I’m just back from a quick lecture trip in Paris, and offer here a few quick and unscientific observations. 1. You know all those clichés about how unfriendly Parisians are to Americans? In my experience, totally false. I had a nasty encounter with an ill-tempered concierge in a cheap hotel in 1976, and that’s it. ...
I'm just back from a quick lecture trip in Paris, and offer here a few quick and unscientific observations.
I’m just back from a quick lecture trip in Paris, and offer here a few quick and unscientific observations.
1. You know all those clichés about how unfriendly Parisians are to Americans? In my experience, totally false. I had a nasty encounter with an ill-tempered concierge in a cheap hotel in 1976, and that’s it. Virtually everyone I’ve ever dealt with there has been friendly and welcoming, and even tolerant of my French, which I daresay is tres imparfait.
2. Contrary to modern mythology, not all Parisians are thin.
4. There are lots of bicyclists in Paris. As a confirmed bike commuter myself, I can only applaud. I didn’t see a single one wearing a helmet. Pourquoi?
5. As I’ve noted before, Europe is far more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural than it was when I first visited, a trend especially evident in Paris. It leads to certain incongruous moments, to say the least. On the Metro one evening, an older man entered the car with an accordion and began serenading the passengers (almost all of whom were non-white) with traditional French songs (think Aznavour or Piaf). The passengers sat there stone-faced and completely unresponsive, and I didn’t see him earn any tips. Weird.
6. Lastly, a culinary puzzle I’ve pondered before: Why is that you can go into just about any modest establishment in any city or town or village in France and be assured of finding wonderful bread? Similarly, you can go into any non-descript café in a tiny Italian village and get an espresso that Starbucks would kill to duplicate. Or wander into any anonymous pizza joint in Manhattan and you can get a slice of thin-crust pizza that is ineffably superior to versions of the same thing found elsewhere.
The point is not that the foods themselves are unique; globalization has spread falafel, sushi, pad thai, rogan josh, borscht, and countless other foods to many corners of the world. (Although, as a fan of the perenakan (Straits Chinese) cuisine of Singapore, I keep waiting for someone to open a perenakan restaurant here in Boston). Instead, the puzzle is why the imitations tend to be inferior to the originals, unless you are dealing with very high-end purveyors. It’s not like making a decent baguette or a good thin-crust pizza is a classified secret like stealth technology. Is this simply because consumers of the globalized imitation have lower standards (i.e., they’re just happy to have such foods available, even if they’re not made particularly well), or is it because some foods require specialized techniques and local ingredients (i.e., the right kind of flour or water) that aren’t as widely available or as easily duplicated as we think?
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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