I’ve had culture shock many times, but this one took the gâteau.
A few years ago, a restaurant was built on the edge of a parking lot of a Carcassonne strip mall. It was intriguing, because the whole strip-mall restaurant thing is not very French. As it rose, it felt as if it were a mirage transported from the the middle of America.
Yet, it turned out to be an Italian restaurant. In France. My kid had bugged me from the building’s foundations being poured that we HAD to go. When I first stepped inside, I had a hard time to speak French. English came out. It was stronger than any logic, because the throng waiting to be seated all were chatting in French. But my brain was telling me I had stepped into suburban U.S.A. It was the oddest thing.
Parking lot location: check.
Non-commital modern yet somewhat Mediterranean architecture: check.
Upbeat pop music: check.
Soaring ceilings: check.
Roaring decibels: check.
Open kitchen to give us the impression of authenticity: check.
Mob of people waiting to be seated: check.
Where were we? Was it really Carcassonne? It certainly wasn’t French. It certainly wasn’t Italian–it was Italian as imagined by Americans. Except that the chain IS French: Del Arte is part of Groupe LeDuff, which was founded by the now-multibillionaire Louis LeDuff in 1976.
Groupe LeDuff started with la Brioche Dorée (the Golden Brioche), and has added other chains, including Bruegger’s (the bagel chain), Timothy’s World Coffee, Mimi’s Cafe, La Madeleine, among others. Almost 2,000 restaurants, in 90 countries.
The food was OK. Not great, yet far from terrible. As one often gets in parking-lot restaurants like Olive Garden and Applebee’s and Carrabba’s. And at the beginning, the whole concept was so unusual for here that it drew crowds. Concept aside, good–no, GREAT–food is easy to find here, along with authentic authenticity. I don’t want to slam Del Arte–it isn’t bad at all. Just meh.
Recently, two Subway sandwich outlets also opened in Carcassonne, one in the center of town and the other in yet another of the strip malls that blight the periphery of town. I was following two couples of Americans down the main pedestrian street, overhearing them talk about lunch (it’s easy to overhear Americans, in part because I understand what they’re saying with zero effort and in part because of the volume of normal American speaking). I thought about telling them of a couple of options. I consider myself an ambassador for Carcassonne and want even strangers to have a good time here. Before I caught up to them, they swung into Subway.Subway is fine. I have eaten plenty of Subway sandwiches in the U.S. But why would a person go all the way to France and then eat the same thing as back home? It isn’t as if there’s a big risk of ordering something disgusting by mistake. Most French sandwiches involve some combination of ham, cheese or hard sausage, or else some sort of tuna salad, chicken salad or shrimp/fake crab salad. With lettuce and tomato. On awesome bread. What’s to fear? Eating local specialties is one of the key ways to explore local culture.
The same thing is true with other shops. The world is becoming more and more similar. On the one hand, it’s kind of cool that tastes are shared by so many people. Can you hate somebody who wears the same jeans and T-shirts that you do? (I suppose so, but it does make people seem less foreign–and hence more relatable–than when each little region had its own traditional dress.) Now you can get the same clothes at Zara or H&M in Amsterdam as in Abu Dhabi, Astana or Austin. That’s great–if you see something new in a magazine or on Instagram, you can buy it easily, even if you don’t live in a fashion capital. On the other hand, the little boutiques with really cool, unique stuff are going under, unable to compete on price and unable to change stock as fast as the fast fashion giants. Fashion is supposed to be about expressing oneself, but it’s increasingly about following the herd.
It’s something to consider, whether you’re traveling or shopping and dining at home. Do you seek safety in the numbers? Or do you stand out from the herd?