Station Break with Paul Farhi: Cultures Collide/Foreign Lands/Country Quiz, Reader's Digest, Les Paul, WJFK, More

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Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi was online Tuesday, Aug. 18, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about the latest news and topical issues in the pop culture world of TV, radio, movies and trends.

Today: U.S. vs. Them, or what we did with our summer vacation. The news media and popular culture of a certain country that considers itself Very Sophisticated (no, not THAT one) looks very different (and not all that sophisticated) when viewed up close. Compare, contrast and make fun of the differences in today's chat.

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Paul Farhi: Greetings all, and welcome to our official Dawg Daze of Summer Chat...So over the past two weeks I had the privilege (and no matter what I say here, it WAS a privilege) to travel to a foreign land. I won't identify the foreign land in question because I'm hoping to keep this generic. But let's just say it was one of your better-known FLs, highly ranked in all the preseason coaches' polls. I loved just about everything about this place (and heck, I'm a tourist; I'm supposed to enjoy it), and I was fascinated by How They Do Things, especially when it comes to media and popular culture. Here, in lieu of boring you with my home movies, are few observations about those parts of the country, unburdened by any research or even moderate contemplation:

--News. Apparently, the only news of interest in Country X is news about Country X. That's primarily what I saw on the national TV channels and read (to the extent that I could understand anything) in the papers. Even though this is a relatively small country, surrounded by powerful neighbors, the TV and print news seemed fascinated mostly by events in country, and little beyond it. Forget about learning anything about news from the good ol' U.S. and A.--they certainly didn't care about health-care reform, or Iraq or Afghanistan. More shockingly it was almost impossible to learn anything about Country X's immediate neighbors. Near as I could tell (again language differences), the most prominent subjects were local death, highway disasters, and political scandal and corruption. Not sure how much you can read into this, but when I stopped by the lobby of the country's biggest newspaper, the historic headlines on display were almost all about domestic events. Conclusion: Please, no more lectures about how Americans are insular and incurious about international news. We're no worse, and in many respects a good deal more worldly, than they are.

--Movies. This country has a glorious cinematic history, but damned if you could find something homegrown. It was-- sadly, I guess--mostly American stuff they were interested in watching. One of the cineplexes in a neighborhood in the capital city devoted all eight of its screens to current U.S. releases, and this looked pretty typical. Even one of their screen-on-the-green outdoor filmfests was dominated by great old Hollywood stuff (plus a few classic locals). Sad, because people need to see stories about themselves. Sad, too, because they're watching the same generic CGI headaches about fighting robot toys that we are. Viva la non-difference. Or not.

--TV. Language differences not withstanding (again, I couldn't understand a word), the locally made TV shows I caught looked kind of boring. There's a reason this country's TV shows don't travel very far, and it has nothing to do with language differences. The shows were boring--ponderous historical soap operas, cheesy-looking sitcoms, a verrrry slow-moving cop drama. Again, American-made fare --CSI, The Unit, etc.--were everywhere. The liveliest thing we saw was the local MTV channel, which still plays videos (again, mostly American-made), and still seems to think Nirvana is a big deal.

--Sports. Apparently, they like soccer in Country X. A lot. It's everywhere. On TV. On billboards. Not many people playing it on the playground. But whatever.

Okay, over to you. Please feel free to chime in with your own compare-and-contrasts about the Foreign Land of your choosing.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. F: It received pretty extensive coverage, but I think the death of Les Paul is worth mentioning. Not only was he an outstanding Grammy-winning guitarist -- covering every type of pop, plus jazz and country -- he pretty much invented the type of electric guitar played now by every nearly every guitarist in the business. I think his first experimental one was some guitar strings on a piece of wood "tied in" to an amp. His last club date was this June, at the age of 94.

Paul Farhi: Yes, RIP, Mr. Paul. He was synonymous with that instrument, like Stradivarius was with the..um...the...um...the cello?

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Nice Reader's Digest Article...: Some thoughts on RD:

In the 60s when I was a whippersnapper, I joined the book club at the library. During those weeks when I'd miss reading the required book, I'd turn to the Reader's Digest (which I read every month). I'd find an article entitled something like "Racoons, nature's lovable curmudgeons" which the digest indicated was a condensation of "Racoons, nature's scavengers" which to my 10-year- old brain must have been a book because something was condensed from it. I never got called on it by the librarian, who must have known.

Remember...RD initially supported Fidel Castro!

I never read the RD condensed books because "condensed" meant "left all the dirty parts out."

I subscribed to RD for myself and my mother for years, and only stopped because of their billing practices. A few years ago, after someone signed me up for the RD (they were offering a free subscription followed by an automatic renewal), I decided not to renew. Over the next several months, I was bombarded with dunning letters that rivaled any collection agency. I was shocked that I was reading these words from RD. I ended up writing a letter expressing my shock that a long time subscriber could be treated that way, and canceled my subscription forever.

washingtonpost.com: Why Digest's Next Excerpt Will Be From Chapter 11 (Post, Aug. 18)

Paul Farhi: There was/is something irresistible about the Digest. It was/is the salt peanuts of magazines--you pick it up and read one thing and before you know it you're reading another and another. Often corny, as you point out, but often a fine distraction...And, yes, as you also point out, their contests and sweepstakes were often over the top. They had to settle out with a bunch of state attorneys general a few years ago after they were nailed for some borderline practices.

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Takoma Park, Md.: I can't say that I'm terribly choked about the troubles at "Reader's Digest." (The magazine wasn't so bad, but those volumes of condensed books marred many a suburban bookcase during the 1950s and 60s.) Anyway, I will say that I will miss the days when "TV Guide" and "Readers Digest" ruled the magazine circulation charts. I think that Playboy has also cut the number of issues -- what other venerable magazines are facing decline or demise?

Paul Farhi: Answer: Every single one of them. Mass-circulation magazines (such as the ones you mentioned) are no different than the broadcast networks. They used to have gigantic circulations. But no one--Time, Playboy, particularly TV Guide, etc.--is what they once were. One more: National Geographic, which was right at the top of the circ. lists but has lost millions of readers over the years.

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Falls Church, Va.: re: he pretty much invented the type of electric guitar played now by every nearly every guitarist in the business

No he did not. Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender did.

Paul Farhi: There are others, too, but I don't know enough about guitars to name 'em. Les Paul and Leo Fender are two pretty big icons, though. And electric guitars: No more than 60 or so years old, no?

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Indianapolis, Ind.: At the end of the chat, please let us know how many people berated you for the Stradivarius/cello remark.

Paul Farhi: I was kidding! C'mon. Everyone knows Strad was the greatest maker of...um....Stradivariuses ever.

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Digest this: The Washington Post newspaper itself is a "reader's digest" of what was posted on washingtonpost.com in the preceding 24 hours.

Paul Farhi: Actually, I think it's the other way around. But in any case neither "condenses" the other (I love that term of art--"condenses." Sounds like Campbell's Tomato Soup).

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Arlington, Va.,: Have you listened to the new WFJK the Fan? Chad Dukes and LaVar Arrington show is unlistenable. LaVar needs a grammar coach, he really sounds illiterate. Can someone put us out of their misery? Please?

Paul Farhi: I dunno. He seems pretty lively to me. And grammar-wise, he's no worse than many ex-jocks. And you want grammar on a sports talk station?

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Anonymous: Generally one thing that stands out about every other country I have visited is that they seem more laid back and happy than we do in our country. They seem to work shorter hours, take longer breaks and vacations, and it makes me a little jealous. I love our country and appreciate that our competitiveness makes us who we are, I just wish we did a better job of encouraging work/life balance.

Paul Farhi: I would have to say this observation seemed true in the country I visited. People were out in the streets at night, families were strolling together, meals were a hugely important and wonderful event each day. Plus, the children seemed absolutely joyous and adored by the adults around them. I don't know if that's just a dumb, drive-by observation, but it sure SEEMED true...

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Laurel, Md.: When the Internet first became popular and there was lots of speculation about what businesses it would help and hurt, I was pretty sure the cleave would be those can be DELIVERED over the Internet. Pets.com would have been viable if you could download dog food.

But, now that we can get all the reading material we could possibly want for free, it's hard to see the role RD plays.

Paul Farhi: I think that's it's basic problem, yes. On the other hand, it's still quite popular (here AND around the world) and still has an audience (mostly older) that likes what it does every month (or 10 times a year now in the U.S.). Unfortunately, like much of the market for anything in print, this audience is aging. The future cannot be very encouraging.

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Play Ball !: Interesting comment about the lack of local soccer players on the playgrounds in the country you visited. I don't see many local kids playing sandlot ball like in the days of my youth either. Sure we have organized ballgames but kids today seem to have forgotten the joy of simple unregulated play? Am I wrong about this and I am I now officially an old, old f_ _ _?

Paul Farhi: I'll only compare my kids' experiences to my own childhood. My childhood: Lots of pickup games, lots of street ball, lots of spontaneous play. Their childhood: Lots of organized games, year round, with travel and very structured practices. Their sports experiences were in many ways vastly superior to my own, and in some ways vastly inferior.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Why do people get all weepy when companies or publications go out of business? These things go out of business because they are not relevant enough anymore for people to be interested in them. So then why lament their death? These are companies, people. Not people company.

Paul Farhi: Oh, sigh. I think it's human nature to want to hold on to the things we grew up with. When something old and venerable--the local store or restaurant, a favorite actor or actress, whatever--passes on, it/they takes a little bit of us with 'em. We feel older, if not old.

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Hamilton, Va.: I don't know if other guys did this but at my high school, all male boarding school, we used to make footballs out of Readers Digest. You folded the corners of the pages in to the spine and when you had them all folded you put the front & back covers together and stapled. You had a nice durable football shape, it could take a beating.

Paul Farhi: New business model for the Readers Digest Association! You're gonna get a nice kickback, Hamilton....

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Old guy in overalls: I think the best thing about the RD were those, "I am Joe's spleen" and the like articles. I never knew my body had so many parts -- sad so few of them actually work anymore.

Paul Farhi: Hahahaha! Don't know RD started running those, but they became quite popular (and quite parodied). And let's face it--they were written in a way you could understand. You actually learned something useful from those stories...

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Travelin' Paul and his band : Are we supposed to guess where you vacationed? Because it sounds kind of Caribbean but I'd put even money on Mexico.

Paul Farhi: Oh, I'm so glad you said that. Because you're wrong.

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Re: Redskins Report: It just doesn't seem right that the football pre-season has begun and there's no George Michael and Sonny and Riggins to discuss the games. It just seems sad and wrong. It's not like they died. Why can't someone else pick up this show!

Paul Farhi: One word: Money. George and WRC/Chan. 4 fell out over dough. And no one else has stepped up to pay the price George thinks he and his crew should get...

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Olney, MD: I am not happy about the TV Guide going from weekly to bi-weekly, even though I visit their Web site daily. But, even though many magazines are going the way of the dodo bird, the food magazines seem to be proliferating. Food Network has a magazine; Sandra Lee has a magazine; Rachael Ray has a magazine; Paula Deen has several; I'm sure we'll be seeing them from Giada diLaurentiis and Ina Garten soon. Then Cakes by Duff? Working for Food by Adam Gertler? Maybe the Neelys? And Melissa D'Arabian, once she gets her feet wet.

Paul Farhi: The thing about magazines is/are they're very easy (i.e., inexpensive) to start. Hundreds of them are started every year (still). And they fail by the zillions (probably at a much faster rate now than ever before)...As for TV Guide, it will forever have a place in my heart for its Fall Preview Issues of yore. There was something quite exciting and delicious about reading about the new network shows back when. But that was very Back When. Now that information is absolutely everywhere....

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Takoma Park, Md.: I guess France.

Paul Farhi: I would keep guessing.

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Anonymous: That RD football comment reminds me of how we used to half fold the pages in them and make these nifty angels for the holidays by spray painting them silver or gold and adding Styrofoam heads. Why does your chat always bring me back to my childhood days ?

Paul Farhi: We're all about wallowing in the past here, mainly because it's kind of hard to wallow in the future (or even the present--I don't know how you'd do that). But don't get me wrong: I like the future, too. I'm an American; it's what we do.

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Visitaste Portugal?: Didja go to Portugal's Azores Islands, maybe?

Paul Farhi: Nope. But that sounds like fun.

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It's Obviously: Tonga

Paul Farhi: Oh, so close! (Or not. But who doesn't love a good Tongan film?).

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U.S. vs. Abroad: I'm going to have to agree with the person who noted that other countries seem more relaxed/happy/in touch with their families. So true. I'm married to a foreigner and his family always comments on the craziness of U.S. life. His dad worked in the states for a few years and the work culture was quite a change from the European way he was used to. Everytime we visit, I envy the BlackBerry-free, beer-filled lunches and the less stressful way of life (i.e., no working on weekends). Perhaps the grass is greener, but I would love to work in an environment where non-work life is just as important as work life.

Paul Farhi: I thought a lot about this while there. They certainly don't overdo the work thing (heard a report on NPR the other day about how little vacation time Americans get relative to people in other industrialized countries and how unhealthy this might be). On the other hand, we live much better, in some material respects, than "they" do. We have cars and houses and land. And opportunity--in so many countries, your fate is determined by your senior year in high school. Didn't get into the elite college? Oh, sorry. I'm sure you'll be glad never rising above a certain level. That doesn't happen here.

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Shalom aleichem !: It's obvious isn't it ? Why go any place else when you can visit a little bit of heaven on Earth?

Paul Farhi: I would love to visit Israel. But despite my admiration for the recent Israeli film, "The Band's Visit" (Netflix it as soon as you can; it's wonderful), the Promised Land does not have a glorious cinematic history (unless you count Cecil B. DeMille's films).

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Baltimore, Md.: Okay, I was in a semi-foreign land in July -- let's call it England -- and I had a profound sense of deja vu, as the BIG BIG story on TV and in the papers was swine flu. A friend that I was visiting came down with a cold and if he started coughing while we were out in public, people actually stared at him and started moving away.

Paul Farhi: Well, that's a bit of lag time, isn't it? We did our own swine flu mania thing back in the spring. America is soooo far ahead of the world!

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My guess: India?

Paul Farhi: Interesting. I bet everything I've said up until now WOULD apply to India. But no, not India...

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. F: I am shocked by your lack of musical knowledge. The name of Antonio Stradivarius will forever be linked with the glockenspiel -- or was it the tuba?

Paul Farhi: Yeah, something like that. The synthesizer? Although I think that may have been Mozart.

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Soccer: "Apparently, they like soccer in Country X":

Actually, they like soccer EVERYWHERE, because most of the teams represent -- something -- ineffable about their location -- a specific neighborhood, say, or in the case of Glasgow's Celtic and Rangers, warring religions. The Nationals "represent" Washington even less than they represented Montreal, which wasn't much in the first place.

And you were in Holland, right?

Paul Farhi: I was not in Holland, no. But, yes, on soccer as a sublimation of historic warfare and grievances. So much better than actual killing and religious/sectarian/regional warfare, which this country has had for--clue time!--centuries upon centuries. Lots of centuries, in fact.

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India: India is not big on soccer. Cricket, definitely, but not soccer.

Paul Farhi: Ah, right. Let's cross India off our Where in the World Was I list...

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NYC: "And you want grammar on a sports talk station?"

It'd be nice to understand what they are saying. Whatever happened to Charles Mann? I was so sure this guy was going to end up in a broadcast booth. Smart, good looking guy with a great voice and diction. It was always noticeable next to Dexter Manley.

Paul Farhi: Having been a sportswriter long ago, I can tell you that most jocks are not articulate people (Charles Mann was a great exception). Someone once theorized that being articulate is almost antithetical to being a jock. Anyone who is a great athlete tends to do his/her physical thing in an almost unconscious way. So it's hard to verbalize the process.

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Arlington, Va.: Obviously couldn't have been India as they produce a handful of movies over there. Ireland?

Paul Farhi: A handful? Assume you're kidding, because Bollywood is the most productive film industry on the planet.

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Anonymous: Tell all those brainiacs who complain you don't know who Stradivarius was that there was no guy named Stradivarius. The man's surname is Stradivari. The violin is a Stradivarius.

Paul Farhi: Oh, good catch! That's absolutely true. Shows you how accomplished Mr. S. really was. When your name gets corrupted that way to describe the instrument you created, you're big time. Maybe someday we'll refer to a fine vintage guitar as "Paulian."

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Washington, D.C.: Foreign land: I remember vividly on the airport shuttle in Rome, envying the natives who got to live in such a beautiful place. Then, I wondered: are the people looking at me wishing the same thing?

Paul Farhi: It's a good point. We all do the grass-is-greener thing. The veneration of all things American in the country I visited suggests that there is a longing there for the things they don't have. We take our stuff for granted; they think it's extraordinary. Because, when you think about it, it is...

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SoMD: You were in Croatia, right?

Paul Farhi: I was not.

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Naptown: I'll go with Portugal.

I just got back from a 'long weekend' in Ireland, and was talking to an old chap at the airport who was about to spend a very short vacation in America -- 10 days. Sometimes, like now, I wish I lived in a place where a 10-day vacation was considered short.

Paul Farhi: Has there ever been a great Portuguese film? I ask not to put Portugal down, but because I just can't think of one...And me, too, on the vacation thing: I took two weeks off for this vacation. Two weeks. It was the second time in my life that I have taken a two-week vacation.

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Were you in the British Isles?: English is well nigh unintelligible among the lower classes in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Paul Farhi: Accch, laddie. Wha a gift the Giftie gie us, but naw...

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Columbia, Md.: Australia then. "Mad Max," "Muriel's Wedding," any sports that involve running around (they even call it "Soccer" down there too). And lord help you if you can't translate Drunken Australian to English.

Paul Farhi: I love Australia and Australians. They seem like great Americans--somewhat similar history, great can-do spirit, awesome physical culture. Would love to visit there, someday.

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Washington, D.C.: Were you in Canada??

Paul Farhi: Man, there sure are a lot of countries in the world, and I guess Canada is one of them. But no.

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Berlin, Germany: I gave in and looked it up. Although I went to Wikipedia, so you could argue I only barely looked it up. Anyway, Stradivari made dozens of cellos. Violins were his big thing, but definitely not his only thing. He even made some guitars.

Paul Farhi: Wow! I was joking, but I guess I wasn't joking enough. I think he also made mandolins, and some other funny looking instruments, too, but the violins became the brand name, go-to instrument, the Stradivari of Stradivariuses (or possibly vice versa).

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Anonymous: You went to New Jersey, didn't you?

Paul Farhi: Glorious cinematic history! Family (or perhaps "Family") friendly! Powerful larger neighbors! It all fits...almost.

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Anonymous: The family thing also has to do with the fact that 4 weeks paid vacation is standard in Europe. That alone is reason enough to be European.

Paul Farhi: Yes, but it also has to do with limited housing options. Many extended families live together in Europe...because they have to. Housing is expensive, and small. Think of America before sprawling suburbs and I think that comes close to the housing realities in a lot of European countries.

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Anonymous: To be technical, you said "He was synonymous with that instrument." Though he made cellos, this was not the instrument his name is synonymous with.

Paul Farhi: Thanks (I like any correction that sorta, kind of, makes me seem like I was right).

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Cricket, definitely, but not soccer.: I was driving through a park this past weekend and there was a cricket game (match?) going on. And yes, they were all wearing those ice cream-server outfits (white long sleeve shirts, long white pants).

Very odd. But I found myself wanting to stop and watch. The wife said to keep driving though.

Paul Farhi: I remember travelling to England a few years ago during one of the very big international cricket tournaments. It was on TV every single second of the day, on just about every channel (or so it seemed). I watched a fair amount, hoping I could pick up a passing familiarity with the rules. It was totally incomprehensible.

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Anonymous: It was Burma wasn't it?

Paul Farhi: No, but that reminds me of one exception to the insular news agenda: They were very interested in the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi. I think her story is important, of course, but I was trying to figure out why this story, among all the things going on abroad, was so captivating to them. No answer there...

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NYC: Argh. I don't know why I care, but now I can't function without knowing where you went.

Please tell me. You don't have to tell everyone, just me. Put it in parentheses.

Paul Farhi: Okay, no more parlor games. Answer coming up...

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WITWIPF: I am a big saddened to think that some chatters thought you were in Ireland or Australia and couldn't understand the language.

Paul Farhi: Hahahaha! Well, gotta tell ya: When I first went to London, my first--very first--encounter with an actual English person was a cab driver who asked me a question that I could not understand and had to ask him to repeat three times. When I couldn't understand him the third time, I thought better of making an international incident out of it, and simply answered, "Yes." For all I know, he may have said, "May I steal your luggage and parade you naked in Trafalger Square?"

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Religious/sectarian/regional warfare. . .: Crikey --

That is all of Europe. And you call that a clue?

My guess: Germany

Paul Farhi: You're closing in. Wait for it...

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Richmond, Va.: The only time I had two weeks off (besides being laid off) was when my herniated disc and sciatica hit and I was literally on my back for two weeks.

Paul Farhi: Ain't that America? Two weeks off is a very big deal. And sometimes only for medical reasons. Sheesh.

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Ferrin' land: Cinematic history, leisurely meals, folks walking around in the evening, soccer, bad TV: this must be Italy.

Paul Farhi: Si, amico.

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Albany, N.Y.: Re kids sports: Ken Dryden made this point in "The Game" and many have made it since. The growth of organized sports is great for the most talented kids since they get improved practice, but lousy for everyone else because they don't get to play as much or as long. (And some of them don't get to play at all because they can't afford regulation equipment or have a spare parent who can drive them to the practice facility.)

That's to say nothing of the increased paranoia, fed by those media types, of today's parents (myself included) who won't let their kids roam the neighborhood unsupervised.

Oh, and as long as we are guessing about your foreign country, I'll say Italy: a proud film tradition, a language barrier, and plenty of soccer on TV.

Paul Farhi: Right on two fronts, Albany!

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Has there ever been a great Portuguese film?: Sim, senhor, sim!

In 2005, "O Crime do Padre Silva" (The Crime (or Sin, if yo prefer) of Father Silva," directed by Carlos Coelho da Silva -- never to be confused with the dreadful 2002 version -- based on the once-shocking 1875 novel of the same name by Eca de Queiros.

Paul Farhi: Have never heard of this film, and I will take your word on its greatness. But not sure if this has stood the test of time. Take this simple test: Could a person with average to above-average knowledge of movies associate a classic film with its country of origin? Or does it take an expert? What I mean is, most people could tell you one Italian film or great Italian director. Same with the French, British, Germans, Dutch, etc. etc. But Portugal? Not really...

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Anonymous: no way. We thought you ruled out Italy when you didn't say yes to it. That's cheating. That means next year you go someplace crappy that we choose. We're sending you to Lichtenstein

Paul Farhi: Lichenstein: It kicks Luxembourg's derriere.

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Anonymous: Paul : Your chat today is the most fun I've had without taking my clothes off in a long time...

Paul Farhi: Wow, been a slow summer, eh, Anon.?

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Burke, Va.: It's gotta be Italy. Felini, AC Milan, and wonderful food that makes every meal an event!

Paul Farhi: All true. And one more thing: I will never criticize another American for wearing an item of sports apparel. You cannot set foot anywhere on that other continent without seeing someone in a football/soccer-club jersey.

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Bethesda, Md.: I was about to chime in with Spain as a guess right as you said it was Italia! I would give anything to be a native of either of these countries... studied abroad in Spain and the slow pace of life was WONDERFUL! Walked everywhere, ate everything, drank wine at 2 p.m., the best!

Paul Farhi: Ah, yes. The wine thing. We were shocked every time the Italian waiters would offer wine to my daughter, who is 16. They probably think we're crazy, with all of our alcohol and tobacco restrictions.

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The Airless Cubicle: When I was a boy, I used to collect old copies of Reader's Digests. I had nearly a complete series from 1942 to 1966, if I recall correctly. It was a great magazine.

I think the reason it declined was because magazine culture in the U.S. declined. There are only a few worth reading for literary value, and most of them are on-line.

Still, there is no reason why there can't be an electronic version of the RD. Wait. It's called a blog...

Paul Farhi: (Welcome, Airless!)...Hold on. Are you saying that RD was a great literary magazine? Because it wasn't. It was severely compromised, in fact. Readable and zippy and even charmingly funny at times, but not even close to very good from a literary standpoint.

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Speaking of musical instrument inventors...: John Philip Sousa not only penned an enduring march in honor of, ahem, a certain newspaper, but rearranged the plumbing of the tuba in an instrument that could be worn around the player's shoulders whilst marching!

Paul Farhi: So, what you're saying is, he was the Stradivari of tuba fitters? (And I love "The Washington Post March;" and I'm not required to say that).

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Takoma Park, Md.: So are there any magazines that I've heard of that are prospering? What about The New Yorker? That's become a national magazine of letters. At the very least, it doesn't resemble a pamphlet in thickness, unlike say, Entertainment Weekly or even Time.

Paul Farhi: Well, it goes up and down, doesn't it? A friend who is a longtime subscriber mentioned a few months that one of his issues appeared to have four paid full-page ads (plus a whole bunch of "house" ads). But I just picked up the latest issue and it was 84 pages long. So maybe some corner has been turned...

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Them v US: I spent some months in the Netherlands, and I'd say that it is clearly not country X. The news had quite a bit of international flavor, even in the free Express-type papers handed out in the bus station (Spits! and I can't remember the name of the competing free paper). May have to do with being so very small compared to France, Germany, UK, etc.

Paul Farhi: I'm sure this varies country to country, and even day to day. It IS summer after all, and maybe all the foreign correspondents in Italy were taking their long vacations. But we Americans get impressed with international networks like the BBC. Again, several of the British papers that I read didn't get a whole lot further afield than Manchester or Leeds.

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If It's Tuesday, This Must Be...: Because I happen to know where you vacationed (and where you live, for that matter), I'll throw out this hint/question: How much of what you observed about the local media landscape might have been attributable to the fact that the country's maximum leader owns much of the media? (As opposed, for clarification's sake, to actual state-owned media.)

Paul Farhi: Very interesting question (and stop stalking me, dammit). I wondered if what I was seeing was attributable to Berlusconi's dominance of the (TV) media there. But then again, if it was, wouldn't that leave room for the other broadcasters to fill the unfilled niches? And how do you explain the newspapers, which aren't owned by Berlusconi?

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Columbia, Md.: Italy. Their media ownership is even more screwed up than ours. At leastly Rupert Murdoch isn't running for president. Of course the main reason he doesn't is that he would have to pay taxes...

Paul Farhi: Another difference between them and us: It would be very hard, if not impossible (given media ownership laws) for there to be a Berlusconi here. Our media is much more diversely owned than Italy's (or Great Britain's, for that matter).

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Paul Farhi: Well, this has been very international today, folks, but I better move along now. Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for playing our geography guessing game. Everyone wins a lovely parting gift, which is the wish that you have the opportunity to visit such a beautiful place as Italia. We'll go back to domestic concerns next week. Until then, as always, regards to all!....Paul.

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