Tag Archives: Australia

The lost art of talking: 11 things I’ve learned about having a decent conversation

“It’s so funny how we don’t talk anymore.” — Cliff Richard.

So sang Sir Cliff in his massive 1979 pop hit. I wonder what he’d sing about the state of conversation today.

Talking is such a lost art. Some blame social media and modern technology, which is ironic, since both have improved the expediency of communication exponentially. If they were to add the deterioration of good grammar to the list, I’d say they have a solid argument. But this is not about grammatical shortcomings in a world where the misguided can mistake “conversate” for a heightened command of the English language.

This is about a world in which we’re “friends” with strangers we’ll never meet on Facebook, and our self-worth is determined by our number of “likes” and “followers,” the latter of whom we communicate with through narcissistic selfies and in 140 characters or less (#hashtags included). In this strange new world, people aren’t really saying much anymore.

Many 21 year olds are hard to talk to but not because they’re young and have nothing to say. They’re hard to talk to because they’ve grown up in a modern world where they don’t have to do much actual talking. Texting and tweeting don’t exactly allow the gift of gab to flourish.

So if you were born in the ’90s or later and struggle with face-to-face communication, or if you’re old enough to know better but don’t, this one’s for you.

1. It all begins with “hi,” “hey,” “hello” or “howdy.” A clever opening is optional…and unnecessary. Some jerks on Grindr insist on being impressed and take issue with certain one-word openers. Personally, even if I were up for “Fun?”, I’d prefer “Hi” to some of the crude alternatives (“Horny?” “Looking?” “Hung?”).

If you want sophisticated opening prose from a stranger, listen to “All I Want,” track one on Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. Taking issue with “Hi” makes you seem like a douche before the conversation has even begun. How does the line go? “You had me at ‘hello.'” Yup, that’s good enough for me.

2. Q&As are for interviews. Maybe it’s the grumpy old man in me taking over, but nothing will make me want to end a conversation faster than a string of queries. I know, questions are the cornerstone of conversation, but a good conversation should flow naturally, and it shouldn’t be all about the person doing the heavy lifting. Answering boring questions is a lot more work than coming up with them. After asking two or three good ones, start making some interesting declarations…about yourself, not the other person.

3. Speaking of lame lines of questioning, “What’s up?” and “What’s doing?” are not conversation starters. I really never know how to answer those ones. They make me feel like I’ve got to deliver some vicarious excitement. “How are you doing” never gets old, though — especially if the person asking really cares.

4. Look at me when I’m talking to you. I was recently chatting in person with a 20 year old who spent most of our conversation messaging his friend on Snapchat. I let it go because he did offer some interesting information about the driver’s licensing system in Australia. (There are fewer requirements to run for President of the United States than there are to become a full-fledged Australian driver.) Good thing it wasn’t a date, though, for if it had been one, he would have been breaking my cardinal rule of dating, which is…

5. Put your phone away! Answering one’s mobile at the dinner table is the No. 1 date killer. Don’t do it.

6. Acronyms should be used sparingly in writing and never in oral conversation. I admit “YOLO” might look kind of cool on paper, or onscreen, but “LOL” takes more effort to say than simply laughing, which sounds infinitely more sincere.

7. Don’t stand so close to me. If I can smell what you had for your last meal, we have a problem. Lean back!

8. It’s OK to ask someone how old he or she is, but if they don’t want to divulge a number, let it go. No matter how often people say age is just a number, it’s not. It’s so much more than that. For better and occasionally for worse, I’m not the man I was at 25, or 30, or…well, we’ll just stop right there!

Age matters, and if it didn’t, people wouldn’t ask. Not everyone is comfortable with big numbers, so take the hint if someone declines to reveal theirs, and just drop it. If it does matter to you and you must know, move on. The world is full of people who have no problem revealing their true age.

9. Just drink up. Toasting, though harmless, is pretty pointless…and it often results in unnecessarily spilled booze. It’s extra-annoying when the person insisting on toasting acts like making eye contact when the glasses clink is the height of courtesy. Making eye contact when you’re actually talking — and listening — is far more important.

10. Don’t say a word when the other person is talking…unless it’s to interrupt them. Yes, I’m totally fine with people getting passionate and talking over each other from time to time. Raised voices mean people care. I’ll take that and the occasional (occasional) interruption over quiet indifference. That said, there’s no need to pepper someone else’s monologue with “yeah…yeah…yeah.” When people do it to me, it makes me think they’re in a hurry for me to shut up.

11. Be respectful of conversations of which you’re not a part. I’ve rarely had someone interrupt a conversation of mine for something that couldn’t wait. If you have to ask “Am I interrupting?”, then you already know that you are, so why even do it?

Now talk, drink and be merry!

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Why clothes no longer make the man for me (as long as both are clean)

Mens_Coats_1872_Fashion_PlateIf I could turn back time and change three things about my much-younger self, I know exactly what they would be: 1) I would have come out sooner (during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at the University of Florida); 2) I would have cared less what others thought about me; and 3) I would have rethought my entire approach to footwear. The latter could have cost me meeting Mr. Right much earlier in life.

In my twenties, bad footwear was my public enemy No. 1, and I had the most ridiculous sartorial rule about it: I wouldn’t date anyone who wore running shoes when he wasn’t running. It didn’t matter what he was wearing on the rest of his body — his feet had to be perfectly attired.

That’s not to say I’m a suit-up kind of guy. I’ve never been one, and thank God, it’s never been required of me. But I had my clothing hang ups, which had more to do with level of stylishness than degree of formal. I kept them until my last year few years in New York City.

If only Kevin had stuck around that long. He’s the ex who dumped me in the spring of 2003 because he wanted “a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy” (his words). I wonder what he would have thought of “Casual Weekend Jeremy,” the alter ego who started emerging twice a week toward the end of my time in NYC. Whenever my best friend Lori saw me on the weekend, she’d marvel at what I had on (frequently a t-shirt and jeans or track pants) because it was so unlike the trendy and sometimes flashy business-casual designer attire that I favored the rest of the week.

“I love Casual Weekend Jeremy,” she once said, coining the moniker that she still occasionally drops. I’d smile, knowing that he’d soon go away for another five days.

After I moved to Buenos Aires and no longer had an office full of people to dress to impress, I spent the next eight years looking like Casual Weekend Jeremy 24/7…at least when warmer weather permitted it. When I flew from Cape Town to Sydney last September to be interviewed for my current position at Ninemsn, several of my friends asked me what I was going to wear because they couldn’t imagine me dressed up. Dov said he’d never even seen me in a shirt with a collar and couldn’t imagine me wearing one.

On the day of the interview, I dressed like it was a Tuesday morning in 2005. I wore black slacks, a brown button-down Hugo Boss shirt and $800 black John Varvatos boots. When one of my future bosses commented that I looked too fresh to have just arrived after a billion-hour flight, I knew I’d passed the dress test.

Now that I have the gig, I don’t dress up every day, but I’ve yet to wear track pants, shorts or flip flops to work unless it’s my once-a-month Sunday shift when there is no one there to see (and judge) me. I do miss Casual Weekend Jeremy, though, especially since he once again only surfaces on weekends — and sadly, not always to great reviews.

You’d think Casual Weekend Jeremy would be a smash in Australia, a land where board shorts and Havaianas rule, but I may have miscalculated Aussies…we all may have miscalculated Aussies. They have a worldwide reputation for being so laid back, and in some ways they are, but there’s another side, one that’s anything but easy.

I find that as a general rule, they’re cool, calm and collected mostly in presentation. Truth is, I’ve never lived in a more micro-managed society. It’s in the strict adherence to rental rules, the unyielding customer service, the lockout laws and the dress codes. Yes, dress codes. I never had an issue with them until I moved to Australia, and Casual Weekend Jeremy was just as under-dressed in Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Cape Town and everywhere else I’ve been since I left New York City.

To date, I’ve been denied entry into three nightspots down under for not dressing up to sartorial code — one in Melbourne and two in Sydney — and they weren’t fancy blazers-required establishments. Wearing running shoes on a Saturday night in Melbourne and Havaianas on two separate Friday nights in Sydney led to my being turned away from places with dirty sticky floors where people who looked far worse for wear than I did were being admitted.

Several months ago, my friends and I couldn’t have lunch at one of my favorite places on St. Kilda Beach in Melbourne because, according to the host, who could have used with a bit of grooming, my shorts could pass for gym wear. Never mind that it was a blistering summer day, and the restaurant was right on the beach. Was I expected to show up red-carpet ready?

Things might be about to get worse. I recently read that Qantas Airlines will be imposing a strict dress code in its airport lounges because, well, looking good is apparently more important than feeling good during a billion-hour flight. Considering those micro-managing Aussie tendencies, I wonder how long it will be before the new requirements extend to long- and short-haul Qantas flights.

The writer of the pro-Qantas dress code editorial was thrilled by this development because “Thongs, bad shorts, trackies and sloppy singlets fill up terminals and airport lounges to the point where we’re seeing better-dressed bodies on bus and train trips.” Not in the airports that I frequent, and even if they did, bad body odor and terrible breath are far more frightening to this frequent flier than what that writer perceives as lapses in good fashion sense.

Telling fliers that they can’t be as comfortable as they want to be in-flight is as unfair as twentysomething me expecting my boyfriends to look sharp from head to toe 24/7. I love flying Qantas, and I hope the dress code backfires because I want to continue to love flying Qantas.

Clothes don’t necessarily make the man nor do they define travelers, who can be annoying and revolting dressed to the nines. A friend of mine recent posted a Facebook status update where he slammed the woman sitting beside him on a flight for snoring, farting and picking “parts of her body that ended up in her mouth.” Yuck. I thought he was a bit harsh, but to his credit, he never mentioned what she was wearing.

On a packed airplane with crying babies, too little legroom, lousy in-flight entertainment, farting, snoring and picking, board shorts and exposed toes really should be the least of everyone’s problems.

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Why I Think I’d Rather Climb Ev’ry Mountain Than Date in Cape Town

So this is what I’ve been missing?

That was my thought exactly when I read the digital display on the iPhone that my new acquaintance was holding up in front of my face. I wasn’t sure what to think, but he clearly had an agenda. He wanted to elicit a specific response from me — not shock, not outrage, but the ah ha! of enlightenment. He was waiting for me to finally get it.
We’d met two days earlier through a mutual friend, and we’d immediately found common ground. We were both gay black men from the United States who had spent a significant amount of time living and traveling abroad. A self-described “academic” (translation: professional student) whose specialty was African studies, he told me that he’s been based in Cape Town for one year, but he’s been coming to South Africa for 10. He seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Cape Town that was similar to the one I used to have with Buenos Aires (before the hate took over). We had a lot to talk about.
I told him about my experiences at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and how my background played into my reaction to everything I saw there. He nodded. He understood. I told him about Sophiatown Bar Lounge, and how on my final night in Joburg (or Jozi, as Cape Town locals also call it), the jazz scene there had reminded me of something out of the Harlem Renaissance. He knew exactly what I was talking about and described it as “1990s A Different World-style new African awareness crossed with 1920s jazz.” Bingo!
I told him about the book that I’m working on, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, which documents my experiences as a gay, black man living abroad, with a focus on my various romantic entanglements over the last seven years. He got everything I was saying in a way that most of the (white) people I told about it never fully grasped because it hadn’t happened to them. Nothing I said surprised him. He’d lived it, too.
When I saw him last night, he asked me about my experiences dating in South Africa so far. I was ashamed to say that I had nothing. I haven’t been out on a date since my second week in Tel Aviv nearly two months ago, nor have I enjoyed (or not, which is typically the case these days, hence my inactivity) any romantic encounters in nearly just as long.
I go through these celibate, hermetic stages with increasing regularity as I get older. I suppose that years of romantic disappointment have taken a toll. That and the fact that I simply haven’t come across anyone who has captured both my eye and my mind. I’ve seen plenty of attractive men, and I’ve even been pursued by a few of them, but I’d rather spend my nights in my own company than that of a relative stranger who is too busy wondering what I look like naked (or fiddling with his smart phone) to be listening to anything I’m saying. Been there, done that. I’m better off alone.
But I’ve occasionally wondered if I’m missing out while staying in. Not on any potential Mr. Rights — I gave up on his existence ages ago — but on new, fascinating stories to add to my gallery of exploits. I’m in South Africa, after all, a country in which I’m no longer the racial minority, the exotic forbidden fruit. There shouldn’t be the same mystique about me here that there was in Argentina, or Australia, or Bangkok, or any of the places I’ve visited these last few years.
I had imagined that if I were to dip into the Cape Town dating pool, my experiences might be a lot like they had been in the United States, where there were enough black guys to go around that nobody ever wanted me simply because they’d never had anything like me before. And South Africa’s history of racism and segregation (both of which continue to be blemishes on the gay scene, judging from what I saw at Crew and Zer021 last Friday night) would see to it that I’m just as invisible among the white gay population here as I had been in the U.S.
I left the U.S. before the rise in social media, the acceptance of online dating, and the emergence of Grindr as the principal meet market for gay men, so I have no idea how the new technology would influence how guys back home would respond to me now. Grindr in South Africa, though, has offered more of the same old, same old in the proposals I’ve been receiving. (I’ve pretty much retired from making the first move because I deal with enough rejection in other areas of my life.) I easily could be in Melbourne or Bangkok or Berlin or Rome or Tel Aviv, the only difference being that for the first time, a few black men are thrown into the mix of guys who approach me.
For the most part, the guys on Grindr in South Africa are, surprisingly, white. I’m not sure if the reason for this is social (homosexuality being less accepted among African blacks) or economic (African blacks being less likely to have smart phones with which to use the Grindr app), but the lack of a black presence on Grindr in South Africa has brought out the same response to me online as the lack of a black presence in everyday society brought out in every predominantly white or Asian city I’ve spent time in since 2010, whether I was online or off, surrounded by gays, straights or a mix of both.
I’m bombarded by the same indelicate messages from horny guys who are only looking for one thing. For many, my skin color continues to make me the fresh catch of the day. “So want a black cock!!” one guy, a tourist from Greece, indelicately announced, as if there weren’t plenty of those to go around in Cape Town. (Tourists and expats, incidentally, appear to comprise a larger portion of the Grindr population in Cape Town than in Joburg, which might explain the resurgent awareness of “black” here.) Others, some South African, have resorted to the question that has been the bane of my bachelorhood for more than seven years: “Is it true what they say about black men?”
They make it so easy to lapse into dateless celibacy, which might be as much of a reason as the places I’ve been in for the peaceful easy feeling I’ve enjoyed these past two months. But sitting across from my new acquaintance who was inquiring about my impression of gay dating in South Africa, I felt uneasy because I had nothing to contribute. Then there was the Grindr conversation I was looking at. It was one in which he had approached a shirtless white piece of beefcake who appeared to be in the shower. My acquaintance began the exchange with a simple “Howsit?” followed by his own shirtless pose.
The second sentence of the guy’s three-sentence response sent a chill down my spine:
“I’m sorry, but I don’t cross racial lines in dating.”
I was as disarmed by his perfect punctuation as I was by the declaration it had been wasted on. He simply could have ignored the message, or he could have offered some vague reason why he wasn’t interested. Despite the formal tone, there was a certain level of hostility in his message. He came across like a well-educated bigot. I’d encountered plenty of those, though I’d never been rejected by a guy who specifically offered my color as the reason.
“I guess that’s the kind of reaction I’d get if I were online dating in the U.S.,” I concluded. While allowing gay guys to hide behind fakery, Grindr has also had the effect of making them more brutally honest, often to a fault. Maybe the modern American gay guy who doesn’t do black wouldn’t have any qualms about bluntly saying so either. Could “I don’t cross racial lines” be a delicate way of doing it without getting too specific and bogged down in “black” and “white,” sort of like subbing “fun” for “sex”?
My new acquaintance begged to differ regarding the U.S. comparison. Clearly I didn’t get it. This response, he pointed out, was uniquely South African, because it had the lingering thumbprint of Apartheid all over it. It wasn’t just a personal choice, nor was it personal, not exactly. It was a cold, clinical reflection of the institutionalized racism and segregation that had defined South African society for decades. He hadn’t said, “I’m not attracted to black guys,” or “I don’t date black guys.” His specific wording (without being specific at all) seemed to imply that it wasn’t just about preference or attraction but rather adherence to a long-standing principle. In his dating world, the events of the early 1990s in South Africa hadn’t changed a thing. It might as well have still been 1984.
Wow. I hadn’t even thought of that angle. I am, after all, new in South Africa, and he is someone who has had an entire year of dating experience in this country, plus his African studies, to influence how he contextualizes Grindr messages. He’d seen and read it all before. I thought I had, too, but this was a first for me. I was glad I had ventured out for a beer after a day spent climbing Lion’s Head and scaling Signal Hill, if only to experience vicariously something I had no desire to live firsthand.
I was even more grateful for my current dateless, sexless existence. I don’t need ugliness like that ruining all of Cape Town’s breathtaking views.

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My First Six Impressions of Jerusalem

1. Just as Sydney vs. Melbourne in Australia, North of the Yarra vs. South of the Yarra in Melbourne, East Coast vs. West Coast in the U.S.A., and Red States vs. Blue States on Election Day there, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are embroiled in their own brand of one-on-one unarmed combat, a geographically and culturally defined competition.

I started to suspect this much the afternoon before my departure from Tel Aviv when I was at the home of the woman from whom I was renting my apartment there, and her husband emphatically announced his hatred of Jerusalem without offering a single coherent reason why. I knew it for sure shortly after I checked into Hillel 11 in Jerusalem the following morning.

Even if the guy at reception hadn’t mentioned the rivalry himself, I would have gotten it from the way he dismissed TLV’s Ben Yehuda Street (“Everybody stays there,” he sniffed, after guessing that I did, too) while raving about Jerusalem’s, touting its bustling shopping/nightlife scene. He then proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes selling his city, pointing out all of the exciting things I can do in Jerusalem, handing me various maps and explaining how I can get to know the city and see all of the attractions around it (Bethlehem, the Dead Sea) without being at the mercy of any tour guides.

His sales pitch didn’t include a word about the hotel he was checking me into, not even when he showed me to my room, a four-star “economy studio” which, frankly, could have used the build-up more than the city it’s in.

2. Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem prays, the old saying goes (or maybe it’s the other way around). But even if you didn’t see the cities in action, doing what they do best, you’d have no trouble telling them apart. On a visual level, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem couldn’t be more dissimilar. Jerusalem is the massive inland metropolis in Israel’s tale of two cities (think Madrid and Sao Paolo in Spain’s and Brazil’s, respectively, only in the mountains, therefore considerably curvier), a proper urban experience. Tel Aviv, meanwhile, is far less congested (from a traffic, if not pedestrian, standpoint), quainter, with the waterfront picture-postcard feel of Barcelona and Rio.

If I prefer Tel Aviv ever so slightly, despite my obsession with cities that offer mountain views, it’s only because it’s warmer there. Still, even after less than 24 hours in Jerusalem, I think I’d be more than happy lingering indefinitely in either one.

Guys to the left, ladies to the right.

3. Apparently, women in Jerusalem are more comfortable with public displays of holiness than men are. The latter get more than twice as much prayer space along the Western Wall, but considering the number of praying people on the men’s side vs. the number on the women’s side, a switch might be in order. At first, I tried to enter the women’s domain, because I wasn’t paying attention, and I just assumed that the side with the line was where I needed to be. I’ve done that before when going to the restroom, and I don’t need to tell you where I almost ended up!

4. Maybe the ladies in Jerusalem are making up for childhoods spent largely out of sight. During my first afternoon walking through the old city, I saw multiple groups of boys under the age of 10 who were playing and hanging out with their friends as well as solo ones who were helping adults mind the stores. But I saw very few girls under military age who weren’t tourists anywhere in the old city, which made me wonder where they were all hidden away.

5. Want to get your money for nothing in Jerusalem’s old city? Don’t approach tourists at the various gates or at key spots asking, “What are you looking for?” (I got that one so many times during my first afternoon in the old city, I thought I was on Grindr!), and put away the red string.

Pick a spot slightly removed from one of the major attractions, and greet a random passerby with an even more random question (“Did you enjoy the Jewish Quarter?”, for instance, right outside the Moslem Quarter). Don’t ask if they need any help because that will give away your agenda as quickly as pouncing on them at one of the entrances to the Western Wall. Once you’ve gotten their attention, offer a little information about yourself, then ask something about them. Keep the small talk going, and once they’ve let down their guard, apologetically make a small request: “Do you have any shekel that you can spare?”

Only the coldest-hearted tourist will be able to turn down the friendly local they’ve just spent several minutes talking to. I certainly wasn’t going to deny the older gentleman who tried this ploy on me. He was rewarded with 10 shekel (roughly $2.80) for his efforts. But as Roger Daltrey once sang on the 1971 classic by The Who, I won’t get fooled again.

6. If you can judge a city by the coincidences it offers, then I was completely sold on Jerusalem by the end of my first night here. While exploring the areas that the Hillel 11 receptionist recommended, I came across a walkway off Agrippas in the Mahane Yehuda district that reminded me of those covered outdoor food courts in Bangkok and took a stool at the bar with a kitchen set up along the walkway, Bangkok-style.

That’s when I noticed the joint’s business card. Where had I seen that card before? Oh my God! It was the 6th of May — only the 5th of May, the sister bar and, as everyone there was quick to tell me, the original version of my favorite place in Tel Aviv. The 6th of May bartender had told me all about it, but I had forgotten that I wanted to try to find it. Now, in one of those magic-moment twists, here I was.

Rani, the cute 20-year-old waiter with near-flawless English and perfect teeth who spent his night off drinking with me, raving about Jerusalem (repeating the Hillel 11 receptionist’s point about all of its distinctive barrios), and introducing me to his friends (most of whom were also there on their night off) was even more impressed by my twist of fate than I was was. (Incidentally, Rani scored major cool cred by incorrectly guessing my age as 32. His response when I told him that I’m as old as Jennifer Aniston: “What? You’re not 50!” Sorry, Jen!)

Despite another adorable bartender peddling free booze, 5th of May was as different from 6th of May as the cities they’re in are from each other. If I liked 5th of May even better than my first love, it was because of the alternative crowd (ridiculously friendly and huge for a Sunday night) and the music, an engaging mix of ’90s house, ’80s new wave, Pixies, Janis Joplin, Jamiroquai, The Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, and assorted weird shit (like the coolest remix of Barbara Mason’s 1965 classic “Yes, I’m Ready”) from the personal playlists of 5th of May’s various employees, none of whom had a clue what the names of any of the songs were. I haven’t procured a single souvenir since I stepped foot into Israel, but I’m not leaving Jerusalem without that soundtrack.

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Modern Life Is Not Rubbish (Unless We’re Talking Bottled Water in Countries Where Tap Water Is Perfectly Safe to Drink)

Warning: I’m getting ready to rant and rave again. But don’t be misled by the first harsh words I’ve uttered about Rome since my arrival here three weeks and one day ago. I still wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on earth at this very moment.

As for my current stint in Europe, which will end when I head to Tel Aviv in one week and two days, to quote country great Ronnie Milsap, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world — or anywhere else in it. The past two months have been the realization of a life-long old-world dream. Since my first trip to Europe in 1993 (during which I hit Amsterdam, Spain and the South of France), I’ve glamorized the continent in my mind, dreaming of someday having the opportunity to spend more than a holiday in this land of sophisticated, vintage elegance.

When I dream, two places have consistently topped my wish list: London has been calling for nearly 20 years now (since 1994, when I made the first of roughly 20 visits), with Italy a close second. South America may have distracted me for four and a half years, followed by, alternately, Australia and Asia, for a few more, but in the back of my mind, it’s always been all about Europe. Now that my dream has come true, and I’ve been based here for two consecutive months (one in Berlin, one in Italy), I’ve come to an unexpected conclusion: It’s a great place to visit. Wouldn’t necessarily want to live here.

Don’t get me wrong. Europe remains my favorite continent. There’s nowhere else on earth where you can find such a colorful confluence of cultures, languages, history and beautiful men. I even discovered during my month in Berlin that I can go for prolonged periods without air conditioning (though I’d rather not). I learned that I’m perfectly okay with hanging my laundry out to dry on a clothesline outside the window of my third-floor walk-up in Rome and that I welcome the workout I get from climbing the stairs to that third-floor walk-up because there don’t seem to be any apartment buildings with elevators in the city. I also realized that for better or for worse (and probably more for worse), I’m even more of a slave to technology than I previously thought!

In the past, I found the fact that much of Europe seemed to be living in the distant past to be charmingly quaint, key to its appeal. The early 20th-century-and-before vibe was fine, as long as when I returned to my hotel, I was surrounded by contemporary luxury.

When you’re visiting a place on vacation, your requirements and expectations are different, too. You don’t mind eating all of your meals in restaurants, and if you don’t feel like going out, there’s always room service. But when you’re sticking around for more than a week or two, living in a regular apartment, with the goal of trying to live the way locals do, you get culture shocks that can be more jolting than anything you might experience when you leave the holiday comfort zone of your hotel.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all of the ultra-modern amenities I enjoy in Bangkok (and the constant proximity to an ATM machine when I’m there). Or maybe it’s having grown up in a culture where everything works (from remote controls to Internet connections). A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with my friend Shirley in Florence, and when Shirley asked where the bathroom is, the waitress curtly replied, “It’s not working.” She didn’t even offer her paying customer an alternative!

It’s hard to imagine that happening in a tourist-heavy restaurant in New York City. I’ve never had the lights cut out mid meal there either, but that’s exactly what happened while I was on a date a couple of weeks ago at a Turkish eatery one street over from my apartment in Rome, due to too many appliances being in use. (In my flat here, every time I turn on a light switch, the television set hiccups, and I’m just waiting for the AC to announce that it’s had enough by shutting off permanently.)

It’s even tougher to fathom a public toilet in a U.S. train station that would charge $1.30 for the honor of using it. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that you have to pay 1 euro to enter the filthy toilets in central train stations in Berlin, Hamburg, Warsaw and Italy. And since I’m on the subject of money, if most places are going to demand cash instead of credit cards like its 1977, wouldn’t it be practical to make it readily accessible? Of course, having to hunt for ATM machines in Europe means I spend less money, or I get more exercise walking block after block to find one, so there’s at least a financial and health benefit to the lack of convenience.

But would it be too much to ask for a complimentary glass of water when I sit down in a restaurant afterwards? In Germany and Italy, the tap water is as safe to drink as it is in Australia (probably more so in Italy, since it comes directly from the aqueducts, and when it’s pouring from one of the fountains around Rome, it tastes even better than the bottled thing), but unlike in Melbourne, it doesn’t automatically come with the meal, with the option of upgrading to a bottle. If you’re looking to quench your thirst, expect to pay several euros for a few meager sips or risk being on the receiving end of “How could you drink that? looks when requesting water from the tap.

I’ve learned to live with it — and pay for it — but I’m still having trouble adjusting to life without a microwave. I never realized how dependent I am on them until I spent two months in cultures that seem to be completely anti-microwaves. Even in Buenos Aires, a city that often felt like the most backwards place on earth (incomplete with ATMs that work only about half of the time — when you can find one), I don’t believe I ever stepped foot into an apartment that didn’t have one.

I’ve only been in five private homes in Berlin, Warsaw and Rome, including the two I’ve stayed in, during my two-month stint in Europe, but I’ve yet to see a microwave in any of them. Since cooking is not anywhere on my list of things I enjoy doing, Europe, we have a problem. I’m not saying I wouldn’t ever choose to spend eternity here (a great job offer and/or a great guy could be strong persuaders), but if I did, it could be hazardous to my health. I’d either gain a dangerous amount of weight, or I’d starve.

Compared to Rome, in Berlin I had it pretty easy. Sure the symbols on the stove in my rental apartment were harder for me to understand than the German instructions on the washing machine in the bathroom, but I was able to make it work in order to heat up the frozen dinners that I occasionally shoved into it. By the way, I had no idea that a microwave-safe container wouldn’t burst into flames in a conventional oven, but what did I know?

Apparently, ovens have changed in the several years since I previously used one — or perhaps I’ve never used them often enough to know everything that should and shouldn’t go into them. Thankfully, the one in my Berlin rental was electric, as all ovens should be in 2013. I’m sure that someone will correct me, extolling the health and/or environmental benefits of cooking on gas, which must be even more beneficial than nuking things, but from where I’m standing, trembling, I just don’t see it.

Every time I face the gas stove/oven in my Rome rental, I tremble on the inside. It’s the same feeling I had when the owners showed me the water heater, until they informed me that I wouldn’t have to do anything with it in order to enjoy a warm shower (which, shockingly, works perfectly). They were just showing off the charmingly antiquated trappings of their home.

The stove presents enough of a challenge. I keep imagining a burst of gaseous flames to disfigure my face, or I worry about forgetting to turn the gas off completely and suffocating after falling asleep. The story I heard on the Millie Jackson Unsung episode the other day about her mother didn’t help matters. She was burned to death while trying to light a wood stove. That could be me, I solemnly thought to myself afterwards while heating up the pan to make another grilled-cheese sandwich.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to fire up any matches to use the stove, otherwise I might not have found out that I’m actually a passable cook (if you don’t mind having grilled-cheese sandwiches and scrambled eggs for every meal). The oven, however, is a different story. It’s apparently out of gas, and even if I knew where to light the match to get it to work, I wouldn’t dare try it at home alone.

So unless I want to consume an at-home diet that consists of only eggs, bread and cheese, I have to find other options. (And I’d better look for them before the witching hour because not only do restaurants and supermarkets close relatively early, but there are no 7-11s on every other block, no 24-hour delis, no all-night diners.) There’s a panini press and just about every kitchen utensil known to man in my rental’s huge kitchen, but it’s missing the one thing standing between me and a satisfying at-home diet: a microwave oven.

This means no prepared chicken from the local supermarket (not that the scant offerings I’ve seen look all that edible), unless I want to eat it all at once as soon as I get home. It also means no leftovers. How would I heat them up without endangering my life. For the most part, as with pretty much every place I’ve lived as an adult, I must depend on the kindness of strangers if I want to eat in Rome. Unfortunately for my appetite, the take-out/delivery options here are even more limited than they were in BA: pizza, pasta and Turkish kebab stands.

It’s bad enough that the supermarkets in my Roman neighborhood offer even fewer options than the two I lived close to in Berlin (oh, how I miss Melbourne’s Woolworths with its huge aisles stocked with multiple choices and the self-checkout registers!), but in Rome, I have to pass by the frozen-food section completely. Right now I would kill for a microwave oven and one of those Heinz jumbo packs of frozen vegetables that I practically live on when I’m in Melbourne.

In Rome’s defense, there seems to be a stand selling ripe-looking fresh fruits and vegetables on practically every block, and it’s the one department in which the supermarkets don’t skimp. (Though having to measure my own bananas feels so 40 years ago.) But when in Rome, you probably won’t get to eat your vegetables unless they’re prepared in your own kitchen. It’s like the wild wild west, only you eat what you cook, not grow and cook, yourself.

While I did enjoy a delicious Greek salad my first night in Florence, when I think health-enhancing veggies, I’m not thinking lettuce with feta cheese, onions and black olives doused in vinaigrette dressing. I’m thinking more along the lines of a heaping side of firm, green broccoli — and not those limp, faded flower heads that they’re calling broccoli at the pizzeria on Torpignatarra and Casalina that sells those adorable mini-bottles of wine for 1.20 euros (speaking of awesome things that you can’t get outside of Italy — and yes, I realize that we weren’t).

Now that my skin is starting to dry up and shrivel, I’ll resist the temptation to blame Rome and its limited food options. The scales that are forming on my forearms are not from a lack of proper nutrients but a visit from that old devil called eczema. Unfortunately, that 4 euro Neutro Roberts lotion that smells like shampoo and sticks to the skin like grease that I bought from Carrefour last week isn’t doing it any favors. And I’d better remember to keep it away from that gas stove.

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Planet(Romeo) of the Apes: Love and War Online in Europe

When it comes to soul mates, it’s not how they meet (regardless of what cutesy Hollywood romantic comedies condition us to wish for) but that they meet at all. And these days, the Internet is as valid a means to that end as any other. I have a number of friends, gay and straight, who found the current loves of their lives while surfing the Web. I don’t see it ever going down that way for me, but I remain open to the distinct possibility.

So if there are any gay men left who still object to online-dating websites and hook-up apps like Grindr, Hornet, PlanetRomeo and Manhunt (the ones I’ve used in the past few years, though there are a million more), they should reconsider. For guys who are still in the closet, it’s the perfect way to reap the sexual benefits of gay life without participating in it full on. For those who’ve come out but couldn’t be bothered to get ready to go out, you can find your match while lounging around unwashed and unclothed. If you’re looking for fastlove (like George Michael in his hit from 1996, back when sex clubs and public parks and loos were still the best options), it’s the perfect place to find it with minimal effort.

And finally, for those who think they’ll meet higher-quality people in real life, judging from the number of guys who have messaged me after spotting me in a bar, a club, in the supermarket, running in the park, or walking down the street, the men you encounter online are the same ones you’ll find off. The big difference: They’re less inhibited online, free to express their true intentions from the safety of in front of the computer screen (“I want your body, not your heart,” as Christina Aguilera sang on “Get Mine, Get Yours”), so if you don’t fall for fake photos, artificial sweet talk and other assorted lies, you’ll end up wasting less time with great pretenders. You no longer have to sleep with a guy to know that he won’t call you the next day, and you will probably be spared the unwelcome discovery that you’re dating a racist. People are far more likely to boldly and blindly spew their racism online.

On the downside, if you’re looking for more than fastlove, or a conversation that doesn’t include questions like “Top or bottom?”, “What are you looking for?”, “What are you into?” or “Horny?”, you’ll have to weed through a significant number of undesirables. I thought it couldn’t get any worse than it was in Bangkok. After all, one would expect a city so dominated by the sex trade to be full of guys who are looking for only one thing online. Hence “fun” is usually the fresh catch of the day. What’s love got to do with it?

I heard it through the grapevine while I was in Bangkok that European guys aren’t the same online in Europe as they are in Bangkok, and for a while, that’s all I had to go on. Before my arrival in Berlin in mid-July, I’d never experienced the online-dating scene in Europe first hand. I’d been told that guys would be more polite and less forward, and I figured out on my own that since I wouldn’t be as much of an ethnic rarity as I was in South America, Australia and Asia, there probably would be fewer allusions to my skin color and that annoying myth (“Is it true what they say about black men?”), the bane of my existence for most of the past seven years (since I left the U.S. for Argentina on September 15, 2006).

In Germany, my expectations proved to be more or less on the mark. Most of the guys who contacted me were only looking for fastlove, but dominant opening line (“Sexy!”) aside, they went about it in pretty much the same way that they would in person, usually asking my name and origin before “Top or bottom?” Curiously, in my entire month in Germany, I don’t believe a single guy approached me speaking German, only English, which was different from my experience in Thailand and in South America. The guys that I did end up meeting face-to-face impressed me more on a conversational level than most of the locals I encountered when I went out.

So with my guard down, I was unprepared for the onslaught of crudeness that greeted my arrival in Italy a week and a half ago, mostly from Italians but also from horny guys here on holiday. I’ve seen more body parts shot at unimaginable angles in the last week and a half than I did in the two and a half years since I left Buenos Aires. (Who takes those graphic butt shots?!) And the guys had come-ons to match. Most of them were in Italian but by using my Spanish (to which Italian bears obvious similarities) and Google Translator, I caught their drift. (I also learned that Caio, which I always thought meant “Goodbye,” also means “Hello.”)

Why waste time asking my name or where I’m from when you can kick things off with a simple “Sex?”? And of course, as in every country into which I’ve stepped foot in the last two and half years, there’s the dreaded “Top or bottom?” (or “Attivo o passivo?”), though for the first time since I arrived in Bangkok two years ago, no “fun” for “sex,” or “Fun?” “XXX?” or “Hot pics?” some guys ask, suggesting that the shirtless ones in my profiles aren’t hot enough. And while we’re on the subject of my ego, I’m not sure whether to take the alarming number of guys who have asked if I am an escort, or if I would be willing to take money for the pleasure of being serviced, as a compliment or an insult.

I had no trouble, however, telling whether stern_mark, the 27-year-old with a photo-free profile who contacted me on PlanetRomeo yesterday meant to compliment or insult me. Yeah, I was a bit of a snarky jerk from the start but mostly because sometimes the only way to deal with the preponderance of inane introductions and profiles without photos is to have a little bit of fun with them. Why do people expect respect or a response when they aren’t brave enough to show themselves?

All it took was an offhand sarcastic comment aimed at his opening line to set him off. He would have received a better response had his message come with a photo and without immediately identifying himself as “Asian,” which insulted my intelligence and open-mindedness with its suggestion that he was in a hurry to get what he apparently saw as the one potential deal breaker out of the way. Or maybe he was bragging — either way, I was thoroughly unimpressed. My response led to a breakdown of his composure and a complete expression of his true colors, which overshadowed any good points that he did eventually make (in message No. 12 below).

I forgot that sarcasm doesn’t always translate well — or maybe I just didn’t care in that moment. But I don’t think anything I wrote warranted his sweeping negative generalizations about black men — “gorillas,” as he calls us. Just because I was being a bit of an asshole, does that mean Joseph (the super-nice black guy from Washington DC whom I met on Friday night) is one, too?

I’m slightly ashamed of myself for baiting him in the first place, for not taking the higher road and for engaging him as long as I did. But a show of restraint on my part wouldn’t have given me such a great view of stern_mark, a much better one than any photo would have offered. Tellingly, a non-Italian is one of the few guys in Italy who has even referred to my skin color or to race at all. Thanks to PlanetRomeo, another bullet dodged before it had a chance to be fired!

Here’s how the battle (stern_mark vs. I_Travel) went down.

1. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:19
Hi Asian here now in rome
2. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 16:40
good for you lol
3. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:41
What u mean good for me. In what sense??
4. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:48
Why are u lol is there sny reason why u hv to laugh
5. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 16:49
let’s just let this go. i’m not interested.
6. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:50
I’m not also I trested on u. I’m not interested on block guys
7. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 16:50
well then, you’re the idiot because YOU messaged ME.
8. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:52
Sorry I’m just messaging a monkey like u want to give u a banana.
9. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 16:57
Pls observe respect in this site . U black people wherever u go ur true colours appear., u want to fight. Look back to ur origin famine drought. So be carefull what ur saying.
10. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 17:04
you are being ridiculous. i made a little joke and you got all bent out of shape about it. you are the one who brought color into it, first identifying yourself as asian, then going on and on about my being black. to me you just sound like a stupid racist. game over. you lose.
11. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 17:05
hahaha! thanks for confirming what i thought about you after getting your first message. you are a racist, chasing after a black guy when you actually hate black people. and you don’t even have the guts to show your face. THAT is why i was not interested from the start.
12. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 17:13
U know in this chat . U should be carefull on what u write because it would mid understood., I was asking the reason why u laugh for no reason that’s wh I ask u? N u don’t answer . Lol means u are insulting me!!! For no reason . U don’t hv to joke at me coz were stranger for both of us . U know what I mean. Be polite if I’m asking u just answer. Are u educated person . Did u ask my photos no coz u didn’t., yes we here racist for black guy who act like u. U know I do t want to hv enemies here
13. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 17:15
Just be careful in Asia we do t want our blood to genes like u
14. I_Travel25. Aug. 2013 – 17:18
whatever, dude. i’m done with this. i have more important things to do than engage in petty back and forth with a humorless racist. good luck in your search. i have a feeling you are going to need it.
15. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 17:23
U black people wherever u go ur always a troublemaker it’s in ur blood gorillas!!go back to school. Educate urself .. Next time don’t laugh if there no being funny I’m a nurse ur like my mental patient ill enter u to mental hospital
16. stern_mark25. Aug. 2013 – 17:27
I’m not I tested never on black guys u spread d dideases u know that it’s come from ur continent

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Grrr…: My 10 Latest Biggest Pet Peeves

Oh, the trials of being a world traveler!… I jest…. A little.

Though being a wandering spirit is hardly a tribulation, the peripatetic lifestyle is not without its challenges. For an independent loner with both a cranky and a reclusive streak like me, being thrust into public situations and being at the mercy of someone else’s accommodations can sometimes make you long for the green green grass (not to mention, the solitude, the smoke-free air, and the fully functioning bathrooms) of home.

Here are 10 reasons why I’ve recently been fine-tuning my long-ago-perfected art of complaining (a skill which, as a German friend recently suggested, makes me a sort of honorary German).

1. Bad sidewalk etiquette Damn those ambulatory folks who forget the golden rule of pedestrianism: To the left, to the left. Or is it, to the right? Wow. I’m not even so sure anymore. I’ve spent so many years now zigzagging between countries where everyone veers right (Argentina, the United States, Germany) and ones where they veer left (Australia, Thailand) that I sometimes forget which side I should be walking on and become precisely the kind of pedestrian that I loathe most — after

2. People who walk too close behind me At least when I’m trying to go up on the down escalator (as I used to do all the time in Melbourne, veering right instead of left), I respect everyone else’s personal space. I keep my distance in bars, clubs and on sidewalks. If only others felt compelled to do the same. Ever since I started practically living in my Havaianas, it seems everyone has begun trailing me like my shadow, stepping on the back of the Brazilian flip flops and rendering entering public spaces dangerous to the longevity of my current chosen footwear.

3. Feet that are not only seen but heard, too Shhh! Walk softly. Carry a big stick. And for God’s sake, when sitting down, keep both of your feet on the ground. Nobody wants to see or smell them. That should go double on buses, subways and trains, especially the ones with seats that face each other. This is not your home. You’re in public. You’re not supposed to be feeling good. Consideration over comfort, please.

So ladies, cross your legs somewhere else. (Why do people even do that — or sit “Indian style”? How unnatural! It didn’t feel right on the floor in first to fifth grade while watching those old Three Stooges reels on loud, clunky early 20th-century film projectors, and it doesn’t look right now, which might be why you never actually see “Native Americans” doing it.) On crowded public transportation, you’re only taking up more space than necessary. If I’m looking straight ahead, and your feet are in my line of vision, they’re too high.

4. People who look me in the feet, not in the eye Speaking of feet, mine continue to get uglier by the week. Since my first return engagement on the Buenos Aires running track more than three months ago, I’ve been stuck with an unsightly black big toenail that’s practically begging to be pulled off. That’s just one reason why I wouldn’t dare put either of my hooves in anyone’s line of vision. Yet that never seems to stop passersby — on both running tracks and on sidewalks — from checking them out (if the self-conscious neurotic in me isn’t just imagining things), looking down when passing me by. Up here, folks, up here! There’s nothing good to see below the ankles.

5. One Direction hair It’s not so much that it’s an awkward tonsorial statement — although it is — but isn’t it just a glorified version of Justin Bieber’s old ‘do? Yesterday I was sitting on the S-Bahn in Hamburg across from a young man whose coif, in literally mirroring the boy band’s name, flopped over half of his face. I once had lunch with an ex whom I hadn’t seen in seven months, and I had to spend the entire 90 minutes staring into his big brown sunglasses, which served the same apparent purpose of that One Direction hair. If I’m looking at your face, and I can’t see your eyes, it’s creepy, not fashion.

6. Cigarettes It’s a disgusting enough habit when you’re alone in the privacy of your own home. But when it means polluting other people’s air space — outdoors and in bars, which all seem to allow it in Berlin, henceforward known to me as the smoking capital of the world because everyone lights up here — or leaving your meal companion alone while you run outside to indulge your addiction, it’s veered into the territory of egregiously disrespectful.

7. Loud talking on cell phones and in apartment/hotel hallways Why is it that everyone’s voice seems to double (at least) in volume as soon as they answer their mobile phone on public transportation or when they’re walking up/down stairs or to/from the elevator in any apartment building or hotel?

8. Sinks, bathtubs and showers that drain too slowly Clogging should be someone else’s problem. After all, I have no hair on my head and very little on my body. Yet, filthy, slow-moving water is quickly becoming the bane of my existence on the road, having cramped my style and ruined my showers in my rental in Buenos Aires, my five-star hotel in Dubai, and now, my rental in Hamburg.

9. Things (and people) that don’t work, in general I’ve always admired efficiency in people, and the older I get, the more I demand it in everything else. I probably should have felt more guilty than I did my second day in Hamburg after I tossed my non-working key card on the front desk, and it landed on the floor. Maybe I should have felt a twinge of remorse when the receptionist had to bend over to pick it up. Had she bothered to crack a smile at any point after my arrival, I probably would have. In fact, chances are I would have taken the malfunctioning key card more in stride. But make me waste two trips upstairs, never once treating me like anything more than a mere inconvenience, and you’ve sort of got it coming.

10. People who think being American means being completely clueless I recently was talking to a German who actually began a new thought by saying, “Do you know ABBA? They were a group from the ’70s who were popular in Europe….” Either he assumed that Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid never crossed over to the U.S., or he thought that I was too young to remember anything from the ’70s, and I’ve been living under a rock since the day I was born.

Oh, wait! Those weren’t old Madonna songs in Mamma Mia! then?

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