Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wait, Are They Singing About This Or That?: 10 of Music's Greatest Extended Metaphors

Like cleanliness is next to Godliness, in the mind and ears of this writer, among the literary techniques that thrill me most, a great metaphor is right up there with alliteration. If you're not so sure what a metaphor is, don't worry, you're not alone. Rose Nylund had trouble with it, too, on The Golden Girls -- twice. Blanche Devereaux's explanation the first time -- "It's when you say one thing to mean something else, like when I say men are blinded by my beauty. They're not really blinded. They get their sight back in a few days" -- remains one of my favorite throwaway jokes of the entire series.

Fortunately for non-metaphorically challenged songwriters, you don't have to be able to call a metaphor a "metaphor" or pick one out of a line-up of literary techniques to appreciate a good one.

"Pulse" Toni Braxton (writers: Charles Harmon and Christopher Jackson) Giving new meaning to the phrase "This relationship is on life support."

"One on One" Daryl Hall & John Oates (writer: Daryl Hall) Quite possibly the only time I ever really cared about anything involving sports between my short-lived phase as a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, circa 1979, and the time I interviewed David Beckham in 2003.

"Like a Drug" Kylie Minogue (writers: Mich Hedin Hansen, Jonas Jeberg, Engelina Andrina, Adam Powers) In the world of pop similes (metaphors using "as" or "like," the latter of which might warrant a blog post all of its own, along with love as an addiction -- oh, wait, that already got an entire paragraph in a previous post!), they don't get much sexier than Minogue's 2007 X album cut, which she performed live in Buenos Aires the following year from inside a red box.

"Juicy Fruit" Mtume (writer: James Mtume) Sex and candy has been a lyrical cornerstone of pop for years, with Madonna taking it to its logical conclusion in the 2008 Hard Candy track "Candy Shop," in which she actually sang about the goodies in her vagina. But Mtume vocalist Tawatha Agee's milkshake was already bringing all the boys to the yard (in 1983) when Kelis was barely out of diapers.

"My Colouring Book" Brenda Lee (writers: Fred Ebb, John Kander) Less a strict metaphor than a very elaborate form symbolism in pop, this classic has inspired some of music's greatest performances (including ones from Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield and ABBA's Agnetha Faltskog), my all-time favorite of which remains Lee's album track from her 1963 All Alone Am I LP.

"Jump (for My Love)" Pointer Sisters (writers: Steve Mitchell, Marti Sharron, Gary Skardina) I don't know what it was about 1983. Mtume was powering sales of chewing gum with a suggestive R&B No. 1 smash, and Dazz Band (via "Joystick," to which I already gave due props here) and Pointer Sisters were offering odes to the power of the penis. What, did you think the Pointers were singing about actual jumping? (Fun fact: When it was released as a single in 1984, the song peaked at No. 3, behind Prince's "When Doves Cry" at No. 1 and at No. 2, "Dancing in the Dark" by Bruce Springsteen, a superstar who, like the Pointers, never had a No. 1 hit on Billboard's Hot 100 and who wrote the trio's first Top 10 pop hit, 1979's "Fire.")

"Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart" The Supremes/The Good Girls (writers: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland) Boy, that's got to be uncomfortable!

"I Don't Wanna Play House" Tammy Wynette (writers: Billy Sherrill, Glenn Sutton) A metaphor (a little girl likening her parents' stormy relationship to a children's game) behind a metaphor (the declaration of the title itself) that, along with The Marvelettes' "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game" (which I previously raved about here), is one of music's most sophisticated extended metaphors of the '60s. Kids, as Wynette would sing some six years after scoring her first No. 1 country hit with 1967's "House," really do say the darndest things.

"World Leader Pretend" R.E.M. (writers: Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe) A beautiful intersection of political language and personal meaning for the emotionally isolated everywhere, from my favorite R.E.M. album of the '80s (Green, released on Election Day in November of 1988).

"White Flag" Dido (writers: Dido Armstrong, Rollo Armstrong, Rick Nowels) Pat Benatar and Sade declared love and war in the '80s, respectively, with "Love Is a Battlefield" and "War of the Hearts" (as did Tamar Braxton with her 2012 single "Love and War"), and on her 2003 hit, Dido, though clearly no match for the power of love, refused to surrender and concede defeat. By the way, am I the only one who blinked and missed the March release of Girl Who Got Away, her fourth studio album?

The One Thing I Just Don't Get About Berlin

There's nothing like a side trip to a lesser city to make you appreciate the one you're staying in even more. (Warsaw, I'm talking down to you.)

After three days in Warsaw, where I had a great time despite being more or less unimpressed with the city itself or most of the people who live there (thank God, for cute, chatty gay guys to boost your ego and make your nightlife), I was ready to return to Berlin. (Incidentally, so many of my conversations at Toro, the club I went to on Friday night, began with "So, what do you think about Polish people?" This led me to believe that I must have been on to something with my general disdain for the ones I'd met in Warsaw up to that point.)

I didn't even mind that I had booked a second-class ticket from Warsaw back to Berlin, so I probably wouldn't be traveling in the same comfort to which I'd become accustomed in my first-class cabin on the way to Poland. I'd shared it with only one other guy, and aside from an introductory "Cheers," a few friendly smiles, and "Goodbye" as he disembarked one stop before mine, he'd completely left me to my thoughts and my music.

At least there would be AC in second class on the Warsaw-Berlin Express, a luxury not afforded to the passengers on some of the trains on other platforms, which were packed with people fanning themselves with their tickets to ward off the melting process. This was the one thought that got me through a 20-minute slow boil on an un-air-conditioned platform, waiting for the train's 2.55pm arrival. I knew the AC in second class probably would be shooting merely medium-cool blasts of air from its vents at best, but even that had to be better than waving a ticket in front of my face to cool off.

When I got to my seat and discovered that I'd be spending the next five and a half hours sitting way too close to four fellow travelers, all solo like me, I started looking forward to Berlin even more. Trains that arrange the seating so that complete strangers have to face each other while pretending to be far more interested in the passing scenery than they are to avoid creepy eye contact are like Piers Morgan, Ryan Seacrest and the horizontal screen option on smart phones. Who in the world actually likes any of them?

I suppose that it means more leg room, but it also meant that the Polish girl sitting in the window seat across from my middle seat would keep stretching out her legs so that her bare feet rested on the edge of my seat, between my neighbor in the other window seat and me. I would have preferred airplane-style seating, all facing the same direction, with me stuck behind someone who insisted on reclining all the way onto my lap, to seeing those wriggling toes through the corner of my eyes and feeling them inching closer to my thigh.

I gave them a few nasty looks, which she pretended not to notice, and thought about announcing, "This is a train, not your living room," but what would the other three think? Had it just been her and me, I would have told her to rest her feet somewhere else. But then, had it been just her and me, I would have been able to switch over to the aisle seat on the other side of me that was being occupied by a pretty blonde girl who kept glancing over at me like she was expecting me to do something fascinating.

Across from her was a guy with a Canadian flag on his travel bag, the only native English speaker in the group. He was cute, but I couldn't figure out which team he was on. His deliberate mannerisms and neat appearance indicated that he might be a starter on my squad, but I don't know any gay guy who would have so indulged the girl with the feet, who after offering him some of her cookies early in the trip, struck up a full-blown conversation with him about an hour outside of Berlin.

Better him than me, I thought to myself, and turned up my music so that I wouldn't have to overhear any of it. The last thing I needed was to try to pretend to be interested in what someone was telling me in broken English. Only an hour to go, thank God.

That's when it hit me. After a weekend in air-conditioned four- and five-star hotels (respectively, the Radisson Blu Sobieski, where I spent the first two nights, and the Westin Warsaw, my Sunday home away from Berlin), I was returning to life without AC, which, after three days in Warsaw, was the only bad thing I could think of about Berlin.

I knew I wasn't the only dog in heat there. Even the Berliners who complained that it was so American of me to crave air-conditioning, were constantly griping about how difficult it is to sleep at night when summer gets too hot, particularly during a recent heat wave that still has most of Europe sweating bullets. (Burning question: Why is it easier to fall sleep during a warm summer day than it is to fall asleep -- and stay that way -- during a warm summer evening, even when the temperature is considerably more mild at night?)

"The heat without air-conditioning is brutal, I'll never get used to that," my new friend Yemi, a beautiful expat from Miami, had written to me in an email days earlier.

I seconded that, but I'd take it one step further. I love Berlin, but if I were to even entertain the thought of staying here (which I haven't done since my arrival), the lack of air-conditioned flats would be the one thing to stop me from doing so. In recent years, I've learned to love summer, which has actually replaced autumn as my favorite season, but it's easy to fall in love with endless summer in Bangkok because you always know you can escape the heat as soon as you go inside.

In Berlin, a city full of buildings without AC, you don't have that luxury. I hear people complaining about July highs (the late 20s Celsius) that my friends back in New York would rave about as gorgeous summer weather. But then, the heat is always harder to stand when you know you can't get out of the kitchen. It's a shame that the loveliest season in a city that I hear is barely livable when winter sweeps in is marred by nights that are sleepless for the wrong reason.

I've gotten used to sleeping -- or trying to -- with the windows open, but that doesn't mean I like it. As a colleague back in New York City who used to occasionally crank the AC in the dead of winter once said, "In the big city, nothing good ever comes into your apartment through an open window." I couldn't agree more, and in my Berlin flat, the "nothing good" includes assorted annoying smells and sounds, like cigarette smoke, loud conversations and the pounding of hammers at 7am.

In-house AC or not, it was still a thrill to finally get off that train. It pulled into Berlin's Hauptbanof station at 8.30pm, just in time for the tail end of a cold front that brought with it my first encounter with rain in the city. I can't stand the rain when I'm caught in it without an umbrella, but I sort of didn't even mind that I might get drenched walking the roughly 100 meters from the Rosa-Luxemberg Platz U-Bahn station to my rental flat. Getting home soaked on a summer evening feels so much better when there's a cool breeze blowing, and your wet condition has nothing to do with heat and sweat.

I still wouldn't mind cranking up some AC, though.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Warsaw After Dark: Moonlight Feels Right

Don't you know what the night can do?

I'm convinced that for big, bustling cities lacking in drop-dead beauty during regular business hours, sunset offers the best possible makeover. After a first day in Warsaw spent being rubbed the wrong way by cranky locals who didn't get any nicer in the gloaming or after (with the exception of the gay men at Toro and the taxi driver who asked if it was okay for his teenage sun to ride along and then proceeded to try to tempt me with a flyer for a local girls girls girls nudie show), my view of Warsaw began to improve when the sun went down.

All it took were a few spotlights hitting buildings at just the right angle. I started to realize that part of my initial negative reaction to Warsaw was architecture shock. I had known it would be quite different from Berlin, but I was expecting something more along the lines of clusters of pointy Gothic buildings that look like something out of a medieval fairytale. While there's certainly a vintage side, particularly in the old town and down the city-center streets that branch off from Aleje Jerozolimskie, Warsaw doesn't resemble something out of the 1950s or 1960s (as does Berlin in many parts), much less the Middle Ages.

English is not as widely spoken in Warsaw as in Berlin, and that cute sidewalk cafe, if you can find one, is less likely to have Wi Fi, but Warsaw feels more urban and modern, with all of the automobile traffic and open-all-night eateries and convenience stores that entails. I even saw some AC units in several windows along Ulica Marszałkowska, and the blasts of cool air blowing from the wall units at Toro meant that, unlike the sidewalk outside Marietta in Berlin, the ground-floor outdoor area wasn't the only place to be.

If I were to compare Berlin and Warsaw to New York City neighborhoods, Berlin, with its manicured facade and quiet gracefulness, would be the West Village, while Warsaw, grimier and far more rock & roll, would be the East Village. Or to compare them to phases in the history of Depeche Mode, the band that performed in Warsaw the day before my arrival, Berlin is '80s DM, measured and controlled with perfectly spiked and moussed coiffures -- if she were a guy, he'd have a new-wave hairstyle. Warsaw, meanwhile, is DM in the '90s, all roughed-up edges, with guitars in the mix.

Alas, with modernization comes a certain level of anonymity. Warsaw could be any European city with skyscrapers. Berlin is more distinctive and loaded with character, far easier to pick out in a crowd of cities. Though it's larger and more heavily populated than Warsaw, it seems smaller. Berlin is more global in scope, yet it has more of a neighborhood feel. It's okay that it doesn't get dark until well after 10pm in the summer (in contrast, night fell on Warsaw before 9.30 on my first day in town). Berlin still looks beautiful in the harshest sunlight.

That lucky old sun (which retreated behind storm clouds late in the afternoon of my arrival, resulting in my first brush with rain since I left Bangkok) is even more fortunate in Warsaw, where there is far less to detract from its beams. But if sister moon is going to outshine architecture that looms somewhat unremarkably by day but glows majestically in the dark, she has her work cut out for her.

Warsaw's Buenos Aires Connection: On the first night I went to a club called Toro (Spanish for "bull," my astrological sign, and the image that's tattooed on my right bicep) and met a guy named Tomasz. On the second night, Tomasz took me to a club called Glam, which happens to the name of the first nightclub that I ever loved in Buenos Aires. As you can see below, the kids in Warsaw, like the ones in BA, are not the greatest dancers!

Swedes Are Hot in Poland, Too: "I Follow Rivers" by Lykke Li (as heard in Glam) almost made me forget that I still haven't heard "I Love It" by Icona Pop here.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

My First Three Impressions of Warsaw

1) If you can judge a city by the first few people you encounter in it, then Warsaw and I were off to a rocky start indeed. The three customer-service personnel with whom I interacted at Warszawa Centralna train station in search of a city map -- all women past middle age, all looking and acting like they were auditioning for roles as prison wardens in 1950s all-female lock up; so this must be where the moustache-twirling, heavily accented Eastern European evil archetype comes from -- barked at me and practically turned me to stone with withering glares. How dare I interrupt their customer-service work with a customer-service question!

At first, I figured that perhaps it was the language barrier. Judging from my frosty reception and the lack of English being spoken, Warsaw is clearly not a particularly tourist-friendly city, tolerating visitors more than welcoming them. (An Australian friend asked "Wait, where is Warsaw?" when I told him where I am, leading me to think that perhaps the ninth most-populated city in the European Union isn't as high profile globally as I thought.) But looking around, I saw the same sour looks, and heard the same shrieking in Polish. By the time I had my first meal in Warsaw -- a 10zł (roughly US$3.30) kebab sandwich that would be the only good thing worth writing home about those first seven and a half hours in the Polish capital -- I'd yet to see anyone crack a smile. Dear Berliners, I'm so sorry for ever griping about any of you.

2) The architecture around the central rail station is pretty blah -- a few scattered vintage constructions surrounded by glossy, anonymous modernity. Houston (which I imagine to be far more picturesque), you know you've got a problem when the most scenic view of a first afternoon in any new city is the one of the courtyard under your four-star room at the Radisson Blu Sobieski Hotel (no relation to actress Leelee).

I'd read that the old part of the city is the place to see anyway, so I wasn't too surprised by my well-short-of-spectacular visual greeting. Equally unsurprising: my frosty reception at the Radisson, where a hotel employee entered my room without knocking to check the minibar five minutes after my arrival and didn't once apologize or drop what I was by then calling "the Polish attitude" when I scolded him for his insolence. I considered lodging a complaint, but I'd heard enough barking for one day.

3. Apparently, this will be an even cheaper experience than Berlin. A 1.5-liter bottled water set me back a mere 2zł ($.65), but once again, carbonated water is easier to find than still water. (Underscoring the continuing carbonated-water trend, which I'd first noticed in Berlin, one of the two bottles of complimentary water in my hotel room was carbonated, which was a first for me.)

I hope I'm able to spend the entire 150zł (US$51) I withdrew from the ATM in the hotel lobby over the course of my weekend here. I can't imagine that these Polish złoty (PLN) would be of much use anywhere else. It's the only currency that I can remember in all of my travel experiences with cover subjects dating back to well before the pre-photography era, which might suggest that the best of Poland is behind it. If I'm wowed by the old town tomorrow -- and for Warsaw's sake, I hope that I am -- I'll be inclined to agree.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Is Infidelity Ever OK?: Can Cheating Save a Relationship?

I borrowed the title of this post from a segment I recently saw on CNN that posed those very two questions. Right off, let me say that my answer to both is a resounding no. The terms "infidelity" and "cheating" both imply deceit, which is never okay, nor does it work in favor of any healthy relationship. Deceit undermines trust, and a lack of trust endangers any relationship.

A better question might be this one: Can a relationship survive infidelity or cheating? My answer: If it's meant to last, at some point, it might have to.

Every time I see a couple that's been together forever, it seems to get me thinking. The same questions pop into my head: How did they do it? What trials did they have to endure? What sacrifices and compromises did they make in order to get from there (young lust) to here?

And as with so many things in life, it always comes right back around to sex. Most of the possible challenges that I begin to conjure up in my head revolve around crimes and misdemeanors of passion: diminished physical attraction, temporary loss of attraction, permanent loss of attraction, alienation of affection and third parties.

Ah, yes! The dreaded third party -- the one thing most likely to break up a "happy" home. Being a jealous person by nature (though I hide it well, so none of my exes might even suspect a thing) and also a commitment-phobe who has always struggled with saving all my love for just one person, third parties have cast shadows of doubt in nearly every relationship I've been in and many that I've observed from the sidelines. Is it a genetic thing? Is it a guy thing? Is it a player thing? Is it a human thing?

"Human beings are not monogamous by nature."

It's an assertion I've been hearing -- and occasionally, repeating -- for years. It's something my brother Alexi says every time we land on the subject. I can't argue with that. If I ever thought we were monogamous by nature, experience has taught me otherwise, and my reasoning involves how we act and think even within the sexual confines of monogamy. Though monogamy refers to having sexual relations with only one partner at any given time, if humans were truly monogamous by nature, wouldn't we limit ourselves to one partner per lifetime?

People who are in monogamous relationships are still attracted to people other than their partners, and serial monogamists might enter into numerous one-on-one sexual relationships over the course of a lifetime -- or during a decade, a year, or a month -- so wouldn't that disprove the flawed precept of monogamy-by-nature that suggests there is only one true lust out there for everyone?

When attempted in a loving relationship over years, or decades, monogamy, though not impossible, requires considerable effort. It might come naturally at first, during that first blush of love when you only want to be with that one person but eventually, when reality sets back in, it gets harder, complicated by the unglamorousness of routine and over-familiarity as well as animal lust, the rising desire to experience people other than the one to whom one is committed, which would challenge the idea that monogamy is in our blood.

So how do we reconcile this with the idea of the one-on-one relationship, particularly ones that last past the initial whirlwind lust stage when we want to rip off our partner's clothes every time we see him or her? It's impossible to maintain this kind of physical attraction over the course of happily ever after. My friend Dave once said that looks and sexual attraction fade, so you'd better have a partner that you actually like, too.

But what if you still want to have sex? You can break up and move on, as the serial monogamist might do; you can stay together and shove sex way into the background; or you can adjust the dynamic of the relationship to suit your current sexual needs.

My intention here isn't to promote open relationships or even to suggest that they can work for every couple. It's up to the people involved in any relationship to decide together what works for them. In the past, one of my problems with open relationships was that I thought they increased the likelihood of one partner falling for someone else and leaving the other partner. That remains a distinct possibility, but it's just as much of one in closed relationships, too.

People generally don't fall in love with a person other than their wife or husband because the sex is so good. It's not that cause-and-effect simple. Husbands and wives have emotional affairs all the time in which sex is not involved, and because of affairs of the heart -- passion of mind -- many spouses have found themselves suddenly third wheels in their own romances.

This is just as likely to happen in a closed relationship as an open one. Perhaps even more so because you are probably more likely to idealize someone when the two of you are forbidden from having sex, leading to all kinds of messy emotions. I might be speaking as a typical male here (or someone who has been down this road, though on the wrong side, with too many histerico guys in Buenos Aires, the ones who want what they can't have and no longer want it once it's theirs -- I dedicate Fiona Apple's "Dull Tool" to them), but sex with someone you've admired from afar is more likely to get them out of your system than lock them into it. But yes, I still acknowledge that it can have the latter effect.

If you and your partner opt to ignore the warning labels and decide that it's okay to allow other parties into your bedroom (for threesomes, or to play when one is away), or if you enforce a "don't ask, don't tell" rule on extra-marital/relationship sex, or any number of other restrictions (only in other cities, no exchange of bodily fluids, no further contact following afterglow, no falling love), then when a third party does enter the picture, you aren't deceiving anyone.

Personally, I think those common restrictions that couples with open relationships sometimes apply to them are just another form of sexual control, which is one of the things they're supposedly seeking to avoid by opening up their relationship. It's disingenuous, but the behavior it allows is not "cheating" or "infidelity," two actions that require dishonesty and the breaking of a romantic pact.

What about "cheating" and "infidelity" in the more traditional sense, when a couple has opted for monogamy and one sleeps around regularly or has an affair behind the other's back? I used to take the hardline approach here. When it came to love, I was a romantic and an idealist, which meant that I had a tendency to be self-righteous and judgmental. Cheating, I insisted, was the ultimate deal breaker, the point of no return.

These days I'm not so sure. Recently, I've been watching the marriage of Lauren Fenmore and Michael Baldwin unravel on The Young and the Restless because of her affair with the New Jersey-bred Italian-American stallion Carmine Basco, a guy who, in the immortal words of the country duo The Kendalls, would make an angel want to cheat. 

Maybe that's why I find myself wanting Michael and Lauren to get past this. Or perhaps my thinking has just evolved regarding relationships. So she made a mistake, I rationalize in my head. Everybody makes mistakes. I'm still not so sure how I'd react if I were blindsided by my partner's tryst with a Carmine, but I'm not as convinced that one of us would be out the door as I used to be.

I have no doubt that Michael and Lauren will find their way back to romantic bliss -- probably once Carmine is six feet under and whichever one is blamed for his demise triumphs over the murder charge -- and they'll be one of those longtime couples that survived the big C.

Here is a cold hard fact of love: The way you feel about your partner as a sexual entity in the beginning isn't the way you'll likely feel about him or her years later. Another inevitability: sexual boredom. A third: Shit happens, and people stray.

Couples should be prepared to discuss these unavoidables openly and try to come up with a relationship model that takes them all into account and works for both partners rather than limiting their love with deal breakers and absolutes. Keep your mind open even if your relationship isn't. (Enlightened women like Susan Sarandon and Kate Hudson have supported this idea in interviews, though who knows what -- or who -- was responsible for breaking up Sarandon's longtime relationship with Tim Robbins.)

In the best scene in the 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman's character Alice tells her husband Bill (played by Kidman's then-real-life husband Tom Cruise) about a fantasy she once had. It was about another man to whom she was so attracted that she swears she would have left her family to be with him. She never acted on her sexual impulses (though in some Christian circles, she still cheated for she had lusted in her heart), but she admitted that her desire for the other man had made her desire for her husband even stronger. It was a moment of powerful honesty and pretty much the only thing I remember about the movie.

During another no-holds-barred blowout in a recent, far better film, Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine acknowledge each other's possible infidelities. Jesse, for his part, is certain Celine recently blew, at the very least, an ex she went to visit after the ex's mother died, but he is okay with it because he is secure in her love for him (perhaps naively), and, well, she's French. 

Celine, though, is not so quick to forgive and forget the indiscretion she imagines Jesse must have had while he was in Washington D.C. on a book tour. Celine might think that she's being pro-marriage (though they haven't actually wed) by demanding fidelity (whether she's actually practicing it herself), but that honor might belong more to Jesse, who doesn't want a "stifling" relationship "where two people own each other, where two people are institutionalized in a box that others created."

I'm not saying -- and I don't believe Alice or Jesse are either -- that only the couple that cheats together stays together. But infidelity will likely touch every long-term relationship at some point, either in theory or in deed. How any couple reacts when it does will determine not only the course of their relationship but whether baby love grows up to be the kind of lasting love that always seems to get me thinking.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Berlin: A Second Opinion

What does it take for a city to improve its standing in one's humble opinion? Great weather helps. The first time I visited Berlin, in November of 1995, it was the dead of autumn, and every time I stepped outside of my drafty budget hotel room to explore my West Berlin neighborhood, one of many in that part of the capital that was populated by grim, characterless Bauhaus-style constructions, it was a crap shoot whether I'd come back without frostbite. Gray skies, blustery wind and a constant drizzly haze make for very gloomy days indeed. Brrr!

I've been told by several people during my second Berlin visit that the wintry gloom generally lasts for eight months, so everyone had better enjoy the blue skies and sunny days while they can. For a guy whose timing has never been impeccable, I probably couldn't have picked a better moment to arrive in Berlin than the middle of July. (Insert smiley sunshine face here.)

It almost doesn't matter that none of the apartments in the city have AC, making sleeping through the night a challenge indeed (a big chill indoors that requires at least one layer of blankets is the best sleeping pill). A sky-blue backdrop makes everything in the foreground appear twice as gorgeous, especially when you're running along the Spree, taking in scenery that already would look beautiful without a stitch of make up.

And then there's the food. I was expecting to gain a few pounds (most of it in cholesterol) by overindulging in German cuisine or to lose a few trying to avoid it. Who knew there'd be so many restaurants serving foreign cuisine that's not only palatable but genuinely remarkable? It makes every meal a culinary adventure. So far my favorite restaurant is Good Morning Vietnam on Alte Schönhauser Straße, which is near Rosa Luxemberg Platz, down the block from my rental apartment. I could eat the curry sauce there as soup! It's the best Vietnamese food I've had since my last supper at Green Bamboo in Buenos Aires.

Other noticeable improvements: 1.) My location. The Mitte neighborhood in East Berlin where I'm staying is far more picturesque than my previous West Berlin stomping ground near the Zoologischer Garten U-Bahn station. 2.) The guys, handsomer and taller than I remember them being 18 years ago, treat me like gold (although I don't agree, I'll never tire of being called "sexy"). 3.) At my current age, cracking the nightlife code is no longer a high priority, so it's okay for Berlin to take nights off from impressing me.

It's okay that I haven't found any packed bars in which to mingle with people on off nights, or that if you're a gay man who loves the nightlife and has got to boogie, you can pretty much do it only on weekends, at GMF on Sunday nights, and at Chantal's House of Shame or Monster Ronson's on Thursdays, and you have to wait until well after midnight. I'd much rather go to bed around 11 and be up a few hours after the crack of dawn (which is still arriving around 4.30am daily) for a run along the Spree anyway.

Jogging past the lush foliage and natural beauty in the part of the river that's adjacent to the Tiergarten, I'm reminded of Germany's status as a green country (so said my new friend Alex). I applaud the environmental awareness and admire that people here aren't slaves to modern technology, but I do miss my AC and my microwave oven.

Meanwhile, my walks -- and runs -- around the city would be a lot more enjoyable if aggressive bicycle riders who think they always have the right of way (and considering that the bike lanes on the sidewalks are as big as the spaces allotted to pedestrians, that just might be the case) weren't constantly threatening my well-being while testing my patience and my reflexes. The emphasis on using bikes to get around cuts down on traffic and automobile pollution, but couldn't the city commuters on two wheels be a little nicer?

Congeniality, though, does not appear to be a major aspiration around here. (And let me begin this rant by stressing that I'm talking about Germans in Berlin, not Germans in general. My first love was German, so I'll always be a little protective of Germans in general.) The other day I was hanging out with Luke, an Australian expat from Sydney who has lived in Berlin for one and a half years, and when he described his feelings about the city, he summed them up thusly:

"I love Berlin except for the people in it."

I couldn't believe my eyes (Luke was 27 and looked like he was going on 19) or my ears. That's the exact same thing I've been saying for years about Buenos Aires, and although I hadn't come to the same conclusion in Berlin, I could see his point. Berliners are nowhere near as challenging as porteños in Buenos Aires, but over the course of the past nine days, I've found myself thinking that their general disposition could use some work, especially when it comes to tourists.

Considering that I'm a visitor in their city, it's hard for me to understand why they're constantly sneering about tourists in my presence. Why would it matter to me whether the people walking by me on any given straße in Mitte are from Berlin or elsewhere, if I'm not actually interacting with them? I try to avoid any part of any town where tourists tend to congregate en masse, but if I walk into a crowded bar that serves good drinks and plays good music, it hardly matters to me whether most of the people on the inside are Berliners, expats or visitors. Just pour me another Pilsner and let's get on with it.

Casual xenophobia rears its head constantly here. Comment about being hot inside your gym or missing the ability to nuke a frozen meal for dinner, and you're likely to hear something along the lines of "You're so American," or "This is Berlin, not the U.S.," as if the United States is the only country that indulges in such creature comforts. Not that there's anything wrong with being "so American," but I haven't even lived in the U.S. for seven years, I keep reminding them. Not one apartment I've had in all that time has been without AC or a microwave oven. So how exactly are those particular luxuries American?

East Berlin architecture: a dichotomy of ornate and functional, the latter of which, collectively, exudes a severe and dramatic elegance that makes it as much of a spectacle as the former.
Luke and I might be alone in our not-so-glowing assessment of Berliners. Clearly they're in love with themselves -- a quality they share with porteños, Australians and Americans -- and apparently, my friend Marco couldn't agree more with their positive self-image. Last night, he laid out all of his complaints about Berlin -- It's too hot. Northern Europe isn't supposed to be so hot. The buildings aren't old enough. I can see this kind of architecture anywhere in Europe. There's no culture. I haven't been to a museum, but culture is in the people you meet, and there's nowhere to go on a Tuesday night -- so when he was asked what he likes most about Berlin by a stranger in The Sharon Stonewall Bar, I was floored by his response.

"The culture and the people."

I wondered if he had been meeting an entirely different species here? We had a little bit of back and forth, during which he got me to reconsider my improved impression of Berlin. It's funny how all it takes is just one negative review -- of a film you enjoyed, of an album you love, of your own work -- to make you doubt it. It seems cities are no different.

(On a somewhat unrelated note, Marco also suggested that a museum is a museum is a museum. "You can see the same art in all of them," he said -- a curious pronouncement, especially coming from someone who is an artist. Yes, you can find another "San Sebastian" pretty much everywhere (and I did, in virtually every room, in Gemäldegalerie in Berlin), but does that mean da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre in Paris and his "The Last Supper" in Santa Maria delle Grazia in Milan, Picasso's "Blue Period" paintings in the Picasso Museum in Paris, Suerat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" in the Art Institute of Chicago, Michelangelo's frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City and his "David" in Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and the bust of Nefertiti and the breathtaking statue of Helios the Greek sun god, left, down the hall from her in the Neues Museum in Berlin -- all of which I've had the privilege of viewing in person -- do nothing to distinguish the institutions or cities that house them?)

I understood Marco's complaints, but I didn't share them. In the end, we agreed to disagree. I can handle warm evenings tossing and turning in bed and locals sneering at tourists and my hopeless American-ness, as long as I have gorgeous runs along the Spree, my next meal at Good Morning Vietnam to look forward to and plenty of sunshine to light up my life here.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Travel Music: Songs for My Upcoming Itinerary

In the immortal words of The O'Jays (later repeated by Rozalla in her 1994 UK Top 20 cover), I love music. Anyone who truly knows me also truly knows that this might actually be something of an understatement. I've been living and breathing music since that day in December of 1979 when I won my first transistor radio in a fifth-grade auction.

For the next few years, until my mom gave me a plastic blue record player for Christmas of 1982, which she followed with a gray portable radio/cassette player for my 15th birthday in 1984 (which I followed with a boombox nearly three times its size that flashed bright multi-colored lights to the beat of the music and took me right through to the CD age), my little black transistor radio with the tinny, static-soaked sound was my constant companion.

I went to sleep every night with my ear on top of the speaker and dreamed about the country and pop songs whose lyrics I didn't always fully grasp. I woke up on Saturday morning and listened to Bob Kingsley's American Country Countdown (a Top 40 that kicked off my ongoing obsession with lists -- I can still hear the theme music in my head). About six months after I won the radio, the week that Billy Joel "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" replaced Paul McCartney's "Coming Up" at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100, I added Casey Kasem's Sunday-morning Top 40 countdown to my must-listen-to radio schedule.

I've long since given up on radio -- I can't remember the last time I owned one, or even turned one on -- but music remains central to my life. I won't pretend to understand people who aren't into music, or casual listeners who don't care enough about it to choose favorites. I mean, what goes through their heads all day?

Today as Joy Division's "Warsaw" was going through my head while I was also contemplating the upcoming stops on my 2013 world tour, I realized that I might be subconsciously working music into my travel plans. Until I switch hemispheres and flip seasons once again and head to Cape Town around mid-October, with the exception of Milan and Pompeii, all of the cities on my planned Summer and Early Autumn of 2013 Travel Itinerary are represented by songs that I love.

Someone once told me that every day should have a soundtrack. So should ever travel itinerary. Here's mine.

"No More Words" Berlin

"Warsaw" Joy Division

"Hamburg Song" Keane

"Venice Drowning" Duran Duran

"Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" Morcheeba

"Tel Aviv" Duran Duran


"Jerusalem" Sinead O'Connor

"Fire in Cairo" The Cure

"Egypt Egypt" The Egyptian Lover (for Giza)

"The Lebanon" The Human League

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sisters Doing It for Themselves: 6 Younger Singing Siblings Who Matter, Too

They're hot and talented in their own right, but with one exception, they're not nearly as famous as their big sisters -- not necessarily because they don't deserve to be! Although none of the Braxtons will ever challenge Toni for sibling supremacy, Crystal Gayle actually had much bigger hits than Loretta Lynn in the '70s and '80s, and I'd rather listen to Solangé Knowles's "Losing You" than anything on Beyonce's 4. And the good news for all of them: They're not Stella Parton!

Enya, 52 (sister to Máire Brennan, 60) The biggest younger sister ever to claw her way out from under her family's shadow. Before she became a multi-platinum solo superstar, Enya was briefly a member of the Brennan clan's act Clannad (pre-"Theme from Harry's Game"), which featured her older sister Máire Brennan, who has a successful solo career of her own but still no "Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)."

Tamar Braxton, 36 (sister of Toni Braxton, 45) Long before she became a reality-TV breakout star (via Braxton Family Values and her own Tamar & Vince) and a member of a The View-style talk-show panel (on The Real, which began a four-week test run on Fox affiliates this month), I was actually interested in what Toni's younger sister had to say -- er, sing. Her 2000 debut album Tamar was just average, but somewhere out there exists a shelved album called Ridiculous (which ended up being reconstructed and reworked into Tamar) that I spent months drooling over in the form of an advance CD in 1999. What's ridiculous is that Dreamworks Records didn't give Ridiculous a shot: It could have been, should have been, one of the best R&B releases from around the turn of the century.

Ashlee Simpson, 28 (sister of Jessica Simpson, 33) Speaking of reality-star singers, I loved Ashlee Simpson at first sight, which was when she waltzed into my office at Teen People wearing a Dolly Parton t-shirt and introduced herself. I took one look at Jessica's then-17-year-old kid sister and wondered, "Why can't Jessica be more like that?" Then a few years later, I heard Ashlee's music and rescinded the question. I didn't care for her early pop hits, but if her recent work ("Bat for a Heart," a 2012 comeback song that may or may not appear on her upcoming fourth album) is any indication of what she can and will do in the future, my Ashlee appreciation might soon bloom again.

Solange Knowles, 27 (sister of Beyoncé, 31) Why can't Beyoncé be more like her little sister? That's the thought that popped into my head last night when I heard Solange's 2012 single "Losing You" -- which flopped, unfortunately -- playing in a Berlin bar. I still haven't checked out any of her other tunes yet, but this one shows promise. Solange sounds so effortless, unpretentious and, most importantly, fun -- everything Beyoncé hasn't been in years.

Louise Mandrell, 59 (sister of Barbara Mandrell, 64) Sure she and Irlene were basically Kelly and Michelle to Barbara's Beyoncé on early '80s TV's Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, but Louise actually had a string of country hits in the '80s and -- surprise! -- some of them, including a 1986 cover of Eric Carmen's 1985 should-have-been-a-hit "I Want to Hear It From Your Lips" (Carmen's original only made it to No. 35 on Billboard's Hot 100, while Mandrell's remake reached the same peak on the country singles chart), show not only impeccable taste in material but unmistakable talent, too.

Crystal Gayle, 62 (sister of Loretta Lynn, 81) It's now 35 years into my love affair with Loretta Lynn's younger sister, and I still can't believe that she's the coal miner's daughter, too.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Belated Thoughts on the Death of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman Verdict

For someone who has a strong opinion on just about everything, I've been uncharacteristically quiet when it comes to Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the altercation in a Sanford, Florida, neighborhood that ended with the former's death on April 26, 2012, weeks after his 17th birthday, and the month-long murder trial that led to the latter's acquittal on July 13.

My near-silence has been due, in part, to the fact that, until recently, I hadn't been following the case closely, so in the days immediately after the verdict was announced, I didn't have all of the facts. I still don't -- not even after spending nearly one week watching CNN (one of two English-language channels I have access to in Berlin) almost religiously. But I've now heard and read enough commentary on the case to secure a fairly tight grasp on it.

The verdict: I'm still not sure where I stand. There are so many variables and blanks that need to be filled in (and likely never will be), questions that remain unanswered, and I'm about to add to them. (Keep reading.)

I'm not convinced that the jury didn't make the right decision. I'm not convinced that they did. I'm not convinced that this was a case of racial profiling or a racially motivated incident. I'm not convinced that it wasn't. I am convinced, however, that racism has become a too-easy scapegoat in the U.S. It's a collective knee-jerk reaction in the U.S. to cite it as the reason for any negative interaction between a white person and a black person, and Florida, one of the more divisive states in the union since the Presidential Election of 2000, is such an easy target.

I grew up in Kissimmee, Florida, in the '70s and '80, so I've experienced racism in the sunshine state firsthand. I can still remember the two rednecks in middle school whose favorite pastime was, apparently, antagonizing me. Every day, every time they walked by me on campus, they'd say, "I smell nigger."

Those words are even more horrifying to me now than they were back then. Clearly these guys were racist, but I wasn't afraid of them. I was more terrified of the black kids who picked on me on a daily basis because they did it with punches, ridiculing and physically assaulting me because I had a funny accent and, in their eyes, I acted too "white."

One morning, my father came to Denn John Middle School for a meeting with Vice-Principal Mr. Tate (who was black), to complain about a fellow black student who had been terrorizing me. When Mr. Tate called my classmate to his office and asked if the accusations were true, the bully denied everything. Mr. Tate, apparently unburdened by any concern for my welfare, said there was nothing he could do. After threatening Mr. Tate with legal action should any harm come to me in the future, my dad gave the guy who'd been harassing me a stern warning: "If you ever touch my son again, I will take care of you myself!" He never bothered me again (though there were plenty of other black kids who picked up the slack over the next few years).

To this day, I wonder how Mr. Tate would have reacted if my bully had been white, or if I had told him about the "I smell nigger" duo. In this politically correct age, the white-on-black bully might be called racist regardless of whether he actually does or says anything that could be construed as racist because for some, it's not possible for a white person, even one who wouldn't dream of walking around saying something like "I smell nigger," to dislike a perfectly harmless black kid for any reason that doesn't involve racism.

It might be pretty safe to level a charge like racism at a person who uses the N word (Paula Deen would know about that, and one imagines that she must be somewhat relieved to have the spotlight off of her), but what about a white person who simply doesn't like a black person, or argues with a black person, or accuses a black person of suspicious behavior?

What if the black person, unlike the middle-school me, is more than willing to defend himself? I don't like the idea of putting the victim on trial, but in the rush to canonize Trayvon Martin and turn him into a martyr (which he wasn't -- martyrdom is deliberate, and Trayvon was a guy walking home from a convenience store who became the victim of a most unfortunate encounter), we can't forget that, hoodie or not, he was hardly the perfect kid. Though he didn't have a criminal record, he had been in trouble in the past. This doesn't prove anything, but it does give us a more well-rounded view of Martin than the baby-faced innocent-looking image staring at us from under a hoodie. It's possible that before the shot that ended his life was fired, he gave as good as he got -- maybe even better.

All that said, I'm also not convinced that Zimmerman had no other alternative but too shoot. Even if he was getting his ass kicked by Martin, there's no evidence that his life was endangered to a degree that necessitated the use of deadly force. Martin, after all, was unarmed.

I do believe that the media's coverage of the case and of the trial blurred some of the facts and swayed public opinion. In the media (both the news media and social media), the case has seemed to be more about a hate crime (revolving around a hoodie), which is incredibly difficult to prove but always inflammatory enough to demand attention (and increased readership/viewership), than manslaughter, which was the prosecution's actual not-quite-airtight case. The million-dollar question shouldn't have been "Is George Zimmerman a racist?" but rather "Was it self-defense or murder?" One is not necessarily related to the other.

As for the committee that decided Zimmerman's fate, I've gone through the rigorous process of jury selection, and I'm not sure how a flammable case like this one ended up being decided by six people of the same gender, all women, not one of them black. Did lawyers for the prosecution or the defense really think this would guarantee an outcome that would be seen as fair and unbiased? Had even one of the jurors been black, would the outrage to the verdict be more muted and less focused on the racism angle and more on the fact that a man shot and killed an unarmed teenager?

While we are choosing sides, here are a few other things to consider:

  • Why must racism be a factor in every violent encounter that involves a black person and a white person? Is every white person who shoots an unarmed black person a racist? Is it possible that there are other motivations for white-on-black crimes? Even if Zimmerman had been found guilty as charged (of second-degree murder and manslaughter) and locked away as a killer, was there enough proof to condemn him as a racist, too?
  • Does it matter that Martin allegedly made racial slurs against Zimmerman? If Zimmerman were black and Martin had been Hispanic, how would people respond to Martin, knowing that he may have called Zimmerman a "nigger" while talking to a friend? Actually, Martin did allegedly refer to Zimmerman as a "nigga." Considering that Zimmerman has black ancestry on his mother's side, does that make Martin a racist? Martin was not the one on trial, but the rush to label a white person a racist while overlooking the possibly racist actions of a black person does highlight a collective tendency to rush to judgment of "white" people when they have any kind of negative interaction with black people.
  • If Trayvon Martin had been a white male, would Zimmerman's account of what happened have been in question? Would this story, lacking a compelling, sensationalist hook, even have made the evening news? Did the media latch onto it because it was an inherently divisive case that would guarantee months, years, of interested readership/viewership? Did they fan the flames with sometimes irresponsible reportage that was lacking in objectivity?
  • If Zimmerman were black, would this case have made it to trial, or would it have gone the way of so many black-on-black crimes -- like the ones that killed rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. -- and gone unresolved, ultimately shoved aside?
  • Should we use this as another opportunity to inspect gun-control laws in the U.S.? Is it really a good idea to allow a non-police officer who works for a neighborhood watch and isn't trained in law enforcement or the proper professional use of a firearm to walk around with one, free to use it at his discretion and whim?
  • There's been a lot of criticism of Florida's "stand your ground" law, but is it the law that people have a problem with -- surely most of the folks crying foul wouldn't have a problem with a rape victim who takes out her assailant and gets off under "stand your ground" -- or the application of it in a case in which the victim is black? This morning I watched a CNN news report in which a Tampa Bay Times journalist presented findings that showed that the accused is more likely to get off under Florida's "stand your ground" defense if the victim is black (73% have) than if the victim is white (59% have), which is disconcerting. (Read about it here.) But those statistic numbers don't take into account the particulars of each case, which the CNN report, in typically biased TV-news fashion, failed to address.
  • What if Trayvon Martin hadn't been such a handsome photogenic youth? Did that immediately effect public opinion of him? U.S. President Barack Obama said that if he had a son he would look like Martin. Although he was criticized for the comment, I understand what he was saying. But would he have said it if Martin had been an unattractive youth who looked more "hood"? Would Martin's face have made it to so many t-shirts? Would people be using it as their Facebook profile photo?

We'll probably never know what went down for sure on that fateful night. Unlike similar past incidents that became front-page news (Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima), there was no photographic or video evidence and no dependable eyewitnesses. If Zimmerman is, in fact, guilty of everything protesters are accusing him of, we might never know. The only other person with the truth is not around to offer it, and he might not, even if he were. Perhaps Zimmerman got away with murder, but maybe he's also a victim of the very racist society that has, in large part, condemned him.

I only hope that the people with the power to hire in Sanford, Florida, aren't foolish enough to ever again give Zimmerman a gun and put him in a position of power where he might get to decide if anyone -- black or white -- gets to live or die. His actions probably have cost him any semblance of a normal life for the rest of his life. He deserves to have his license to shoot to kill again permanently revoked, too.

Passing Through: Thoughts on "Before Midnight"

"You know what's going on here? It's simple. I don't think I love you anymore." -- Celine (Julie Delpy) to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Midnight

Ouch. That's got to hurt. By the time Before Midnight reached the closing credits, I wasn't sure if Celine meant what she said, but in saying it, she drove home a point the film -- the third part of the Richard Linklater-directed trilogy (so far) that began with 1995's Before Sunrise and continued with 2004's Before Sunset -- had spent its first hour and 35 minutes making: Nothing lasts forever. So why should love be any different?

If disappointment and detours were central themes of Before Sunset, the ephemeral nature of love, life and youth is a running one throughout Before Midnight. It contrasts nicely with the movie's extended scenes, long continuous single takes, and conversations that meander aimlessly, sidestepping the main topic before zeroing in on it with remarkable precision.

There's nothing fleeting about the way Before Midnight is constructed, but then so much about the movie is. It's in Jesse's concerns about his son growing up too quickly, not right before his eyes but in Chicago, so far from Paris. It's in Celine's recurring commentary on both her and Jesse's middle-aged 41-year-old appearances -- how they're no longer the sweet young things they were in 1994.

It's all over the dinner-table conversation -- in the year-old romance of the twentysomething couple (the social-media age's version of Jesse and Celine, who, had Skype been around in 1994, probably would have stayed in touch and tired of each other long before Sunset), in the young lady's comment about whether love that lasts forever is still relevant and how all couples eventually break up, in the older lady's lamentation over her slowly fading memories of her late husband and the way it evolves into a monologue about the temporal nature of sunrise, sunset and life.

It's in six-week summer holidays in Greece that end too soon (for Jesse and his son) or can't end quickly enough (for Celine). It's in Jesse's talk about the passion of his young self and his writer friends as he and Celine are walking to the hotel. It's in reservations for one night in swanky suites with AC, in hour-long massages for two. It's in the times of day that give the film and its predecessors their titles. But most of all, it's in the bombshell that Celine drops on Jesse before exiting their hotel suite for the second time.

It's the end of an intense argument that's as exhausting to watch as it must have been to have. Who was wrong? Who was right? Clearly Celine, true to her complicated, insecure Before Sunset form, was picking a fight, but she made some excellent points, as did Jesse.

"If you want true love then this is it. This is real life. It's not perfect, but it's real, and if you can't see it then you're blind." -- Jesse to Celine

Do Jesse and Celine ride off into the midnight together? We might have to wait until sunset rolls around again to find out. But if they don't, look at all that's come out of their ephemeral love -- not just their beautiful 7-year-old twin daughters.

And that is the glory of  love, life, youth and Before Midnight. Great movies, like love, life and youth, don't last forever, but what matters is that they happen at all.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Are Australians the Coolest People in the World?

"Have you ever met a mean Australian?" -- Abby Newman on The Young and the Restless

"I know that's right!" Those were the exact words that came out of my mouth earlier this week when ex-"Naked Heiress" Abby Newman posed her rhetorical question on The Young and the Restless.

Then I reconsidered. In all of the time I've spent Down Under over the last three years, I've met exactly three mean Australians. One of them was the guy who wouldn't let me go to the bathroom while he was doing his head count on the boat that was taking me from the port in Cairns out to the Great Barrier Reef. Another was the woman who used the dress code as a flimsy excuse not to let my friend Nick and me enter a CBD bar in Melbourne. The third was a drunken Melburnian who, for some mysterious reason, decided to try to take a swing at me one night in an after-hours club on Fitzroy Street. He missed by a kilometer, but when I responded with a swing of my own that hit its mark, I was ejected from the premises.

But those negative experiences didn't sour me on Aussies. I agreed with Abby's estimation of their general disposition. They couldn't be nicer (as expressed here), or so I thought until I went to Thailand, where kindness, generosity and service with a smile and a wai are practically written into the cultural code. (I read somewhere that according to Thai custom, shouting, or even talking loudly, is highly discouraged, which sometimes makes it difficult to hear what people are saying to me.)

But there's a catch (and isn't their always one?). In Thailand, particularly Bangkok, the locals kill you with sweetness when they're dealing with you one on one in non-anonymous encounters, particularly those that involve customer service. I never would have been denied my trip to the bathroom had that boat been docked in Krabi or Phuket! But in my experience, the people in Bangkok stop killing you with kindness in a place where they can actually kill you: on the road.

It's not just the unscrupulous taxi drivers (they terrorize the roads in Buenos Aires, too, and I nearly had a physical altercation with one in Budapest, but I never heard of a case of cabbie vs. customer actually coming to blows until the night a Bangkok driver gave this guy I was dating a fat lip), but pretty much anyone behind a wheel. I tried to rationalize it by chalking it up to the insanely congested traffic in Bangkok, which could turn any saint behind the wheel into a beast, but it might simply be the manifestation of an impatience that's not acceptable elsewhere.

As a regular runner and a generally ambulatory type, I notice it pretty much every day I'm in Bangkok. I never have the right of way there, even when I do. People make up for their low-decibel conversations by honking their horns at whim. Drivers rarely stop to let you pass, and if getting their customers from point A to point B means running you over as they zip along the sidewalks, motorbike drivers for hire will flatten you without flinching.

After nearly five days in Berlin, I'm beginning to notice a similar pattern here. Though they don't go to Bangkokian extremes, the locals couldn't be more accommodating when dealing with you one-on-one. (Though unlike in certain cities, where people will offer help to anyone they see with a map, Berliners are likely to cheerfully assist you only if you ask for it.) Yesterday when I was struggling with the ticket machine in the Weinmeisterstraße U Bahn station, I was touched when the two guys behind me seemed more concerned with helping me out than catching the next train.

On the road, however, it's been a completely different story so far. In their hurry to get from here to there, some people suspend the common courtesies. This morning, when I proceeded to heed the green "walk" sign by crossing Linienstraße, I noticed a car coming toward me like its driver had no intention of stopping. The guy behind the wheel actually began shouting German obscenities at me when I dared to give him a don't-you-dare look.

And don't you dare get me started on the bicyclists! (Too late!) They are to Berlin what motorcyclists are to Southeast Asia. Alex, a 36-year-old actor from Bavaria who has lived in Berlin for two years, explained to me that Germany is an extremely green country (though there are, apparently, no objections to the polluting agents of cigarette smoke!) -- hence the absence of ACs in most apartments, the lack of a microwave machine in mine, and the abundance of bicycles that decrease and increase the traffic at the same time. They have their own lanes on many of the sidewalks in the city, so why do the bike riders still insist on making me fear for my safety while I'm walking around town or running along the Spree in my rightful lane?

Aside from the time I saw a car ram into one on the University of Florida campus, I've spent most of my life on the road noticing them without really thinking about them. Bicyclists are not uncommon in Melbourne, but I see most of them when I'm on the running tracks around the city, not weaving through heavy traffic or frightening sidewalk pedestrians.

That would probably be frowned upon there. "Be extra nice, and always give the other person the right of way" must be written into the Australian road rules. Sometimes I actually get a little annoyed when I'm walking or jogging toward a road, and well in advance of my arrival, a car stops to allow me to cross it, forcing me to pick up my pace to get there more quickly.

I still haven't figured out the secret to the generally sunny Australian disposition, on and off the streets. I think it's even customary for guys who hook up with you to send you at least one "I had a lovely time" text afterwards, even if they have no intention of ever seeing you again. Maybe the above-average lifestyle in cities like Sydney and Melbourne make it harder for them to be cranky. Whether it's the table next to yours at Windsor Castle or an annoyingly chatty couple on the St. Kilda boardwalk, Melburnians, in particular, have a way of making you feel welcome in their city even when they aren't getting anything out of it. I sometimes find myself walking around there with a big smile on my face because it probably would be rude not to.

I don't know if that makes Australians nicer than the folks in Thailand, but I always find myself looking forward to my next encounter with one, even when I'm not there, which is something I can't say about the people of any other country.