Monthly Archives: September 2013

The World’s Unfriendliest Cities

This resident of Nairobi was almost too friendly.

This resident of Nairobi was almost too friendly.

In what must have been a blow to Pakistan’s tourism industry, Condé Nast Traveler magazine named Islamabad the world’s second least-friendly city.  Perhaps Islamabad can take some consolation in the fact that at least they are not Newark, New Jersey, which, according to the magazine’s poll of readers, is the World’s Unfriendliest.

This was not a rigorously scientific study, so it seems likely that many of the readers who scorned Newark may have only visited its airport, while on their way to New York City.  (Somewhat surprisingly, NYC did not make the list.)  Airports are not generally known to be jolly and welcoming anywhere on earth.

Another assumption that can reasonably be made about the survey is that most of the 47,000 voters were Americans, since U.S. cities dominated the list.  Five of the top ten and eight of the top 20 unfriendly cities are within the continental United States.  They include Oakland, California (#3), New Haven, Connecticut (#7), Detroit (#8), Atlantic City, New Jersey (#9), Los Angeles (#12), Albany, New York (#13) and Wilmington, Delaware (#17).

You see why I think most of the voters were taking revenge on their neighbors?  How many tourists from abroad say, “Hey, let’s go to America and visit Albany!”?  I’ve visited several of the cities on the list — lived in one of them — and I don’t see how it can objectively be determined that Los Angeles is a more hostile locale than, say, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (#15) or Casablanca, Morocco (#18).

As I’ve mentioned before, Paris is one of my favorite places, but I know other people who associate it with rudeness.  Paris didn’t make the list, by the way; with the exception of Moscow (#16), no European city did.  Maybe the language differences don’t seem as daunting in Italy or Ireland as they do in Guangzhou, China (#11).

The fuzzy criteria for what make a city seem unfriendly got me thinking about places we’ve been.  There have been moments of unpleasantness in Barcelona and Shanghai and Nairobi, but isolated incidents don’t necessarily make them unfriendly cities.  Rudeness or hostility can pop up anywhere.

In fact, it occurred to me that the most unfriendly travel experience I ever had happened in the city where I live.

Our day had started in Switzerland and had included a four-hour layover at London Heathrow.  By the time we got home we were exhausted, but needed food so we wouldn’t wake up hungry at 3 a.m.  Since I had been salsa-deprived while in Europe, I drove to a little Mexican food café to get some stuff to take home.

When I walked in the door, a customer was shouting at the owner.  He then turned and started to stalk out; the two men in front of me in the take-out line snickered at his theatrical outburst.  The shouter whirled and demanded, “Something funny?”  One of the guys ahead of me replied, “You.”

After a couple more verbal challenges, I felt the wind of a fist flying past my head.  It landed on the guy nearest me, who responded in kind.  Other customers jumped in to try to pry apart the combatants, and the whole tangle of them slammed into the salsa bar.  I didn’t see how a sleep-deprived middle-aged man could bring about reconciliation, so I walked out the door.

Fortunately, there weren’t any Traveler magazine voters around to witness this unfriendly exhibition, or my town might have made the list, and we’re actually pretty friendly.  Most of the time.

Practical Knowledge

He's getting closer, but the odds are still in our favor.

He’s getting closer, but the odds are still in our favor.

Sometime during the second or third year of life, kids latch onto a word that drives their parents crazy:  “Why?”  If you’ve spent time with toddlers, you have probably had a “why” conversation.   If not, here’s an example…

You:  “OK, let’s put on your raincoat.”  Kid:  “Why?”  You:  “Because it’s raining.”  Kid:  “Why is it raining?”  You:  “Because those clouds up there have water in them.”  Kid:  Why?”  You:  “Because, uh… it’s something to do with condensation caused by, uh — look, just put your raincoat on!”

Here’s a transcript of an actual exchange between mother and son in my household, back in the ’70’s…  Son:  “Can I go outside and play?”  Mother:  “Yes.”  Son:  “Why?”  That one may have just been his attempt at socializing, but child-development specialists attribute much of the “why” talk to the natural appetite human beings have for knowledge.

Ever since Plato, philosophers have tried to distinguish between practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge.  To put it very briefly, practical knowledge is knowing how to swim; theoretical knowledge is knowing that since 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, it might therefore be prudent to know how to swim.

A case could be made (and probably has been by some guy with a beard and a tweed jacket) that all theoretical knowledge has value because at some point it can become practical knowledge.  The concept of humans flying had been around for many centuries before Orville Wright finally got cleared for takeoff.

So because we all have this innate hunger for knowledge, and you never know when it might become useful, here are a few answers to questions that may have occurred to you…

Why does it say “57 Varieties” on bottles of Heinz ketchup?  Most people assume that the H.J. Heinz Company makes 57 products, including ketchup.  Nope.  Here’s the official explanation, taken from the company’s website:

“While riding a train in New York City in 1896, Henry Heinz saw a sign advertising 21 styles of shoes, which he thought was clever.  Although Heinz was manufacturing more than 60 products at the time, Henry thought 57 was a lucky number.  So, he began using the slogan ‘57 Varieties’ in all his advertising.  Today the company has more than 57,000 products around the globe, but still uses the magic number of ‘57′.”

Why do I yawn when I’m tired or bored?  We yawn when our brain stem senses that there is not enough oxygen and too much carbon dioxide in our bloodstream.  The brain stem alerts the yawn impulse — a deep inhale of oxygen and exhale of carbon dioxide results.  That temporarily revives us.  And makes everyone else in the room yawn, too.

What are the odds of being killed by a shark?  There is one chance in about 264 million.  That depends on where you are, of course.  The odds are even longer if you’re a hermit living on a mountaintop, or if you don’t know how to swim and therefore stay out of the water.

How do you tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth?  There are several differences, including coloration and time of peak activity.  The easiest way, though, is to see them at rest.  The resting posture of a moth is with its wings spread out to its sides.  Butterflies tend to fold their wings up above their backs.

I hope you find these tidbits of knowledge useful.  If nothing else, maybe they will be practical in getting a 3-year-old to stop saying “why” sometime.