jeudi 2 février 2012


This essay first appeared in So Far and Yet So Near, an anthology of expatriate musings, published by ACA Press.

T he day STARBUCKS© hung their shingle in Paris, the press was all abuzz. The presence of yet another icon of American consumer habits on French soil—joining the ranks of GAP, ESPRIT, MCDONALDS et al-- has me reminiscing about the days when we Americans-in-Paris were hard-pressed to find anything from our native land over here in our adopted one.

I expatriated myself in 1986. Global marketing was in its infancy and the internet did not exist as we know it today. A few American companies had made inroads in getting their product to market in France: one could find Coca Cola (although the mix was tailored to local tastes, ie less sweet and never served on ice), and McDonald’s was just setting up on the Champs-Elysees (later to be fined for allowing dogs on the premises; they shut their doors for a bit but reemerged with a new policy). I would always take an empty suitcase on my trips to America, with the intention of filling it with all that I missed and could not find an adequate substitute for in Paris. These items fell into two categories: foodstuffs (peanut butter, Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, Hershey’s Kisses, Lucky Charms) and health and beauty products (Crest toothpaste, Vidal Sasson shampoo, deodorant).

For my longer stays in the US, I would do the same in reverse. I would leave France with a suitcase filled with everything I could not find in the States: again, the comestibles (Ricore coffee, 80 percent chocolate cooking chocolate, Carambar candies), and the rest: Dim stockings, Klorane hair supplies, French lingerie.

Oddly, once I had the foreign product in hand in my “other” homeland, I would often refuse to use it, for fear of running out, or hoard it for so long that I would surpass the expiration date and have to toss the thing away!

I no longer drag local goods back and forth. I realized after a time that it was not the actual product that I longed for when away from either country, but the country itself. The product was merely a talisman which served to conjure up a memory or illusion of something about that “other place”. As I sat on my parent's deck in Marin County, I could fix myself a bowl of chicory coffee (a bowl, not a mug!) and have the Proustian madeline moment of believing that I was back in my Parisian apartment. And upon my return to France, I could pop a Hershey’s Kisses into my mouth while riding the métro and conjure up a memory of sitting in Candlestick Park with my Dad, watching the Giants play ball.

I also realized that I savored the specialness of the separate country/separate product paradigm. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese belongs in America! Runny and ripe Camembert belongs in France! Having access to all goods in all places produced such a pale feeling of sameness. There is a beauty and soul to regional goods. Something that strip malls and ubiquitous branding have left behind.

So while I applaud the opening of the STARBUCKS© at the Place de l’Opéra (I like my decaf nonfat latte as much as the next suburban yuppie bitch), I also relish the fact that I can still patronize the little merchant down the street that sells nothing but sea salt from the Guérande. And he has no idea how to export it nor interest in expanding his market share.
From their flagship shop at the Opera, to this post-modern masterpiece under the Louvre, Starbucks is now as ubiquitous here in Paris as it is in the United States

1 commentaire:

  1. So very, very true! When I was growing up I loved Fanta and Mozart candy and Manner wafers, as well as Toblerone. As soon as they became available in the U.S., they lost their appeal.
    Miss Dior can also be purchased in the U.S. but it has not lost its appeal at all. Nope, not since the age of 14 when I started using it. I do, however, purchase it in Paris when I run out ;)