Guest Post – Well-Known Facts International Edition

1500s world map Australia has lost a LOT of weight since giving birth to Antarctica

As the tied-for-second-place winner of Goldfish’s Mad Libs Spectacular, I thought I’d contribute a leaf to one of her ongoing series and write a little quasi-nonfiction. So, without further ado, let’s spin up that globe and discuss some well-known facts about countries most Westerners would be hard-pressed to pronounce, much less find on a globe.

ITALY
FACT: Italy leads the world in toilet oppression.

We from North America have been spoiled, in many senses, by the voluminous number of public toilets. Anywhere you go in the States, and to a lesser extent USA Jr. and South of the Border, there are public toilets. You can’t even go to a dumpy public park in Ditchwaterville, Nowherebraska without finding a free pissery.

In Italy, that freedom does not exist.

Ancient Roman toilets in Ostia
Not quite this bad, but close.

Oh, sure, the restrooms are supposedly free. But every single one is overseen by a matronly woman built like a linebacker, who sits at the entrance and shakes would-be excreters down for “tips” (and with a minimum tip often advertised, it’s suspiciously like a cover fee. For the bathroom). Heaven help you if you try to go in without tipping or sneak past while the bathroom centurion is away, for you will unleash a torrent of verbal abuse that will leave you stumbling, ears bleeding, away to quietly pee your pants in shame.

This is why I laugh long and hard when peeps describe Europe as a glorious socialized paradise. It’s all moot if you can’t pee for free!

FACT: Italy is terrible at Italian food.

When I was in Italy, I was salivating at the prospect of some Italian pizza. You could follow the trail of drool through the Rome airport and onto the pickpocket-infested bus line that tourists know as The Wallet Eater. I am a bit of a pizza fanatic; I’ve eaten the dish on four continents and in more countries than most people have ever been to. So even though the Italian pizza I ordered was like 50 euros, I was still giddy with anticipation.

A pizza with pepperoni, onions, and green peppers
Hey, what are those healthful toppings doing on my pizza! I want bread, sauce, mozzarella, and pepperoni, none of that hippie green pepper or purple space onion crap.

What did I get? Basically an ultra-thin flatbread with tomato sauce and a little cheese. It was like someone had unrolled a pizza roll or some devilish Noid had stomped the pie flat. It was un-thick, un-filling, un-sliced, and un-slicable. Compared to the fine pizzas of New York, Chicago, or even Vietnam, it was trash. The one and only exception was the Vatican, whose holy pizza was wholly pizza.

Pope John Paul II speaking ino microphone, 2004
The pope mumbles through a pizza blessing. This was 2 popes ago, but JP the Deuce was in charge of pizza-blessing when I was there.

And that’s the dirty little secret of Italian food: most of it was invented in America. Oh sure, the inventors were first-generation Italian immigrants and used traditional ingredients and even some traditional names. But pizza as we know it was still invented in the Bronx, with the stuff back in Italy a mere back-formation. The same is true of a lot of other dishes. Just like you can’t get a decent fortune cookie in China, because they were invented in San Francisco

VIETNAM
FACT: Vietnam is not a communist country.

Yep. Despite the ego-bruising loss of the war to the Communists, who came in red flags a-wavin’, contemporary Vietnam is not-communist enough to make old Uncle Ho spin in his mausoleum. In fact, Vietnam is, bar none, the most capitalist country I’ve ever visited.

The Vietnamese coat of arms, red with gears and wheat ears
I mean, come on. Is this not the most communist coat of arms ever?

Every home has a shop out front selling something. Every. Single. One. You can buy home-cooked food, spare motorbike tires, water bottles full of gasoline, and even ice-cold bottles of Pepsi out of just about anyone’s front porch, especially if said porch opens up onto a road. Fun fact: Vietnam is also the only country in the world where Pepsi reigns supreme and has fully made Coke its bitch. That’s what you get for being nimble and quick when a country opens up to the world after decades of isolation and reeducation, I tell you what.

The entrepreneurial spirit is not limited to people turning their homes into shops, naturally. Vietnamese rivers are filled with fishermen busily hauling their catch to market. Granted, it’s electro-fishing which uses a metal wand hooked up to a car battery to zap fish senseless (cover your eyes, Goldfish!). It’s not green, but it brings in the green. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fine Chinese-style pirate marts, which cultivate vast fields of illegal DVDs and CDs fresh for the harvesting. And that’s not even getting into the combination KFC/bowling alley in Saigon (certified bird-flu free!).

Modern Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) at night
This view of Saigon looks slightly less communist. And yes, even the most diehard communist still calls it Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City.

Of course, the government is still highly authoritarian. But if you’re making money and they get their cut, they are happy to let you be as capitalist as you want under the red banner of Uncle Ho. Just don’t be pushing for democracy or anything like that–do things the American way and get rich to bribe officials. That’s change we can believe in.

ZIMBABWE
FACT: Zimbabwe has the most hosed-up money in the world right now.

Huh? What’s that, you say? What’s a Zimbabwe? Is it some kind of fish? Tsk tsk. Zimbabwe is a country in southern Africa with a troubled past. It had its own brand of apartheid going on back in the 60s and 70s, with white folks in charge of everything, but after a rather nasty civil war, things seemed on the upswing. When I visited, the races were living in relative harmony and the country was flush with tourist dollars from people seeing Victoria Falls and giant stone birds. Alas, things started to go south when the prez decided that things like “term limits” and “democracy” were for people without toothbrush mustaches.

So there was a nasty period of the gummint grabbing up everything they wanted and redistributing it to supporters to shore up their base. The only problem was those supporters had no idea of how to run their shiny new misappropriated farms and factories. Oops. So as the only way to get anything was by buying it on the black market or getting it smuggled in, the Zim dollar started going all hyperinflatey.

Invader Zim action figures
Admit it, this is what you thought of when I said “Zim Dollar.”

Hyperinflation isn’t filling your balloon with too much helium; rather, it means the currency falls in value at a stunning rate. For example, when I went to Zimbabwe in the 90s, the exchange rate was 7-8 Zim dollars to 1 US dollar and the inflation rate was 20%. High, but pretty good for Africa. By 2008, the inflation rate was 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000%. That’s 6.5 sextillion percent, which means the exchange rate was 2,621,984,228 Zim dollars to 1 US dollar. Two trillion, six hundred twenty-one billion, nine-hundred eighty-four thousand, two hundred twenty-eight to one.

Zimbabwe dollar bills from $10 to $100,000,000,000.
These bills were all printed within a year of each other, from $10 to $100,000,000,000. By the end, the top bill was worth 3 US cents.

Yeah. They got rid of their currency after that, meaning that as of today Zimbabwe has no money of its own and uses foreign money (US dollars, etc.) for everything…which people were pretty much doing anyway, considering that toilet paper cost so much that it was cheaper to wipe your bum with trillion-dollar bills. Sadly, the country’s still in an economic hole and the same president presides over it, Adolf-stache and all. Maybe they should try communism–it worked for Vietnam!