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June 2008
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August 2008

The World's Most Unpleasant Tourists

It won't come as much of a surprise to lean that Indian and Chinese tourists are rated the world's most unpleasant in a recent international poll of hotel employees. But almost as bad are tourists from Country X, who are:

...impolite, prone to loud carping and inattentive to local customs...often unwilling or unable to communicate in foreign languages, and particularly disinclined to spend money when they don't have to — including those non compris tips. Overall, [Country X] travelers landed 19th out of 21 nations worldwide, far behind the first-place Japanese, considered the most polite, quiet and tidy. Following the Japanese as most-liked tourists were the Germans, British and Canadians. Americans finished in 11th place alongside the Thais.

Country X is...

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How to Obey Rules and Defer to People

I'm of two minds when it comes to German manners. 

On the one hand, Germans are reputed to have some of the stiffest and most coldly formal public manners in the world.  In large sectors of society (traditional business, engineering, law, medicine), this reputation is completely justified.  Formal occasions, in which proper bourgeois people who don't know each other well are forced to socialize, are terrifying black holes of cosmic boredom of a kind I have never encountered anywhere else in the world (though I'm sure there are even more formal cultures out there).  The Germans sit stiffly, fake smiles plastered on their faces like death-rictuses, moving as little as possible. The mortal terror of looking ridiculous or offending someone -- especially someone higher in the hierarchy who may be at the table or within earshot -- strangles conversation, except for the most banal subjects, such as auto insurance or weather patterns. Sometimes, nobody can think of anything safe to talk about, and eight well-educated people will sit at a table in complete silence. I often get the eerie feeling that I've visited a totalitarian society, in which ordinary humans think lots of colorful things but never say them, because you never know who could be an informant.

On the other hand, there's something to be said for good manners.  In densely-packed societies like Germany, you frequently encounter people you don't know very well. Even more importantly, you encounter people from different classes or backgrounds with whom you might have to interact as equals or even subordinates.  In these situations, good manners, and a bit of reserve, can be useful social lubricants.  Proper manners can be a sign of respect and consideration, as Emerson said, "good manners are made up of petty sacrifices."  Chuck too many constraints overboard as America (the world's leader in informalization) has done, and you may end up with a nation of narcissists. Further, learning some simple rules of manners is part of a suite of traditional values that I find appealing. You know, quaint 19th-century shit like reading books, listening to classical music, learning Latin, talking long hikes in nature, and enrolling in philosophy programs after you retire (g).

Business_etikette_2 But on balance, I still think Germany needs to prune away some of its vast thicket of social constraints, and I've never met an Anglo-Saxon who's spent time in Germany who had a different opinion on the subject. Which brings me to Business Etiquette: Be Self-Assured and Avoid Faux Pas (g) by Nandine Meyden (nice cover!), a pocket guide I picked up in the airport and read to kill time.  It was displayed in a big rack with dozens of others pocket guides on how to lead, how to deal with your boss, how to speak, and even how to make small talk (g) (!). There are chapters on how to sit, stand, and walk; chapters on suitable subjects for small talk (no jokes!); and page after page of advice on navigating social hierarchies and dressing appropriately.  Here are a few examples:

"You should make sure never to sit with your legs spread too far apart.  Rule of thumb: your knees should be as wide as your hips, at the most" (p.13)

"Whether in private life or in business, whoever stands higher in the hierarchy has priority.  This means:

  • He goes first (through the door, in the corridor, into a room)
  • he decides whether he wants to shake hands, and either extends it or doesn't, as he wishes
  • he sits first
  • when being introduced, he hears first who someone else is
  • when you walk or sit next to one another, he always gets the rightmost place
  • in general, he gets the better and safer seat while walking, sitting, or standing
  • the person higher in the hierarchy offers the Du [informal address]." (p. 14)

"In preparing for larger occasions, one must occasionally prepare a rank-ordering of the guests.  Only then can you be sure that you will make no protocol mistakes when you identify the guests in welcoming remarks, when you assign them places, during wreath-laying, etc." (p. 15)

"Basic principles of rank-ordering in business life:

  • The guest of honor always has the highest place
  • Foreigners go first (when the rank is the same)
  • Chosen occupations before assigned occupations
  • Spouses are treated according to the rank of the spouse who is present
  • Federal before state, state before local
  • Art before academia, academia before industry
  • Seniority before age
  • Other institutions before your own institution
  • Representatives according to their own rank, not according to the rank of the person they represent" (p. 16)

More to come, as time permits...

The Broadway Pension in Budapest

I just got back from a trip to Budapest, and I'm in love.  An elegant, reserved city which has largely been spared the sort of shrill touristy excrescences that have cheapened many other Central European cities.  I saw a performance of Haydn's "Creation" at the devilishly ornate Art Nouveau Franz Liszt Music Academy, wandered through many peculiar neighborhoods, saw an organ recital in which teenage students at Hungary's National Organ School (located in the St. Matthew Church on Castle Hill in Pest) tossed off difficult pieces by Liszt and Durufle with perfect aplomb, visited the 'Terror House' commemorating Hungary's miserably eventful 20th century, hiked through the cool, leafy Buda Hills, spent hours inside cavernous world-class museums (the Museum of Fine Arts boasts 7 El Grecos, including the late-period Annunciation and Disrobing of Christ), toured Bela Bartok's home, and ate delectable pastries and Hungarian food.  In Hungary, meat is a condiment, and few organs or animals are off-limits.  This is no country for vegetarians.

I also wondered at Hungarian, technically part of the Finno-Ugric family but which, to an untrained observer, resembles a sort of lavishly-beumlauted national idioglossia.  Whenever I land in a new place, I study the language carefully, and try to get to a point at which I can make an educated guess what word -- or sort of word -- will come next after having read the first 4-5 words in a sentence.  But no matter how hard I tried, the next word in any Hungarian sentence was completely unpredictable.  In fact, the next letter in any given Hungarian word was unpredictable.

But now to an actual piece of practical travel advice.  After performing my official duties in a dull luxury hotel right next to the (shudder) pedestrian zone, I moved to a much cheaper digs, the Broadway Pension on  Nagymezo street.  Budapest has a problem: inside the city, there are hostels and luxury hotels, but cheap hotels are hard to find, unless you want to stay several km outside of the city center.  I happened upon the Broadway Pension randomly, while strolling through neighborhoods near Nagymezo street, and was pleasantly surprised.  It's called Broadway because it's located on a wide, leafy avenue which hosts 5 or 6 theaters.  The room air-conditioning units work majestically, once you figure out how to use the remote control.  This is important, given Budapest's hot, moist summers.  The rooms, located on the 3rd floor of a building which is actively being renovated, are large and clean.  There's no accursed minibar to tempt you, just a refrigerator, and plenty of shops and supermarkets nearby to buy beer, water, and whatever else you might need.

Most importantly, the location is perfect -- there's no better place you could possibly stick a hotel.  The Broadway is right next to the Music Academy and several theaters, and boasts cheap eateries, funky student bars, used book and poster shops, and coffehouses and museums galore. In 3 minutes' walk from the pension's front door, you're at a subway or a tram station that will get you anywhere you want in Budapest in half an hour, at ridiculously cheap fares.  Budapest's mass-transit is a wonder to behold.  Buy the Cartografia map of Budapest (3 euros) at any bookstore, and then get a package of 10 orange subway/tram tickets, and you're ready to go.  Don't forget to validate the tickets, because there are inspectors at every station.  Hordes of them, just hanging around in their blue shirts.  They don't actually seem to be doing very much, so I suspect this might be one of those job-creation wheezes that are designed to help ease the long, painful transition from socialism.

As for the pension, there's no office as such -- the hotel is run out of a dental-implant office with which it's mysteriously connected.  One dental-office employee, Attila Nagy ("Attila the Great") speaks very good English and is friendly and helpful.  He'll protect you from the "jackals" in Budapest's notoriously corrupt taxicab racket, and issue your breakfast tickets, which get you a simple meal at the nearby Ket Szerecsen (roughly, "Little Darky" -- look at the logo) cafe, a place frequented exclusively by locals outside the main tourist season.  The 'gypsy toast' with sour cream is worth a try.

The only drawback to the pension (depending on what you consider a drawback) is the 24-hour doorman service.  This is provided by a rotating series of ancient, hunchbacked men who look like retired coal-miners and who smoke incessantly in a tiny office just inside the building's main door.  If you come back after 10-ish, you have to ring the bell, and whichever senior citizen is on duty hoists himself laboriously from the grimy cot in the office and lumbers to the front entrance door where, with much groaning and wheezing, he reaches down to the floor-level lock and unlocks the door.  You may feel guilty about this, but the doorman seems to take it all in stride. Especially if you tip him.

There you have your travel tip for the day (no, I'm not getting paid for this).  Visit Budapest, by all means, and stay at the Broadway Pension.  And bring plenty of tip money.  Pictures to come.

Back in a Budapest Minute

Well, I had to move out of the luxury conference hotel with the wireless Internet (paid for by the German Government while I was on Official Academic Business) into a cheap pension that shares space with a tooth implant company (which is all I can afford otherwise). 

So, no more Internet access for 3 days.  I leave you with one picture that pretty much says it all about the research I'll be doing during that time:


Yes, you guessed it, those are rare North American Bactrinesca Apollodorensis sycamores in that picture, which have developed some fascinating resistance strategies to European basketworm larvae attacks!

Back to regular posting over the weekend, I promise.  In the meantime, keep it healthy, safe and clean.