Understand, I like Starbucks. Both the ambiance and the product are classy. The company’s founder, Howard Schultz, created the concept to replicate the social setting and rich coffee experience he discovered at local coffee bars in Italy. He has maintained a quality control that does in fact make Starbucks an enjoyable “third place” (his phrase) in which to sit in warmly decorated surroundings, listen to soft jazz, relax and drink coffee made from carefully chosen high quality beans.
I love to sink into an easy chair in my local Starbucks and chill with the smoky taste of a Café Verona or the earthy depth of a cup of Sumatra. But nevertheless, there is something disturbing about the news of Starbucks in Paris. It almost made me angry, and I had to think about it.
I remembered two other instances when the trappings of American culture blatantly smacked into me in Paris. I thought back on them so I could compare (or contrast) and try to analyze why I’m angry – or am I? Perhaps I’m just confused. I need to analyze the situation.
Example number one:
One day in the Fall a couple of years ago, I emerged from a stroll through the charming and quiet square of apartments and tiny shops in the Marais called Village St. Paul. It was a cool but beautiful day, and I was taking myself through the walk called “The Writing on the Wall,” described in exquisite detail in my well-worn copy of the marvelous “Time Out Book of Paris Walks.” (This walk features such gems as a musket ball lodged high in the side of a building, a Medieval street name and district number carved on a narrow, ancient alley’s stone wall, and French revolutionary graffiti hastily scrawled two centuries ago on the wall of a church that one enters through a hidden side door at the end of a tiny passageway. The route is designed by Sasha Goldman – a film producer and one of the many non-travel-writer authors who bring a lyricism and historical depth to the writing in this book, so it’s almost as interesting to read the chapters as to actually take the walks.)
I paused on a curb in that charming right bank residential neighborhood, listened to the chortles of children playing in the yard of a school behind a high stone wall across the street, and breathed in the pleasure of just being in Paris under a blue sky.
A young mother walked by with a stroller, her child barely visible behind netting to protect him or her against the weather. A church bell chimed its greeting from not very far away. A beautiful, wonderful day.
I stepped off the curb and continue my walk . But I had to jump back. I had almost collided with a small red vehicle hurtling around the corner. It just appeared, as if the vista around me was a lovely painting and some nasty child had hurled a toy through it – an electric toy that rent the canvas and made jarring “putt putt putt” noises.
And this awful gadget that pulled up in front of me was a red scooter with a familiar flat cardboard box tied to the back. I fought to accept the surreal reality. The apparition dismounted – a young man in a uniform that said “Pizza Hut” on the hat and shirt.
Not in a so-called “touristy” neighborhood, or on one of the wide boulevards laid out by Baron Haussmann, those traffic-filled streets that lead to the Tour Eiffel or the Arch de Triomphe. On the busiest sections of the Champs d’Elysees or Boulevard Raspail I am not surprised to find a Gap store sitting next to a French café. And in the most crowded and funky sections of the fifth arrondissement, I know that there are telltale yellow arches and bags of french fries in at least one location. I wasn’t happy with that situation when I first saw it, but now I just ignore its existence as I walk by.
But not here in the Marais. I felt cheated, as if I were in a parallel world that I didn’t much like.
About five years ago, I was climbing the steps to Sacré-Coeur cathedral. The sharp white of its dome stood starkly against the sky and glowed courtesy of a mid-afternoon sun, while a couple of mediocre artists hawked their portraiture a little way up. Down below were all the restaurants and racks of postcards and 8-inch brass Eiffel Towers.
But none of that disturbed me. I knew that when I reached the top, I could walk through the crowded Place de Tertre, out the other side, and slowly down the quiet, tilting streets not so long ago trod by Picasso and his friends.
Then, I almost tripped over several young people sitting on the stairs with their lunch. A stick-thin boy with acne was picking french fries out of a white bag, and his female companion held a burger. The bags and paper cups strewn around them carried the Burger King logo.
Granted, the foot of the stairs to Sacré-Coeur as well as the Place de Tertre up at the top are tacky – filled with bad artists, semi-talented clones of Marcel Marceau, and hawkers of cards, posters, scarfs and all the other paraphenelia that they hope Mildred wants to bring back to Des Moines (along with her portrait, done in pastels in 12 minutes).
But it’s tacky in a French kind of way. So is that the problem? Is it that I don’t care about the level of tackiness, just the nationality?
On reflection, I think that it is clear that I don’t want McDonalds or Burger King or Pizza Hut in Paris because I don’t want the worst of our culture – a flattened, artificial, Madison Avenue created ersatz culture – transplanted to Paris. I don’t even like them much in Chicago.
But what about Starbucks? As I said, it’s a classy shop with coffee made only from the best beans, roasted extra long for richness, emphasizing purchase of beans from free-trade areas and those grown under environmentally sustainable conditions.
Is it that I don’t think cultures should mix? Not likely. When I read in BP about the two restaurants now in Paris, where an “American” breakfast is to be had, I was intrigued, not angered. No reason why an entrepreneurial type can’t serve ham and eggs, waffles and syrup to both homesick travelers and interested locals. I eat all the time at Bistro Zinc and Le Creperie in Chicago. And I’m enough of a citizen of the twenty-first century to appreciate the benefits of globalization. Globalization enables residents of countries to do business and communicate with each other, and to raise the level of inter-country understanding. I like the fact that I can obtain money from an atm in Paris, or Avignon or Milan, and that the leaders of countries work together on world problems, and I can discover hotels in Gordes through my internet connection in Chicago.
So what part of who we are on t his side of the big pond will my sensibilities permit to lurk around a Parisian corner, and what parts will cause my teeth to clench? And what are the criteria?
First, I need to analyze why it is that I periodically feel a pull that tosses me onto an airplane to savor the corner of Bvds. St. Michel and St. Germain, the Pantheon, the Place des Vosges, the cold surf foaming over the rocks below Mont St. Michel, the quiet village of Vernon, the sudden rise of the towers of Notre Dame de Chartres at the crest of a road threading through rolling farm fields, or miles of lavender and grapes in the Luberons.
I am an American lawyer and writer. I have been carrying on a love affair with France in general, Paris in particular for more than 30 years, since my first visit in 1967.
I love the feel of France, the culture, the music, the food, and that intangible quality that I recognize the moment I enter Paris. I exit the métro from the airport and look up at the flowers flirting with me through wrought-iron balconies, smile at the gesticulation of two men talking with their mouths and hands in front of a café, bend my neck back to get my first view of the narrow chimneys and gabled roofs, and I know I’m in Paris. I could be nowhere else.
Perhaps that’s the problem.
I think that I’m beginning to zero in on it.
I want Paris to continue to be Paris, not a place that at one time had a different feel and smell to it and now is a slightly Gallic version of everywhere else.
Not just Paris. I want Rome to feel like our historical conception of Rome, Milan like Milan, and London to always have bobbies and Big Ben.
Homogenization is the hobgoblin of getting too close through globalization. We need to walk a fine line between the benefits of everyone knowing and being able to instantaneously reach and deal with everyone everywhere else (and experience the best of their cultures), and the risk and temptation to homogenize.
Our country is a country of immigrants. Nevertheless, even after the second (and sometimes the third) generation has assimilated, there are still in most cities a Greek Town, and Chinatown, an area where a Polish Immigrant (like my daughter-in -aw, who just moved here a few years ago from Wroclaw, Poland ) can find a restaurant serving kapusniak.
The diversity of this world is interesting and necessary, enlightening and thrilling,, and each culture has brought something to the stew, and that’s what I want it to remain – a stew, not a puree.
Yes, that’s it.
I don’t mind American ham and eggs, labeled as such, served in a restaurant by a transplanted American living in the fifth arrondissement. That just adds another vegetable to the mostly French stew – a vegetable that adds to the color but does not unduly change the taste. And I must add, a vegetable (to continue the analogy perhaps overmuch) that is truly an historical part of the culture from which it comes and therefore has a reality and a richness to it.
But a coffee shop that was intended to recreate the Italian (and French) experience of drinking espresso in a café, sipping for long periods of time while you greet friends and relax, a coffee shop intended to bring an American version of a European experience to America, should not be then retransplanted back into European soil.
And that’s why it bothers me.
Starbucks is a commendable example of recreating something good that its founder discovered in Europe, then twisting it just enough to conform to American tastes. For example, Howard Schultz finally permitted skim milk in the stores after fighting it for some time, and each shop has three kinds of coffee brewing – a “bold” one, a “”mild” one, and a decaf. But putting that Americanized version of the European experience back into Europe just brings us closer to that puree.
I don’t like it.
Michele Kurlander is a 59-year-old Chicago corporate lawyer, writer, small business and womens issues advocate, and mother of three grown children. She fell in love with France and all things French many years ago and travels back to France at least once each year (sometime two and three times), whenever her addiction overwhelms her and she can find a discount airfare.