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5 conversation topics for travelers afraid of awkward silences
Every city has its own ice-breakers; we've picked out the best for seven cities around the world
You know the scene. You're in a new town, you're assiduously scoping out every bar within walking distance of your hotel and suddenly there's an eerie pause in the chatter between you and your local friends.
You've exhausted your stories from the time(s) you nearly died in Bolivia, they've tired of telling you where to go tomorrow while they have to work. And so as inevitably as an Icelandic volcano erupting the day you jet off to Europe, the fallback conversation topics make their appearance.
But which fallback topics exactly are they?
The problem is, they're different in every city.
Sure the weather crops up a lot, as do modes of transportation, but listen long enough, and eventually you'll realize you don't need to open your eyes to know where you are.
Just your ears.
Have a read, then let us know: which things do people always talk about in your city?
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In the car culture of L.A., it's all about traffic -- getting stuck in it, avoiding it, how no one knows how to drive in the rain. When the 405 was closed for one weekend in July 2011, the ensuing "Carmageddon" was all anyone could talk about.
Related: finding street parking. As in, "I finally found a spot, but I can only park there for eight minutes after 7 p.m. on a Tuesday."
Angelenos spend a lot of time in their cars; they're defined by what they drive.
Whether they drive a luxury car or the $500 beater they bought 10 years ago, they've got something to say about what they're driving now and hope to be driving someday -- as well as the obscene amount of money they've had to shell out for auto repairs.
3. Real estate
Whether you live at the beach, in West L.A. or the Valley, you'll invariably end up talking about how much you like living at the beach, in West L.A. or the Valley, and how long it takes to get from your place to the beach, West L.A. or the Valley. (See also: Traffic.)
4. Celebrity sightings
You don't need a map to stars' homes to spot a celebrity in Los Angeles.
Yet no matter how common an occurrence it is, even the most jaded resident can't resist recounting how they stood behind Ryan Reynolds ordering a double espresso at Starbucks (and how much shorter he looks in person).
People in Los Angeles are used to living with earthquakes, and have the stories to prove it.
Though they'll never downplay how serious "The Big One" could be, when an earthquake does occur, conversations tend to be matter-of-fact rather than fearful.
"That felt like a five. Don't you think it was at least a five?"
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Hong Kong was controlled by the United Kingdom for more than a 150 years, so many still regard "mainland China" as an entirely different country.
And, given the chance, will (fairly or not) criticize "mainlanders" as wealthy tourists who flood Hong Kong to throw money around, behave badly in public and give birth in local hospitals so that their babies will have permanent residency.
2. Real estate
Property prices, already high, are soaring even higher as a boom in the economy has the nouveau riche buying up much of Hong Kong's prime real estate.
Potential homeowners with an eye on the market are prone to commiserate about the rising prices and wonder: Is there any end in sight?
3. Hong Kong Sevens
The international rugby sevens tournament, The Hong Kong Sevens is the biggest sporting event in the city. Locals take it seriously, dressing up and partying into the night.
It's the main topic of conversation when it's happening, but at any other time of year, you might fill an awkward gap by asking, "Are you going to the Sevens?" … even though it's October and the tournament takes place in March.
Shopping is such a major part of local culture, it's almost a national sport. Brand-conscious Hong Kongers seek out the finest goods and best bargains, and they can buy almost anything they want from the incredible variety of stores at their disposal.
Ask a group of locals where the best place to buy custom dress shirts might be -- then sit back and watch the recommendations fly.
Hong Kongers are in love with dining out. And no wonder, as the city provides countless options, from street food to dim sum to gourmet feasts.
It doesn't take much to start a local reminiscing about their last meal, planning their next one or taking pictures of the food right in front of them.
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The London Underground is one of the busiest rail services in the world.
It's (naturally) a reliable source of complaints: how slow it is, how expensive it is, how/why it doesn't run 24 hours a day and why are the Tube drivers constantly going on strike?
2. Real estate
Fluctuating housing prices, and which neighborhoods are up and coming, are always a hot topic. Because of high property taxes, however, few can afford to move, which leads many Londoners to convert their attics into bedrooms and bathrooms, or to extend their kitchens.
If you want to establish immediate camaraderie with a London homeowner, ask how his or her loft conversion is going.
3. The weather
Despite what the Gershwins wrote, it isn't all that foggy in London town.
But weather is still the go-to conversation starter, whether it's cold when it was supposed to be hot, or raining when it was supposed to be dry.
The forecasters, naturally, are rarely completely right.
London also faces the threat of drought this year, causing many residents to wonder not just if it will happen, but how bad it might be.
Children in England enter primary school at five and secondary school at 11. Any parent with kids that age is fixated on getting his or her child into the right state (public) or private schools -- right down to buying a new home in a prime "catchment area" (school district), or dusting off the piety and becoming a regular churchgoer (even converting!) to secure entry in the best state-funded faith schools.
5. The Olympics
The 2012 Olympics in London are the topic this year. Whether you care about the Games or not.
Many Brits tend toward a gloomy outlook on how good the opening ceremony will be, how many (if any) medals the home team will win, the potential for terrorism and how crowded the city will get.
But they're still planning on going, leaving locals to wonder why they couldn't get any better tickets (or revel in the choice seats they scored via work).
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New York City
Nearly everyone in New York takes the subway, which runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
So there's no shortage of complaints about which subway lines are the worst and why, or which line isn't running today and why it delayed your commute by an hour -- "We sat in the station for 30 minutes!" -- not to mention detailed directions on the quickest way from point A to point B.
2. Real estate
There are five boroughs in New York, but the Manhattan versus Brooklyn debate in particular -- i.e., which is the better place to live? -- will never die. (Though don't forget the loyal Queens contingent.)
Also, New Yorkers aren't shy about asking you what you pay in rent.
3. The weather
Though winters (cold) and summers (hot and humid) inspire constant commentary, even a warm winter will start conversations about whether or not it's ever going to snow.
In spring or on any remotely nice day -- when New Yorkers are released from their apartments and offices to play in the sunshine -- "It's so beautiful outside" is the first sentence off anyone's tongue.
Dealing with vermin is a part of life in New York.
As a visitor, you'll probably spot a few rats on the subway tracks at night, but every New Yorker has a colorful tale about the mouse they found in their apartment, the biggest cockroach they ever saw or that time a rat ran over their foot.
5. Throwing up in a cab
It might surprise you how many New Yorkers have a "throwing up in a cab" story -- or one about a friend who vomited on the subway or their friend's friend who got sick out the cab window.
One reason? New Yorkers don't drive, so drinking and getting home don't always mix well.
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Everything in Lisbon ends up coming around to football, whether it's an analysis of a game played by one of Portugal's big three teams (Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Futebol Clube do Porto, Sporting Clube de Portugal), speculation about a game that's about to be played or trash-talking to your friend who supports a rival team.
Star Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo plays for Real Madrid, but leads the national team, currently ranked fifth in the world by FIFA.
2. The weather
In comparison with other locales, the weather in Portugal doesn't vary much -- most of the time it's either warm or hot -- yet that doesn't mean locals can't (or won't) complain about it.
Portuguese do have reason to grumble this year. The country faces its worst drought in 70 years … which means that even on nice days, you might worry about the lack of rain and its effect on your allergies.
3. Digestive issues
The Portuguese don't just talk about food; they talk about what happens after you've eaten your food.
They have a highly developed sense of what you can and cannot eat, how it affects you once you've eaten it, what combinations of foods might be hard to digest and what to do if you're having trouble digesting.
Think you have a cast-iron stomach? After a conversation like this, you may reconsider.
4. The help
Many Lisboners with enough money hire housekeepers and nannies to help them with cleaning and child care. Invariably, anyone with "help" is bound to talk about whom they've hired, what tasks they terrific at doing, what they're hopeless at and how good they are with the kids.
Americans consider it rude to talk about other people's weight, but not so Portuguese.
In Lisbon, don't be surprised if someone you barely know comments on how thin or fat you are, or how much weight you must have gained or lost.
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It's not Beijing, but Sydney still has inordinately terrible traffic, and is home to some of the most frustrated commuters around.
"Can you believe it really took two hours to get from [this place] to [that place]?" [Insert facial expression of agony/exasperation.]
2. The weather
Sydney's nearly 10-year drought was broken in 2010, but no sooner did people stop talking about the drought than the floods started, which dominated discussion for another year.
These days, at any given time, parts of Sydney are experiencing either a drought or floods … so pick one to talk about and you've got a 50 percent chance of scoring conversation gold.
Politics isn't always the safest topic, but it may be inevitable that you'll wind up in a conversation about the Australian government's messy state of affairs.
Here's what you need to know: a) Australia currently has a rare hung parliament (no party has a majority), b) Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, is losing voter support, c) her rival for the 2013 election is the conservative opposition leader, Tony Abbott.
All you have to say is, "Who's the lesser of two evils, Gillard or Abbott?" and the debate will unfold in front of you.
4. Fad diets
The country's rising obesity rate has led some Australians to try to lose weight in the most outlandish ways.
Locals will happily share with you which "quick-fix" fad diets they're starting, such as the lemon juice diet (drink only lemon juice with cayenne pepper), the cabbage soup diet (eat only cabbage soup) and Michelle Bridges' 12-Week Body Transformation, in which the former "Biggest Loser Australia" trainer gives you a three-month ass-kicking -- for a fee.
Australians are renowned for knowing how to have a good time. More often than not, that means drinking.
Before you go out drinking, though, you'll need to talk about where to go. Afterward, you'll need to talk about where you went (if you can remember).
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Rome is one of the most congested cities in the world, and locals are notoriously bold behind the wheel.
Most Romans are used to it, but getting off the street and onto the city's buses, trams and Metro brings a whole new set of headaches, as public transit strikes are frequent and unpredictable.
Many a disgruntled commuter will arrive at a destination and rant about their day being ruined, and why can't someone do something about it? (See also: How bad the government is.)
2. The weather
Rome's winters are largely temperate, and snow is rare; but that doesn't mean Romans don't remark on the weather at any lapse in conversation.
There's no shortage of weather-related talk in hot and humid July and August, when many locals flee the city altogether -- leaving those who remain to lament about what misfortune is keeping them in town.
You're in Rome. Of course you're going to talk about food.
Nearly everyone has a passionately held opinion on where the city's best pizza in is, where the best place to get gelato is or who makes the best pappardelle al cinghiale (wild boar ragu).
Don't argue. Listen closely. Then go try them all.
4. How bad the government is
Italians have many colorful things to say about their famously unstable government. At least the blame can't all be placed at the feet of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned last year.
Any Roman can give you an earful about the inefficiency of government bureaucracy and how woefully long it takes to repair damaged roads. How long it takes to repair anything, for that matter.
Maybe this is why Rome wasn't built in a day.
Since 2001, Rome's marquee football team, Roma, has been a perennial runner-up in the race for the Italian Serie A title. But the club's fortunes may be changing.
When current owner Thomas DiBenedetto took control in 2011, he installed new coach Luis Enrique (subsequently dismissed), signed high-profile players and announced plans for a lavish stadium.
While it's not looking totally rosey, there's plenty to keep you in the game with Roma fans as they wonder: what will the stadium look like? Who will prevail in the next match between Roma and its controversial intra-city rival Lazio?
And will Roma ever win the title?
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