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Rude Awakenings in Paris

15 April 2011 3 comments

I find myself in a dubious peril.  I am losing the ability to use pronouns properly – in english.    After being in France for over 9 months and having to re-apply for my yearly visa to work (already?), I trip over my tongue on which side of “we” do I put myself on?  I have consistently had my affinity for French culture and integrated well on certain aspects.   I don’t hesitate to put myself on the French side when it comes to:

We always wait till the meal is over before having our coffee.
We never eat with our fingers unless it is tear off a piece of bread.

Yet there are other times when I clearly state Well that is us Americans for you! during particular discussions of business, economics or politics.  For better or for worse, I have an American passport, an American education and an American desire for change.

I recently passed three weekends in a row in Paris, leaving behind Côte d’Azur and the banality of my job.  It was also through these travels that I became often unsettled that maybe they, the French, are loosing their identity?  And if so, am I truly claiming a new identity?  And yes, this discussion will be an economic one.

I start it off with the familiar presence of Starbuck’s in the City of Light.  I have always had mixed feelings about Starbucks and I won’t deny that I frequented the franchise in Philadelphia.  In some regards they try to hold to liberal, European values such as health insurance for all employees and shutting down all their stores world-wide for a few hours (back in 2009) to retrain their staff on how to make a proper cup of espresso.  Yet we cannot overlook their American consumerism and gluttony.  Later this year they will be offering a larger 4th cup size similar to the famous 7-11 Big Gulp for soda.   (Really?  Do consumers need that much coffee?)  As much it was admirable that Starbuck’s did shut down world-wide to learn again how to make a proper espresso, when is the last time anyone heard of someone ordering one in a Starbuck’s?  It is always Frappachino this and Café Mixto that, with double-chocolate and soy milk that only comes from obscure place like Alberta, Canada.  Plus Starbuck’s is about being on-the-go, known for its drive-thrus and having stores in NYC without any chairs! (what? you wanted to enjoy that coffee?)  So how are the French adapting to Starbucks?  Well as I was enjoying my salade de chevre chaud in a nice Parisian brasserier in the Latin Quarter with my Notre Dame alumni friend, he clearly told me France is Starbuck’s best European market.  The actions of the young Parisians holding their goblets of Starbucks as they catch the next metro only confirmed his words.  Does France really want this?  Do I really want this?  I want Starbucks to stay home, in the U.S.  I left that behind for good reason.  I don’t want them to become part of this “we“.

So far, Nice does not have a Starbuck’s. Yet.  I proudly enjoy my little noisette at the coffee shop down the street as I read the local newspaper.  It is with deep pleasure to know this operation is privately owned and only knows how to make a measly five types of coffee (café, noisette, café au lait, cappuccino and maybe something else).  Don’t even think about ordering it to go, they don’t even have plastic containers for you to do that!  Just sit down and enjoy a coffee in a real, porcelain cup.

Of course it isn’t just Starbuck’s, there is the good old monster of McDonald’s.  It was recently in the paper here in Nice that the mayor celebrated the opening of their 5th McDonald’s with a live jazz band and champaign.  Champaign?  Is it really all that necessary?  France is also McDonald’s best European market in spite of initial political resistance.  I am still perplexed how all this is measured as economic prosperity.  Even more perplexing is how the French with their history of gastronomic cuisines could adapt so easily to these mass-produced edibles.  Is not the McCafé marketing campaign claiming McDonald’s can do a good espresso like Starbuck’s a slap to the Marianne’s face? (Remember, the French call their country by a first name.)

Moi as a French Burner!

Moi as a French Burner!

It isn’t just about food, there is also the culture side of things.  You may have heard of Burning Man, an artistic infusion of people wearing wacky clothing that happens in the middle of desert in the southwest.  Before you know it, you have a little city of free-flowing, free loving Americans creating modern art.  The concept is admirable but if you aren’t into sweating under the sun to build your art with fellow strangers, it shouldn’t be on your vacation list of must see’s before you die.  I did have the pleasure of going to one of the first French Burners in Paris the first weekend I was there.  The French Burners is the official spin-off from the Burning Man on French soil.  It was a one-of-a-kind experience as you had to dress up in a costume to be allowed into the event; normal everyday clothing was banned.  As there were some interesting artists (performance art, dancers, painters, etc.) the evening really become more a rave, those secret dance clubs that would appear in abandoned warehouses during the 90’s.  As much as art is close to my heart and I don’t want to limit these culture events, my mind still wandered to the current dilemma.  I am not sure having everyone for a few hours in a dance hall by the Moulin Rouge is achieving the same thing as a week in the American desert.  That’s them and this is us. Or is it that’s us and this is them?  In any case, French Burners is checked off my list and I will be going back to the Louvre, something the French know how to do.

So what is it that I am missing about the American “we“?  One thing I will admit is having a good Sunday brunch.  I have several memories with my closest friends on the east coast over a casual Sunday brunch.  It is the one time in American culture where one can unwind and reflect on the past week.  In a more unpolished version, a time to catch up on the week’s gossip.  So I miss that opportunity to have a really good omelette with salsa, pancakes with real maple syrup, bacon on the side and a big cup of American coffee.  I heard rumor at work that someone tried to open an American brunch restaurant here in the Côte d’Azur thinking there was enough expats to support it.  Sadly it failed.  So here in Paris, where everything is possible, I met a good French friend at the famous Breakfast In America restaurant where I had to wait in a long for a table as the British guys in front of me drank from their Starbuck’s paper venti sized coffee cups.  I have to say, I was impressed with the restaurant as they exactly knew how to serve an American brunch and got what I was searching for.  The staff was mostly Americans who could speak French which poses a linguistic dilemma on how to place your order (en français?).  I was so tickled pink that I got an American cup of coffee with cream in the classic white mug nostalgic of American diners.  The line was worth the wait as I enjoyed my southwestern omelette and short stack of pancakes on the side.  Interestingly I had realized my transformation by the end of the meal, I no longer liked the American coffee that I thought that I was missing; I barely finish my cup.  Suddenly I realized I wanted to end the meal with my traditional noisette (espresso with a little steamed milk) instead.  I craved it.  Oui, oui.  I stopped being the American “we” for a second.

My last weekend in Paris was spent on the outskirts of Disneyland Paris.  It was a gorgeous campus of a Marriott village that a close American friend rented for a week.  It wasn’t a hotel but a series of apartments with full kitchens, spacious bathrooms and a pond with a white swan.  It really was a beautiful and makes a great first impression.  Of course the clients were mostly families anxiously waiting for Disneyland Paris to open for the day.  After a few excursions to the royal cities of Fontainebleau, Reims and the city center of Paris, the Marriott village’s true American charm shone through.  The first American element is the fact that it is in the middle of nowhere and requires all guests to rent a car to really enjoy France.  They did provide a shuttle to the nearest suburban train station but it was way too far to walk.  The village felt so isolated; so not French.  Then the fact that the apartments were so spacious, including the bathrooms.  Is it not part of the European charm to sit on the toilet and to have the bathroom sink right there in your face?  Not here.  My own shower could have held 3 other people.  Then finally what is the history of this architectural gem of a village (each apartment was designed at least with a unique look to avoid banality)?  Well nothing really.  They were built  for you to financially support the Disney empire next door.  This place wasn’t of a place of royalty, religious inspiration or dedication to the fabrication of something unique . . . it was built to support consumerism, a polished product of the American way.

So am I bitter?  No.  Just sobering up to the reality that is in front of me.  I recently read the book Seducing the French by Richard Kuisel, a historian who attempts to explain the delicate Franco-American relationship since World War II.  France’s ego was devastated by the two World Wars and forced her to take a side role on the world’s stage.  A precious point to comprehend before digesting current French politics.  The author cites brilliant examples of the that’s them and this is us conflict. For one, he describes France’s attempt to outlaw Coca-Cola for supposed health reasons in the 50’s (Coca-Cola was so determined to make money they confided a way to ship their product through Morocco to by-pass French port authorities).  Then later U.S. Government renamed the famous side order to Freedom Fries in the cafeteria (yea, the recent episode with the Iraqi War was actually a second occurrence).  The French always had an overt disdain towards American consumerism primarily because they didn’t want to fall into the same trap.  That book was the catalyst to my current state.  I am witnessing, breathing and living that conflict.  Something we all go through of determining when to claim individual/cultural identity and when to embrace team spirit.  But then, which team are you on?

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Personal logistic note: Yes, my blog has been less frequent recently because I still do not have Internet at my apartment.  I appreciate your patience and following but I have taken some legal action to get my telephone line replaced.  Another story to soon share!

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Categories: Everyday Life, Travels