MAD DOG: Playing Tourist

A professor at Germany's University of Erlangen says he has research to prove that after just five days on vacation "the IQ has dropped by 5 percent and after three weeks by 20 percent." I, for one, believe it.Having recently taken a trip to Europe I feel I'm in a position to verify this. Away for only 18 days, I had to take three refresher courses when I got back, one in English, one in math, and one in telling time. The last one wasn't really my fault, nor was it the result of the IQ plunge the esteemed Professor Lehrl discovered. It actually happened because all the time zones around the world make my head spin.It sure would be a lot easier if we just got rid of them. Doing that would save us from spending our first three days of vacation converting the time so we can rationalize why we think it's dinnertime at 1 AM and bedtime at sunrise because "it's really 10 o'clock at home." Like you're not already having a hard enough time converting currency exchange rates in your head ("If six francs equals one dollar, than how many ounces are in a pound today?"). It's sure going to be nice when they phase in the Eurodollar. Finally we won't have to worry about changing one set of money that doesn't fit in our wallet for another as we travel through Europe. Now if they'd only switch to Eurotime along with it we'd be in heaven. Well, assuming heaven's a member of the European Community.Part of the problem is airplanes. Not only do they warp your sense of time and space by getting you somewhere quickly, but they deliberately try to reset your internal clock to a time that didn't exist before. Like 13 o' clock.Here's a little quiz for you: If an airplane leaves London at 2:45 PM heading for San Francisco flying at an altitude of 31,000 feet, why would they think it appropriate to serve dinner an hour later when it's neither dinnertime in London nor in San Francisco, but rather somewhere in mainland China? This would almost make sense if they were serving Kung Pao Chicken, but what you actually get is a choice of Beeflike Substance in Brown-Colored Sauce or Salmon-Tinged Chalk in Goopy Red Stuff. At least they don't call it breakfast.This may go a long way towards explaining why airplane passengers act the way they do. They bring enough bags on board to keep a Third World nation in clothes for a year. They wrap inflatable half doughnuts around their necks pretending it will be comfortable enough to help them sleep sitting up in the middle of the day. And they think that just because you're trapped in a seat next to them and have to ask nicely every time you want to go to the bathroom that you want to see pictures of their grandchildren with varying amounts of drool on their chin, none under 3 quarts.But none of this helps explain why it is that when the pilot announces the plane will be delayed because they're trying to get enough water pressure so we can use the bathroom during a 10-hour flight no one seems to notice, being totally absorbed in the joys of the duty-free catalog, this being their last chance to buy more perfume for grandma that she'll never wear. Yet a couple of minutes later when that same pilot says the temperature in San Francisco is in the upper 60's -- a full 25 degrees warmer than it is in Paris -- he gets a round of applause usually reserved for the times he lands the plane with only one wing intact and one engine working. In pilot's lingo, this is a good crowd.So how do we lose those IQ points when we go on vacation? According to Professor Lehrl, it's because so many of us spend our vacations lying around on the beach or going on package tours that are as mind numbing as watching TV. But face it, most people go on vacation to relax, and that includes relaxing their brain. If you want to expand your horizons you'll sit home and watch the Discovery Channel until your eyeballs look like supernovas. Or quasars. I forget which, but I'm sure after the 36th straight hour you'd not only know the difference but be prepared to discuss it with Stephen Hawking.The truth is, people want to get away. It's nice to explore. It feels good to be somewhere different, particularly if it's in a country where you don't speak the language, because that way you don't know that everyone's having the same old stale, boring, insipid conversations about the weather, the souvenirs, and how ridiculous it is that the ice cream cones cost so much. Instead you can listen to the unusual cadence of their language and pretend they're discussing philosophy, Proust, and the intricacies of world politics. Face it, "I wonder where there's a bathroom I can use without having to buy a soda" sounds infinitely more interesting in Swedish when you don't understand the language.Besides, people in other countries work hard trying to give us the most for our tourist dollar, the least we can do is enjoy it. I'm sitting in a cafe in Prague watching a classically heavyset Eastern Bloc ex-woman's shotput champion clear a table. Her name tag says "Olga". I know her name's probably Heather or Tracey or Amber, but they make everyone who clears tables in that cafe wear that name tag because as tourists we expect a hefty woman clearing tables in Prague to be named Olga. Image is important, even in ex-communist countries.Is this being sexist, xenophobic, and rude? Nah. I can say things like this because I'm American. I'm loud, brash, obnoxious, and opinionated. And I'm on vacation, remember? According to Professor Lehrl that means I'm a few IQ points shy of a good exchange rate. But that's okay, I'll take a refresher course in etiquette when I get back home.

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