Don't tell anyone, but when I'm overseas, I watch a lot of television. I saw Prince Charles kiss Lady Diana in -- of all places -- China. I saw the Parliament elect a new government in New Zealand. I became a late-afternoon sumo wrestling addict in Japan.
Now, don't get the idea that I lock myself in a hotel when I visit foreign countries. I don't, but I have discovered that one of the best ways of getting a feel for a country is by watching its television. I watch the news, sports, dramas, comedies, and when the commercials come on, I never stray from my seat to get a croissant or a six-pack of sake. Even the weather reports are helpful, as I learn the geography of a country.
I'm most interested in the news shows, especially in countries such as England, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, where the reporters speak my language. Coverage of world events is excellent. In small countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, there doesn't seem to be much local news except for some bickering in Parliament or a scandal or two. Instead, the programs devote a lot of time to human interest stories and sports and they do a thorough job in both areas. When I was in Australia and New Zealand, 19 1/2 hours a day were devoted to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
Entertainment shows in these countries are often American productions, such as "Magnum P.I.," "Hart to Hart" and "Cheers." And it's obvious that many viewers are avid fans of shows like "Kojak" and "Hill Street Blues," because they're amazed to discover that a New Yorker like me has never been robbed or attacked. Still, they love these shows and never seem to get enough of "Dallas."
Travelers who get homesick for American shows would especially love Australia. Turn on the television and on any of the five channels you're sure to find a hodgepodge of old and new American shows -- "Scarecrow and Mrs. King," "Falcon Crest," "I Love Lucy," "The Flying Nun," "The Munsters."
Even the shows produced in Australia have a familiar ring to them. There's an investigative "weekly newsmagazine" called "60 Minutes" (complete with ticking stopwatch). There are game shows such as "The Price Is Right" ("Ian Donovan, come oooon down!") and late-night variety shows such as "The Tonight Show with Bert Newton" ("And now, heeere's Bert!"). Early-morning viewers can enjoy "The Today Show" and "Good Morning Australia." In the evening, after "M*A*S*H" (which is on five days a week), there are "Eyewitness News" and two other news shows that feature the same theme music as New York stations. There is a live, unfunny, "Hey, Hey, It's Saturday" that looks strikingly similar to "Saturday Night Live."
In commercials, happy Australian Toyota owners all cry, "Oh, what a feeling!" as they leap in the air and children lean close to their cereal bowls to hear their Rice Bubbles go "snap, crackle and pop." Their mothers, meanwhile, are washing out their clothes with Mr. Sheen. Beer commercials often find two ex-athletes grappling over the merits of a favorite beer.
Slightly disappointed at the dearth of Australian-produced shows, I actually left my hotel room and went out one evening with a few Australian friends. Suddenly, around 9:45, my friends rose and pushed toward the door. "We've got to get back home to see 'Dinnestee.' " Enthusiastically I went along because I had grown tired of the American fare and was anxious to see what the Aussies could produce. We flicked on the set, sat down, and I groaned as we watched John Forsythe and Linda Evans saunter across the room. This was "Dynasty."
Occasionally, Australian television did stray from the norm. Commercials appeared not only during breaks from a show, but even when an episode was on. Blurbs appeared at the bottom of the screen as a show was in progress. Conditioned by my American viewing habits, I read these messages, thinking they were urgent news bulletins, but they were invariably pushing a soft drink or a new automobile.
In movies, such as "The Wanderers," a 1979 R-rated film, the sex and violence were discreetly edited out, but the four-letter words were left intact.
This was a bit startling, but it was in other countries where my head spun. I heard John Wayne speak in Russian. Spanish singer Carmen Miranda spoke fluent Hindi in India. In Seoul, all of the "Eight Is Enough" characters spoke in Korean. Eight was more than enough.
There were other curiosities: Every day in Egypt, I saw an elderly, bearded Moslem holy man chanting his prayers for 10 minutes, followed by a bevy of scantily clad belly dancers.
But the most intriguing shows were the ones from the one-channel Communist countries. No "Dallases" or "The Munsters" were shown here.
Every night in the Soviet Union I watched the news with a few English-speaking Russian acquaintances. The show followed a set format. On a bare stage stood a stolid, humorless-looking fellow about 60 years old. The show opened with President Leonid Brezhnev (this was 1978) pinning a medal on a proud Russian officer. This happened every day for the two weeks I spent in the Soviet Union. (We Westerners knew the film had been hauled out from the vault because at this time the ailing Brezhnev hadn't been seen in public for four months.) After the handshakes it was on to the disasters from the West: The Texas sniper who killed nearly a dozen people; the strikes in Italy; the violence in Northern Ireland; the unemployment lines in England. Then it was back to Russian leaders shaking hands with leaders from other Communist countries, Russian farmers taking care of the wheat (wasn't that our wheat?). No feature stories, no interviews, not even a funny weatherman. In 15 minutes, the news was over.
Sports, however, were handled well. I saw half a dozen hockey games between American teams and the Russian national squad. There were two commentators, the camera work was exemplary, and the Russians won every game.
In China, there were volleyball matches (China defeated Brazil when I was there), opera, war movies (the courageous Communists defeating the nasty Nationalists), and a more upbeat news program that devoted 15 minutes of coverage to Prince Charles' wedding to Lady Diana. There was an objective report on the upcoming American elections and a diatribe against the hated Vietnamese. But the most popular show was one that came on early in the evening: English lessons. The Chinese are extremely eager to learn English and this show is of immense help.
Finally, I viewed some Polish television. In many ways it resembled Russian programming in its drabness and anti-Western propaganda, but there were two shows that caught my interest. On one, a reporter held an innocuous interview with a nun visiting from overseas. My curiosity wasn't exactly piqued until I realized that the nun was from our tour group. Sister Jane, fluent in Polish, answered all the questions ("Where are you from?" "Do you like Krakow?" etc.) with aplomb and, we all agreed, will certainly become the first American media star of Poland.
I felt that Sister Jane's performance was the highlight of my television viewing, until I reached the Warsaw Airport for my flight home. After checking my suitcases, I languidly watched a TV murder mystery where the victim lay stretched out across the floor. The detective was interrogating a guilty-looking fellow. As they were talking, a woman emerged from the bedroom wearing a smile and nothing else. Hmmm. I pulled up a chair. So did a lot of other people. Because my Polish vocabulary is limited to a handful of words (such as "Hello" and "Thank you"), I couldn't understand everything that was said, but what I saw, I understood. My flight was about to depart, but I didn't want to leave Poland. There would be, I reasoned, other flights out. Totally invigorated, I started making plans to return to Poland, to see how this episode turned out and to watch more Polish television.
Just don't tell anyone.