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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: June 2008

Life Jacket Required

Two posts ago, I made an observation that Czech women are more likely to trust men than the American ones. A friend of mine from NJ took a bit of umbrage at that pronouncement, so in the interest of ensuring the Equal Trusting Opportunity regardless of country, continent or planet of origin, I decided to perform a simple sociological experiment.

I went to one of those free dating sites that abound on the Internet and made a quick search within 5 years of my age and 25 miles of my domicile. No sooner had my game plan started to solidify than I was served a table of about 15 photographs from which I chose the most adventurous looking she-daredevil and initiated the Instant Messenger chat session. After an exchange of about 5 or 6 obligatory pleasantries, I brazenly suggested going on a canoeing trip; not at some unspecified point in a distant future, but tomorrow, as in less than 24 hours. Please note that it is one thing to meet a stranger at a cozy cafe, but it is a completely different ballgame to be with him on a remote stretch of a river, with no cell phone reception and no River Patrol in sight. To my unmitigated surprise, the adventurer named Valerie agreed. It wasn't the most emphatic yes I had ever heard, but it was a yes nonetheless.

We met at 9.30am in the parking lot of the Fair Oaks Marriott hotel. The day was bright and the sunny weather ushered in a fairly relaxed atmosphere to begin with. Additionally, my light clothing betrayed no signs of axes, knives, machetes, guns or bazookas, which must have erased the few lingering doubts Valerie had about her near term life expectancy. Without any problems, we reeled into the parking lot in Bentonville, rented our canoe and by the time we were through the Compton Rapids she was comfortable enough to take a swim in the river and then change into her shorts right there - in the middle of a moving canoe.

Having successfully completed the procedure which looked more like she was morphing from a caterpillar into a butterfly, Valerie took a comfortable repose in the bottom of the canoe. As we scooped some water in the rapids, this had one unintended consequence for her own bottom. The river water started silently seeping into her shorts and after a while they were almost as wet as her swimming suit. The river water is usually full of unseemly microorganisms with fancy Latin names, so staying in the wet shorts would pose an obvious health hazard. To cope with the problem, she made a little nest out of our life vests, and, wearing only my T-shirt, initiated the drying sequence. She slumped in her improvised lair so completely that only her head and her legs propped against the siding were visible from the shore. She then placed the shorts on the canoe's bench for the sun to do its magic and on occasion she picked them up and held them in the oncoming breeze as a flag of defiance. If someone was filming this scene from a chopper above they'd think we were enacting a Monty Python episode, or an emergency trip to a local gynecologist.

The Duchess of York would probably disapprove of such conduct and even think of it as scandalous, but the river has its own moral code. If you are miles away from the nearest changing booth, you have to do with whatever you can find in your boat and hope no one is filming it.

Random Trip to Nowhere

Deciding on a destination for a weekend trip can be trickier than playing badminton in a Boeing wind tunnel. Here is the stereotypical scenario: she wants to go to Richmond for a crafts festival while he would rather drive to Baltimore because the Yankees are in town. With such geopolitical predicament, no matter how much diplomatic lubricant is expended, one side of the negotiation table ends up flexing their brow muscles and - should the choice turn out to be less than spectacularly entertaining - with a pretext for a hearty "I told you so". But there is a perfectly democratic mechanism which makes the outcome fair. A game I call the Random Trip.

Its principle is very simple. Both players simply take turns in deciding where to go. You basically keep going straight until a person whose turn it is decides to go left or right. And it doesn't matter whether that next turn is the immediate left, or a right taken after an endless series of traffic lights. As long as it is your turn, you can wait it out all the way to the nearest T intersection, where the decision is finally forced upon you. Any time a decision to change direction is made, the turn goes to the other person. This way no matter where you end up, it is always a shared responsibility and any desire to play the blame game has to be deferred for later activities, such as cooking dinner, painting the living room walls or assembling an electron microscope.

This Saturday, I took one of my Czech friends for a random trip on I-66. We escaped about 20 miles west of the city, where I chose to take an exit to Rt 17. The ramp quickly ended at a T-intersection where my friend chose to go south. Then it was my turn again and since I liked the road we stayed on it for a while until I took a sharp right onto some pretty local road. My co-navigator didn't like it very much as she instructed me to take a quick compensating left at the first opportunity. Soon we had no more idea about our whereabouts than Homer Simpson in a smoke filled mirror maze.

After about 60 minutes, we arrived at a nice little town named Orlean where my friend demanded an emergency stop at a local antiques store for unspecified reasons. I suspect she was hoping to find slightly misspelled birth certificate of Joan of Arc. Whatever the cause was, just as we were about to leave their parking lot, she further claimed to have spotted a restaurant on the other side of the road and passingly mentioned an incipient sensation of hunger. I expressed serious doubts that an establishment marked simply as Gas/Market/Restaurant would have anything to offer besides cold Hot Dogs, but since improvisation is the middle name of this game, I nodded to a little exploratory mission.

It felt like stepping through a looking glass; and one made in the 50s at that. It was about 5pm and the place styled in unintended retro with an emphasis on formica was virtually empty, save for a lanky guy sitting by the front door and a chatty curly haired girl swaying on one of the barstools and simultaneously maintaining a close relationship with half of the cooking staff. But when the waitress/retired actress brought my Tilapia Fillet, my impression of the place took a sharp U-turn. If this is how they cooked in the 50s, then I better go and place an eBay bid on a used Time Machine. I bet that many a fine connoisseur in DC would melt at the taste of seafood they serve at this gas station, but they'll never get the chance for they choose to operate within the boundaries set by their favorite lifestyle magazine.

That is the beauty of Random Trips. They tend to offer a menu of delightful and unexpected appetizers, and I do not just mean the culinary ones. Keep your sensory inputs open and you'll get to see well manicured farmlands with their lawns sheared not mowed, private horse tracks delimited by white fences, shreds of the after rain fog scattered over the road like pieces of a fairy wardrobe, weathered churches perching on grassy knolls, an old graveyard staging a soporific mutiny against the flow of time, stone benches overlooking a reed infested gully carved out by a meandering creek, dirt roads dotted with wild strawberries...

And if you take sufficiently many wrong turns, you may even happen upon that elusive Holy Grail of all random travelers: the Road to Nowhere.


End of Storm Celebration

There are several difference between the American and Czech women in general. But when it comes to dating, the one which strikes me as the most prominent is the level of trust in the members of the opposite sex. For some reason, the Czech women are more generous when it comes to the benefit of doubt. I am not sure where the mistrust of American ladies comes from - whether the American guys get too many wrong ideas from watching too much football or whether it is simply a curse of a big country where it is all too easy to snatch a book of coupons from an unsuspecting grandma and disappear into the mountains of Montana.

Here is an extreme example. Some time ago, I met an American girl online and after a few weeks of emailing she finally agreed to a meeting. At a public place, of course. "Mission accomplished", I thought, but on the eve of the rendezvous she asked me to fax her a copy of my drivers license. Naturally, that was an instant deal breaker. Not that I do not have a driver's license, but being paranoid is a bit of a turn off for me.

For some reason, the Czech chicks chuck their prudence more readily and are willing to enter into much riskier situations with considerably less background checking. Maybe it is a small town mentality brought about by the physical dimensions of the country. Or perhaps it is the exposure to forty years of communism, which taught people to direct their suspicions at the totalitarian regime rather than at each other. I do not know.

Yesterday, a series of powerful storms galloped through the DC area. As the last one was passing over McLean, I was having the first phone conversation with a female compatriot of mine whom I never met before and with whom I exchanged only two emails up to then. At the end of the short conversation, as the rain intensity slowly abated, I suggested to celebrate the end of the storm at a nearby Starbucks. Without much ado, she agreed. So instead of enjoying the fruits of electricity, which many of my friends were denied that evening, I unexpectedly hit the road.

When I got there, the whole plaza was completely dark, except for a small light at the other end. It emanated from an Asian Grocery Store, which somehow survived the power outage. I called my date and told her to meet me there as it was temporarily the least scary place in that neighborhood.

When she arrived, it was still raining hard and I was waiting for her under the store's canopy. I made an attempt to brave the rain and approached her car, but she beckoned me back and called my cell. Being separated by about 10 feet of torrential rain, we decided to stay the course and make do with whatever the Asian Market had to offer. Rather than seeking higher ground (electrically speaking), we just bought some soft beverages and retired to my Honda to celebrate the end of the storm.

As we sipped Mango Juice, with seats pulled comfortably back and front windows rolled down to let the fresh air in, she was telling me her life story and didn't seem to be too preoccupied with the possibility that I might be a deranged psychopath with a private log cabin in Montana and a fully loaded 9mm Luger stashed away in the glove compartment. That is the kind of stuff Czech women have no problems pulling off. They can enter a perfect stranger's car in a dark parking lot, with the night sky still criss-crossed by the lightnings of the departing storm and they chat as happily as if they were sitting on a padded chair in a well lit Cafe teeming with scores of armed law enforcement officers on a coffee break.

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