a brisk walk.

I disappeared into the underpassage and reemerged for the second leg. The drizzling intensified, but I was way past the point of no return. Thanks to my soccer training I ran into the station at 9.09 with my tongue dangling out like a towel ready to be thrown. I knew this time of day the line at the ticketing office would be small and I'd probably have an extra minute by the time I reach the train.

Indeed, when I approached the window, no one was there. Sadly, not even a clerk. The office has been moved to an underspecified place somewhere on the right of the main hall. I couldn't believe my luck. For 30 years that office had been there. I bought my first ticket home at this window! And now when I needed it most, they moved it. I ran up and to the right, but found only international departures. A lady behind the counter pointed me back to where I came from. It turned out that when I dashed into the building, I passed just by it.

I asked 2 people standing in the line whether I could cut in, which they did, yielding to signs of desperation emanating profusely from my demeanor. When I got my ticket, I noticed that clock just turned 9.11 and I still had 200 meters to go. As I darted through the main hall, I heard announcer that the train to Hradec Kralove finished boarding and is ready for departure. I flew into the tunnel and as I turned to my last staircase I heard station master's whistle. I ran up to the platform and spotted the train. I caught its last standing second. As I searched for the door it moved. In 0.2 seconds I chose my door, yanked it open and leaped in. By that time the train had attained the speed of a walking businessman. The conductor asked me whether I was crazy. I thought about it and said that I wasn't.

This was the most amazing case of supernatural timing I was ever part of. Ten minutes ago, I was more than a kilometer away. And after a sequence of runs and walks and leaps and searches, I made it just in time. If I was two seconds late, the train would have been moving too fast. If I was two seconds early, the train would still be comfortably standing and what kind of story would this be if it didn't end up with jumping into the moving train.

Sometimes life feels like a reality show that Gods on the Olymp are watching from a covered balcony for their divine amusement. I am not sure which of them were betting on me, but as I slumped into my seat, I thanked them sincerely.

Off the Beaten Path

Tourists are like a lava flow - always barrelling along the path of least resistance. In Prague they usually erupt at the Prague Castle, they cascade down the Old Castle Stairs to Little Quarter, then cross the centuries old Charles Bridge into the Old Town and end up at the astrological clock, drinking overpriced beer and buying trinkets from Russian or Ukrainian peddlers.

But those looking to find more about the Czech way of life would be ill-advised to stay on the beaten path. From the cobble-stone pavement you won't see more than meticulously restored facades of medieval houses. But if you peeked inside, you'd find modern faxes and superfast internet routers purring happily in commercial and government offices and revealing little of the days of yore. And strings of western shoppes on the ground level aren't helping either. They give out about as much information about the Czech culture as the Sunday Night Football Wrap-Up on ABC. But if you hop on a bus in Prague's Eastern District and ride 30 minutes to a little town named Prerov nad Labem, you will not only get a pitcher of beer for a fraction of its downtown price, but you will actually learn about the life in a Bohemian village at times when Czechoslovakia was still a fetus growing restlessly in the tummy of Austria-Hungary.

The open-air ethnic museum is really just a well preserved and carefully labeled part of the original settlement, all in all about 20 cottages and barns, each presenting one facet of an era long forgotten. To add color to the experience, individual rooms feature mannequins involved in various contemporary activities - playing cards at a table, cooking meals, washing clothes or just chatting on a bench.

So if you get tired of endless displays of digital cameras and Russian fur hats, leave Prague for a few hours and take a trip to the world of washing boards, flail harvesters, dovecotes, granaries, cribs, grindstones, ploughs, tile stoves, ferules, birch twig broomsticks and utensils, implements and appliances we don't even have the name for. At least not anymore.


Bused Around

Common wisdom has it that airports are built to showcase air traffic. But even common wisdom gets addled at times. For a proof, call your travel agent and arrange for a flight through the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, serving the needs of Paris, its many suburbs and the Labor Union of French Busdrivers. Yep, that's right, within the limits of this lofty futuristic structure pilots play the second fiddle to the magnificent men behind the big steering wheels.

Here is a short play by play of your typical transfer at Paris: you land, you step out onto the tarmac and you board a bus for an enjoyable ride whose main purpose is to awe you with Louis XVI style rotating beacons and wind cones. After a healthy dose of concrete sightseeing and at least one round of unnecessary backtracking caused by the utter lack of the left turn opportunities, you get disgorged at your arrival terminal. If you have good decryption skills, you can look up your departure terminal and start plodding through a maze of passageways whose entertainment value is second only to playing advanced Sudoku. Finally, you descend to a basement, not unlike the one you came from, and join a livid crowd of nervous looking passengers, who are tapping their feet in assorted dance rhythms of the world and look about as comfortable as a bunch of helium balloons at a cactus auction. Unfazed, you board a bus again and are on your way around the terminal building. During the loopy ride you get to revisit some familiar landmarks and you may or may not pass by the gate where the bus to your plane is already boarding passengers with less strained itineraries. After arriving at the connecting terminal, you step through a metal detector looking contraption, which scans your brain for any signs of Anti-Bus propaganda, and then assume your place in the line for your final bus ride, the one which you saw boarding 25 minutes ago. You board the bus and see yet another batch of people arriving at the terminal from even later flights. If you get lucky, your bus will wait for them - with you in it, squeezed between two gentlemen from the Farthest East imaginable.

I am not sure who devised this grandiose, if slightly twisted, apotheosis of bus traffic. My guess would be that the airport blueprint was conceived by a Platoon of Dancing Dervishes after an all drinks paid night in La Guinguette Pirate. But if you get high from riding buses, Paris Airport should definitely be featured prominently on your list of fixes.

Seeing Is Believing

Seeing a politician live is worth reading thousand political manifestos. They can disguise their souls in carefully polished speeches, but body language always gives them away.

This Thursday, Ron Paul was giving a lecture on Foreign Policy at the Robert Tuft Club in Arlington, not far from where I live, so by 8pm that evening I was standing in a tightly packed banquet room of Boulevard WoodGrill, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the most enigmatic figure of this presidential campaign.

On the surface, Ron Paul looks like an archetypal un-president: humble, with a boyish and fragile smile, soft-spoken. You'd expect to find him feeding the birds in a park, rather then running for the most powerful office in the known Universe. But underneath the veneer of a frail man there beats a passionate heart of a surprisingly tenacious warrior. Those who underestimate him will be surprised. His mild manners may seem at odds with your stereotypical image of the Commander-in-Chief as an energetic guy with a massive jaw-bone, but his simple message is finding an increasingly receptive audience.

  • the federal government has outgrown its original blueprint to the point of loosing functionality, local affairs have to be managed by local people rather than by an army of centralized bureaucrats

  • democracy should be exported by an example and free trade rather than by use of military force; keeping an excessive force overseas drains away the resources that are needed at home

  • frivolous spending leads to massive debt and severe devaluation of the currency, the current fiscal policy slowly erases the middle class

Ron Paul's lecture was delivered off-the-cuff which gave it a pleasant air of authenticity. He spoke passionately and with conviction, yet his tone never slid to being pompous or self-serving. His arguments were clear and well grounded in logic and common sense. Most importantly, he obviously spoke his mind - a welcome respite from other Capitol denizens who constantly check and double check the effect their utterances might have on the constituents. In this presidential campaign, Ron Paul is the one who put candid back in candidate.

In short, if I met this guy on a train I would never guess he was a politician. And that is a rare compliment inside the Beltway. I'd probably think he was a gardener. One that has a rose named after him.


The Beauty of Imperfection

Germans are very punctual folks. And they love soccer too. Yet few years ago, when given a choice to equip soccer balls with tiny electronic devices that would help referees make correct calls, they rejected it. Somehow, we want our choices to retain their human dimension, however error prone it might be. Fans, especially the beer chugging variety, also want the decisions to remain debatable. So a little wrong call here and there is not only acceptable - it is actually highly desired.

Perfection is a beautiful thing, but it has one blemish: when there is nothing to improve, it can mean only one thing - the end. Perfection is sterile, bionic, cold and devoid of life. It feels like a computer generated laughter. Just think of all the faces on glamour magazines at the supermarket check out lines. Would you like to live with them on a daily basis? I wouldn't.

One of my CDs is a live concert which begins with a rock rendering of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. In the passage building up to the grand Finale, someone in the audience succumbed to the magic of music and forever marked the soundtrack with an ecstatic, primordial shriek. When I heard it at first I thought: "what a debasement of this beautiful piece". But I grew so accustomed to it that I miss it when I listen to a different performance. That mini geyser of joy accentuates the music, it gives it warmth and authenticity.

So wherever there is a blemish - there is a sign of life. All those scratches and scars, all the dents and coffee stains - those are the signs of having been through things, of having lived. Otherwise our existences would be like a carefully waxed car that is only taken for a cautious Sunday drive and for the rest of the time it is kept in the garage conserved in its permanently perfect state.

The Wolf in Snake's Clothing

You know that situation when you talk about someone (usually your boss and usually in less than a flattering tone) and just as you get all riled up by your fervent diatribe, that someone unexpectedly appears as if out of thin air. I think English handles that situation with "speaking of the devil". In Czech, we say: "We about a wolf, and the wolf behind the door" (yeah there are no verbs in this saying; and, frankly, it does sound a bit weird even in Czech, but that's how sayings are).

This Sunday, I went for a hike in the Shenandoah Park with two friends from the office. Shortly after we hopped on the trail, one of my friends spotted a little spoor with flattened grass leading into the underbrush. I remarked - jokingly of course - that it was probably pressed by a giant anaconda, which broached the general subject of snakes and we entertained ourselves by recalling our various experiences with serpents of all kinds. I have personally seen two rattlesnakes in the West, but none on the East Coast yet. I even expressed an opinion that there are no rattlesnakes east of Mississippi. But the proverbial wolf was already listening.

On our way back, we ran into one. Almost literally. A nice specimen of Timber Rattlesnake was lying on our trail. Although with snakes you never know - maybe it was standing there. I can never tell the difference. Anyhow, as were approaching it, I was so immersed in deep philosophical conundrums of human existence that I forgot to pay attention to the trail traffic and nearly stepped on it. I stayed my foot only about a yard away from the snake's body. It appeared motionless, apparently trying to catch a late summer tan. At first we all flinched back, but curiosity soon got the better of us. We pulled out our cameras and showered the sucker with a spate of paparazzi treatment.

I am sure that gave him something to brag about at the nearest Snake Snack Bar.


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