Sunday, November 18, 2012

wrong answer

One reason I find social interactions confusing is that there are so many questions that have secret, pre-set correct answers.  And there's no rule-book, so you've just got to figure this out on your own.

Some questions only have one correct answer.  For instance, if your mom says, "Cindy, would you like to help wash these dishes?", there's only one acceptable answer to this.  You might think that you should tell the truth, since that's what your mom always taught you to do, but it turns out that you're not supposed to tell the truth in response to this particular question.  [Well, you can tell the truth if you would actually like to help with the dishes, but I always had to either lie or give offense.]

Another question that only has one acceptable answer is "Does that make me a horrible person?"  Fortunately, most people only ask this question in contexts where the correct answer ("No") is also the honest answer.  For instance, someone will say, "Last night after volunteering at an orphanage and helping twenty old ladies across the road and giving home-made afghans to everyone in the homeless shelter, I saw someone trying to hitch a ride by the side of the road, and I didn't pick him up because he looked crazy.  Does that make me a horrible person?"  This question makes you an annoying compliment-seeker and indirect boaster, but it does not make you a horrible person.

I don't think I've ever heard anyone preface with question with something that might actually call their horribleness into question.  I guess that makes sense -- most people don't actually want honest feedback, so they won't ask questions that might elicit a debate about their character.  For instance, I could say, "You know, one time I intentionally hit a pedestrian because he was walking so darn slowly in the crosswalk.  Does that make me a horrible person?"  But I don't really want to know if you think this makes me horrible.

Some questions allow more of a range of responses, but there clearly are still correct and incorrect answers, the correctness and incorrectness of which are independent of the truth thereof.  For instance, guys often like to ask me what I like to do for fun.  I really should be prepared for this question by now, but it still always catches me off-guard and makes me feel like I was suddenly given a pop quiz for a class I didn't even know I'd signed up for.  And, unsurprisingly, I often end up failing.

"What do you like in your spare time?" one guy asked.

"Oh, I like reading and watching TV and just hanging out with my friends and family," I replied.

"No, I meant things that are actually fun.  What do you like doing that's fun to do?" he responded.

He was an annoying guy anyway, so at this point I gave up on being polite and started being difficult instead.  "Oh, I don't actually like doing fun things," I told him.  "I just enjoy boredom."

"You've got to like something fun," he said.  "Don't you enjoy hiking or skiing or jogging or anything like that?"

I don't mind hiking, although I hate the others, but I was too annoyed to concede even that much, so I told him I didn't like anything like this.

"Oh I know what you like doing -- you like going on dates with nice guys like me."

This got the response it deserved.  Of course, this guy was obtuse enough that he probably thought my withering look was meant to be flirtatious.

"And you like bowling and going to amusement parks," he informed me.

"I hate amusement parks," I told him.

"No, you must like amusement parks.  Everyone does."

"I don't," I told him.  "I've got some bad memories at amusement parks."  This was actually true -- I'd had some bad high school band trips to Disneyland where my feet hurt so badly that I just wanted to die, but instead I had to keep hobbling around all day pretending to have fun.  But my date was unwilling to accept this answer, and instead he spent ten more minutes trying to convince me that I really do like amusement parks.

Another guy took a somewhat more tactful approach -- in response to my list of apparently boring hobbies, he said, "Nothing active?  I think you should go outside more."

He then asked if I tried skiing or snowboard.  When I told him no, he said, "Oh, you must go skiing.  I must teach you skiing this winter."  This guy has a thick Russian accent, so just imagine an 80s movie KGB agent trying to force someone to go skiing.  It was pretty much like that.  Good times.

I realized recently that part of my problem in social situations is that I value honesty and precision very highly, so I always try to come up the most honest, accurate answer possible, and only then do I use my social filter to figure out if this is also a socially acceptable answer.  But this is an inefficient approach in social situations, since there's often little overlap between accuracy and social acceptability.  I'd probably be much better at small talk if I could first think of socially acceptable answers, and only then subject them to the honesty filter, without worrying so much about coming up with the most precise, accurate answer.  I'm not sure I can do this, though.  Does that make me a horrible person?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

refugee kid conversation of the week

Girl (while looking through a flipchart of American presidents):  Hey, why don't they have Barack Obama in here?  He's the only black president, and they left him out!

Me:  Oh, this is just too old to have him in it.  It must have been published before he got elected.

Girl:  What?!  But that was so long ago!

Me: . . . I suppose it does seem that way to you.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Italy -- Day One

My Italian adventure began with a 10:20 flight out of Salt Lake on a Sunday morning.  I went from there to Minneapolis, from Minneapolis to the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, and from Paris to Naples, arriving around noon on Monday.  That's about the same time that my fellow travelers left from the London airport for their short flight to Naples.  (Although my friend Heidi lives in the U.S., she'd been in Great Britain for a friend's wedding.  That's actually the reason she decided on this trip to Italy, since she was already relatively nearby.)

There are some good views on the flight from Paris to Naples.
While this wasn't my first international trip, it was the first time I was alone in a foreign country.  I was a little nervous about this, especially I'd heard that Naples is one of the more corrupt and dangerous cities in Italy.  I decided that I'd feel safer staying back in the secure areas of the airport while I waited for about four hours for the others to arrive.  It turned out that the secure area was just the baggage claim carousels and a few accompanying benches.  But, I stuck to plan and fell asleep on those benches.  After a few hours, I woke up to see two nervous-looking airport employees pointing me out to an armed security guard.  He came over and asked me something in Italian, and I told him in English that I was just waiting for my friends' flight, which was arriving soon.

You know, there was one time when I was in law school where I'd been on interview trips to California every weekend for the past few weeks.  In the meantime, I was trying to balance a full course-load and law review responsibilities.  As usual, on this weekend I hurried home from classes on Thursday afternoon, spent about five minutes packing, and ran off to the airport, making it there about thirty minutes before my flight departed.  There were delays, and I didn't get in until late, after a tiring day of travel and catching up on a couple hundred pages of reading for my patent law class.  Fortunately, the hotel restaurant was still open, so I went in and ordered dinner.  I then sat there mechanically eating all of the complimentary bread the waiter had brought me, resting my chin on my hand because I was too exhausted to keep my head up otherwise.  And then the waiter came out and gave me a very sympathetic look before handing me some kind of fancy appetizer made with salmon and caviar, "compliments of the chef."  He pointed to where the chef was standing behind a nearby window that opened into the kitchen, and the chef gave me the same sympathetic look that the waiter had before smiling and gesturing that I should try the appetizer.

I mention this story because the Italian security guard in the Naples airport gave me the exact same sympathetic look before telling me in broken English that it was okay for me to sleep in the baggage area until my friends came.  Sometimes it pays to be so transparent that everyone can tell when you're about to start crying from exhaustion.

Finally, the others arrived.  Although I was still exhausted, I was eager to get out of the airport and actually see some of Italy.  Unfortunately, that would not happen for a while.  It was then that one of the main drawbacks of traveling in Europe with Europeans started to become clear -- they're just not as interested in maximizing every minute of their time in Europe.  They haven't invested as much time and money into the trip as someone traveling from the U.S. has, and they can easily come back another time, while I figured this might be the only time I would make it out to Italy.  So, first Steve spent about forty-five minutes slowly filling out paperwork at the rental car office, and then Steve and Herb spent a full hour examining every inch of the rental car to fully document all preexisting damage.  And then they decided that it would be best just to go find our hotel in the outskirts of Naples instead of checking out the city itself.

On the drive to the hotel, it became clear that the British and I had also arrived with different expectations of Italy itself.  That is, I didn't really have any expectations, while they apparently expected it to be more like the parts of Europe they'd experienced before.  Herb kept complaining about how dirty it was.  I agreed that it was dirty, but it certainly wasn't any worse than the other foreign country I'd traveled to, so I didn't see it as being a big deal.

Actually, on initial impression, Naples reminded me quite a bit of India.  There were the same kinds of trash piles on the sides of the road, colorful laundry was hanging from most of the apartments, and the buildings showed the same signs of having too much humidity and too little upkeep.  

I don't have any good pictures of the trash, but you can kind of see the paint peeling off the buildings behind our hotel in this picture.

Our hotel itself was pretty awesome, in my opinion.  Sophie got a good deal on our rooms through, and it was great, especially for the price we paid.

Hotel Panorama

Our room
The room itself was nothing too exciting, although it was clean and neat, but we had a balcony that looked directly out onto the sea, and that was pretty sweet.

Hotel balcony
After enjoying the sunset for a while, we decided to drive back into Naples for dinner.  Our hotel was about twenty or thirty minutes from the city itself, and then somebody had decided to go to one specific restaurant that was mentioned in a guidebook.  Unfortunately, the guidebook did not include directions, and Steve's GPS device got confused by the narrow one-way streets of old Naples.  We ended up driving around the city for more than an hour trying to follow the GPS device's contradictory instructions.

At one point, Steve drove too close to the parked cars on the right side of the street (of course, he's used to driving on the left side of the road, while Italians drive on the right side).  I don't know what damage he did to the other car, but he broke the side-view mirror on our rental car.  So much for their careful examination of the car to make sure we didn't get charged for any preexisting damage.  Some bystanders yelled at us to stop, but Steve kept on going.  Although I suggested that we probably were supposed to stop, I didn't insist too hard that we go back.  Still, this accident made it all the more baffling when someone suggested that we stop and ask a group of traffic cops for direction.  Voluntarily contacting the police in a foreign city with a reputation for corruption is not my idea of a good plan -- voluntarily doing so when you've just committed a hit-and-run seems like an even worse idea.

Instead, the more sensible members of the group were eventually able to convince Steve that we should just give up on the guidebook restaurant and stop anywhere that was still open.  We finally ended up eating at a cute little roadside pizzeria.

I thought it was quite good, although I was dubious about some people's choice of pizza.

Yes, this pizza is topped with French fries and hot-dog pieces. 

On our way back to the car, we walked past this cute church.

And with that, our first day in Italy was basically at an end, and we headed back to the hotel for some well-needed sleep.