12 July 2013

Fake isn't what it used to be

When I first traveled to Paris, seeing McDonald's on the Champs-Elysees bruised my tender illusions. Then I grew up, and realized that if the French wanted a Big Mac, they had a right to it, just like the kids in Boise or Dubuque.

Of course, I didn't go there. Not until, about a year into my stay in Paris, a genuine expatriate invited me to meet him at the place. No one revoked my Francophile card. In fact, the place was packed with Frenchies of all ages, something you couldn't say about the other restaurants on the Champs.

And upon reflection, McDonald's, KFC, and even Haagen Dasz are examples of globalization I can understand. They provide the benighted masses of Europe with delicacies that their own cultures -- no matter how fertile -- cannot.

In the 1980s and 1990s, coffee culture took off in the US. That was a fine thing, too. Back in the dark ages, marijuana was easier to come by than espresso. You had to earn it. Surly baristas, as I learned to call them, would glare at you darkly as they pulled at alarmingly complex machines. Perhaps they were composing lyrics, or trying to recall Pound's XXX canto, or just hung over. Cafes were filled with low rent bohemians, sketching, writing, reading, or pretending, too, anyway.

It was a lot like Paris: bad bathrooms, lousy service, indifferent hygiene, pretension swirling around thicker than the clove cigarette smoke clouding the air.

I loved it.

Those places all reminded me of Le Village Ronsard, a cafe in Paris that I tried, through regular visits and mighty acts of imagination, to convert into my version of Les Deux Magots. The regular waiter, who looked exactly like Harry Dean Stanton in a red vest and soiled white shirt, would bring out a morning cafe creme or the afternoon pression with a minimum of fuss and a smaller amount of cordiality.

Instead of resenting his impersonality, I honored it. None of that, "Hi, my name's Rainbeau, may I take your order?" nonsense. No pretense. There to do his job, and he did it. If he was moody, hell, shouldn't anyone be entitled to a bad day? I can't remember his ever being cheerful,  mais alors, he had to serve all those jerk ricans, American tourists. That'd bring anyone down.

Insanity on my part, mixed with masochism. But an afternoon at Le Village Ronsard was filled with drama. When Henri finally deigned to greet us with a merely chilly bon jour, instead of growling a glacial one, it was a joyful day. We, whether either of us liked it or not, had a relationship

Smart people took note of Parisian cafes and their messy American cousins. They took the cafe concept, streamlined it, juiced up the coffee with a  few extra hundred milligrams of caffeine to make it that much more addictive, threw in some familiar sweets, ditched the alcohol and standardized the back room operations. Thus was Starbucks delivered unto a ready nation.

And the nation saw and drank venti caramel lattes, and, lo, it was good.

In the meantime, Ralph Lauren, (born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx) had been packaging and streamlining Saville Row (among other inspirations).

Dallas, on TV earlier, showed rich Americans living in copies of wealthy British manors.

That was usual. I understood all of that. Real/fake. Authentic/copy. Sort of like what the Japanese did with cars, motorcycles, and cameras.

Then it got weird.

The British Royal family got caught wearing Ralph Lauren. They also moved into new places, houses they had built for themselves, places that weren't old castles dripping with atmosphere and soul. Manors that looked exactly like mansions some nouveau riche Texan would erect in River Oaks.

And then Starbuck's opened in Paris. Several, in fact. With happy-ish Parisians patronizing them.

They're real, but not genuine. But is that even the right question to ask -- can a Starbucks be authentic?Unless you consider that its essence is that of a smoothed-over copy. Can't fakes, or copies, be real -- as real in their replication -- as the real?

As real as Euro-Disney, which is a copy of an American version of a German version of a fairy tale?

And as languages die, and cultures fade, as eccentricities are drowned in pharmaceuticals and pieces of life are packaged for lifestyles, what can you make of it, or consider how to resist? Or is that idea of resisting and boycotting just posturing and impossible, and in the end, not helpful towards preserving -- what, exactly? The old Ronsard cafe, which was just itself (no mattered what fevered nostalgia I brought to it). An un-ironic diner which I would self-consciously appreciate, thus destroying it's very un-ironic presence?

Or just sit back, plug in, take in the AC, dip my scone, swirl my biscotti, and wonder.

Wonder how long it will be until the form, aesthetics and culture of the shopping mall finally conquers everything.

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