earthly: An idyll fit for idiots

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There is a country we all know, but few have visited. It shares the same space as America, but in a parallel universe. It's called TV-Movieland. You might want to live there. Everyone who does, after all, has a front drive, an en suite bathroom and separate phone lines for teenagers. It's a consumer utopia, where success also means understanding.

You know TV-Movieland. You've seen the brochures. It's the place where moms run up porch steps hugging brown paper shopping bags from the tops of which plumes of celery protrude. Where each unmarried woman has a media career and a warehouse flat with exposed girders and giant abstract oils on the staircase. There are no bungalows here, no overflowing dustbins and no leaves on the line. It's where romantic dinners consist of spaghetti and women like salad.

This is the country where everyone has a disabled friend, where minority groups are the bringers of wisdom. Old people, Chinese junk-shop owners, people who mend cars, women who pour the coffee in diners: wherever you turn, there's someone waiting to offer advice or baby-sit. This is the place where parents apologise when they're in the wrong and adolescents say things like, "I'm only upset because we never seem to spend enough time together".

Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, don't be fooled. You may long for kitchen appliances that work, secretaries who type up annual reports overnight and a verandah with a swing seat, but these things come at a price. Beneath this happy, ordered surface lies a wriggling, slimy can of worms.

Try this: go to a park. That dad-and-child combo by the climbing frames are guaranteed to be exchanging the following line: "You'll love Marcia. And now we're getting married we can be a family again". Each suburban celebration is disrupted when a rake-thin, lycra-clad lush falls off her spike heels while carrying a cake. Gay men only exist to stumble in on violent burglars. Representatives of religious groups are crypto-Nazis. Unless they're Catholic priests, in which case they have frank conversations about sex while strolling on docksides. Even the animals have alarming habits: there's never a dog that doesn't whine and wag its tail, never a horse that doesn't whinny when it appears. As for cats, they have only one function: to jump, yowling, out of dark places and make lone females scream.

This, you see, is the murder capital of the world. Business deals in Jakartan penthouses are a doddle in comparison. No one here lies around watching soaps and thinking about vacuuming. It is a prerequisite of citizenship that you agree to be raped/slashed/ murdered/mown down by a drunk driver, or find your parents/spouse/children raped/slashed/murdered. Dawn breaks to the sound of women saying "I woke up in a panic because I'd forgotten to pack his lunch, and then I remembered..."

As with most countries, there are specific rules for women. The Lonely Planet Guide keeps forgetting to include them, but they must be strictly observed. Never shoot with your eyes open. If you shoot with your eyes open, you'll miss. Don't run into the street when there's a windowless attic to hide in. And - this is most important - only check out late-night noises barefoot, in a nightie, without turning on the lights.

Sounds bad, I know, but if you follow a few basic rules, you'll not only survive, you'll be a better person. Firstly: never trust a man with a moustache. Always trust men with beards. Unless, that is, you're in woodland and they're wearing a plaid shirt. If your husband's dead, avoid your best friend. If your husband and best friend are staining the deep-pile, don't stand at the top of a cliff with the investigating cop. Stick with these rules, and you'll do fine. Have a nice trip.

Serena Mackesy