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 Weinmeisterstra├če 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 Linienstra├če, 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.
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