P1080351I’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.

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Even thought it looks like Kansas, I’m telling you, Toto, we really aren’t in Kansas anymore. 

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.

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No idea how the funky light effect happened.

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.

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Helpful photo of la Cité on the back side for those who are completely disoriented.

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.

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The neighborhood. There are several more stores, but the strip is hard to capture in one shot.

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.

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Obviously these were taken at an off-hour. Because the parking lot is full during meal times.

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.IMG_4320Subway 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.

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A plain white shirt with a twist, at La Brune, an interesting boutique in the center of town.

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?

 

 

 

 

 

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42 thoughts on “Franco-American-Italiano

  1. I’ve been incredibly surprised at the wealth of interesting local designers and brands in these parts of the world. I really didn’t expect it. That being said, don’t forget that wonderful Dorothy Parker line: You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think 😀
    Not following the herd is risky psycho-social behaviour.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Having spent the day shopping for shoes with my kid, all I can say is everybody wants to be like everybody else and yet different. Anything too different is rejected, and so is anything too popular.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Haha, we saw that restaurant the last time we were up shopping at Decathlon. It has chain written all over it. But I’d love to know: where in Carcassonne would you recommend for a cheap family lunch? Last time we were up there we struggled to find somewhere that wasn’t aimed at tourists and charging over 12€ for a plat de jour, pizza or burger.

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    1. Around Place Carnot, you can find many cafés and restos with lunch menus for around €10 (a menu–usually a starter/dish or dish/dessert). And Le Carnot tea salon has excellent sandwiches for under €5 and good salads. Also on the corner of Place Carnot is la Casa, with tapas. Another alternative is on the Boulevard Barbès, near the Porte Jacobin, where there are many small brasseries and cafés.

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  3. Sadly, it is a trend that is becoming popular. However, when we travel my desire is to seek out the authentic and more traditional places to eat. This way we get a sense of the people who live and work there.

    Years ago when we first began to travel and sample the delicious foods of Italy we were not able to find these same luscious products in the U.S. We were left with our ‘food memories’ that evoked the little town, farm or city where we had just spent time. Now you can purchase just about ‘anything’ ‘anywhere’. Sort of takes the fun out of the adventure.

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    1. Yes and no. Not everybody gets to travel, but with availability of exotic goods they can try to get a hint of the experience and get out of their little shells. On the other hand, it’s nice to go someplace new and everything about it is a discovery, from the sights to smells to sounds and tastes.

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  4. I prefer individuality and character- to be distinguished from the masses. Having lived in the mountains of North Carolina for a number of years a while back, I was sorely disappointed when a McDonald’s moved in to our lovely town. It was like- ‘There goes the town’. In a nearby even sleepier town, a ‘Stop n Go’ with it’s bright lights took theirs. It appears folks flock to our precious places for the character and ambiance, then change them to suit their needs and… ‘there goes the town’. Makes me sad 😦

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  5. I LIVE in Kansas (love does strange things) and I don’t eat at places like that here! When I travel, I always do research and then talk to “natives” where they like to eat. Hate the globalization of sameness. And BTW, in junior high I learned it was more fun to dress the way I wanted to than what others told me to. At almost 68, I still do.

    The good news is that there are a few bastions of rebellion in the food chain. We have a local bakery that has a wood-fired oven and the results are better than some of the bread I had in France. I understand France in some places France is reaffirming its traditions. I think that is, in tribute to the Summer of Love 50 year old celebration, groovy.

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      1. I wasn’t being critical of France. I have been a cook for over 45 years and value the importance of France’s role in world cuisine. I was talking about the movement that Lindsey Tramuta wrote about the movement in The New Paris of bringing back the old skills and recognizing that the past had gotten a little forlorn with frozen frites and commercially baked breads! Farm to table, nose to tail are nothing new in France and getting the compliment, “You cook like a French grandmother” will always be my most treasured comment about my food.

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  6. No no no! Why would I ever want to eat at a Subway when in France? I just don’t get it, for Americans who are travelling. What a shame to see these places dotting the landscape. But, of course, the French want to experience what we have here. So that is fine (I guess!)

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  7. That restaurant with the huge parking lot is soooo American. I can’t believe you went. I don’t think we have ever eaten American chain food in France. Why would you? Thanks for sharing these very American insights.

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    1. When you have a kid, you go where they want for their birthday. Even a parking lot restaurant. Seriously, it isn’t bad. But there’s much better. And it’s actually a French chain!

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  8. Well the same thing happened in Italy and at first people were curious and went to eat in such places but then slowly slowly they returned to the tried and tested.

    I am very sorry to say that each year as we drive along the motorways of France to Italy, the motorway eateries are serving appallingly awful food. (We have yet to drink a good cup of black coffee). There used to be “Paul” with excellent food at motorway stops but the chain seems to be diminishing.

    Once we are through the Mont Blanc tunnel YIPPEE good Italian coffee and a pastry or a slice of excellent pizza. The French do seem to be giving in to these huge chains serving perfectly horrible food to the motorist, so I hope it won’t spread to the towns of France too.

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    1. I think the reason locals go is because it looks just like what they see on TV shows and movies from the U.S. But you’re right, the “sandwich autoroute” is abominable. Whenever possible, a “routier” restaurant is far better, and where the truckers go.

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  9. Zara NYC, Zara Paris, Zara Barcelona all have different stuff, tailored to local tastes and sizes. The .same for H&M etc. too bad you can’t get the Euro styles in the US 😟
    As for fast food chains…all I can say is Yuck. Although I do once remember having a Nicoise salad in a Bordeaux McDoos long ago…the vinegrette was pas mal…

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    1. I’m not so sure. I live close to Barcelona (Zara HQ) and have seen the same clothes there and in the U.S. Midwest within days of each other. But yes, they tweak inventory based on local sales, even within a single city.

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  10. Uh-oh, there goes the neighborhood. But then, I wouldn’t eat at Subway in the US, let alone anywhere else. I will confess to carrying American snacks with me when I travel, just in case, middle of the night kind of thing. But not for meals out.
    Years ago, there was a chain of Brittany crepe places, name forgotten. They were pretty good but I think long since driven out by cardboard fast food.
    Love “parking lot restaurants”, great description.

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    1. The first time I lived overseas was in Peace Corps in Africa. No electricity or running water, much less familiar foods. However, many basic staples are found everywhere. When I was homesick, I would make brownies in a jury-rigged oven (big pot filled with rocks) over a fire. Food has some big emotional power. But I think most people can make it through two weeks in France without freaking out and having to throw themselves at McDonald’s or Subway.

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  11. McDo…clean washrooms…c’est tout….
    I don’t eat in them in North America and can not imagine in Europe. However we have eaten at IKEA ….wine, cheese and bread and the coffee was not too bad.
    Ali

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    1. There are three reasons to go to McDo, in this order:
      (1) the playground, full of other kids
      (2) the toy with the Happy Meal
      (3) clean toilets.
      I give them credit for including cherry tomatoes and apple slices in the Happy Meal. Whether anybody ever orders them is a different thing.

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  12. Funniest thing I’ve seen is Zara in Monte Carlo hemmed in by the REALLY upmarket brigade …. I have been squealing for years that, apart from greed, the biggest problem the modern world faces is that it has got far too small. This a a perfectly poised piece that postulates the dilemma for all to digest slightly uncomfortably.

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  13. I wouldn’t eat at a subway in Philadelphia either. Any establishment that incorrectly names the hoagie is bound to mess it up. Places like this one, we used to go to Bertucci’s with my grandmother for similar reasons to your son. She decided it was the best restaurant in the world, the parking lot and overall size of the place meant we could get her in and out and to and from the bathroom with a minimum of drama, and the food was at least a step up from a frozen dinner.

    Near me there are 2 commercial strips right next to each other; one recently got a Wendy’s to go with its McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Popeye’s. At least Wendy’s kept the paneling and ornamental plaster in the former bank they took over. The other strip is getting bougier every year and just got its first chain restaurant, a Barcelona Wine Bar. Some people are freaking out that this is a death sentence for the street. Another neighborhood shopping strip in another neighborhood got a Subway and people said the same thing there. That said, some of the independent businesses neighborhoods like mine are getting were forced into them from Center City, so maybe it’ll be all boring chains in my lifetime.

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  14. One thing I noticed a lot more on my last trip to the U.S. was that the food at chains tasted very industrial. There was something off about it. I guess people there have gotten used to it and don’t notice anymore.

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    1. I saw a photo once of the food at Olive Garden before it’s assembled. The sauces come in plastic tubes, the bread comes par-baked and frozen… I’m curious if the high end chains like Capital Grille, owned by Darden Restaurants, are any better. But I definitely buy that people are used to industrial flavors. Bottled salad dressings have a preservative tang that I have to mask with enormous amounts of black pepper that get me funny looks, but I’m totally fine with hummus even when it has the same things in it.

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  15. I remember a story my mother used to tell us when we were kids, after a trip to the States.
    (that was ages ago, way before Internet and Google 🙂
    She asked about the ingredients of the dressing for the “A thousand islands salad”. The answer was, how would I know, I open the bottle and there it is!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I guess that is why we are known as “the ugly americans” Why would anyone get subway in france or italy for that matter? And…why would you eat at the other place period! I ate at Olive Garden once…that was enough for me. I LOVE that blouse….do they mail to the USA?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have to come here to get that blouse! Others in the same vein aplenty.
      I have to say that my kid and I were probably the only Americans at Del Arte. Some people choose restaurants for the food (logical), others for the décor/trendiness.

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