Two little things happened recently in Paris that peaked my American glands: 1) Haagen Dazs infiltrated my local Prisunic and 2) I “dined” for the first time at Pizza Hut on the rue de Rivoli. Seemingly innocuous events, they nonetheless lent themselves to larger cultural scrutiny and psycho-existential re-positioning. The entrepreneur in me spotted the need for a culinary guide for the French, on American Popular Eats. The purist in me wretched. The menu of details before me read with the cultural differences of our two lands.
For those of you who’ve recently arrived, let’s talk ice cream for a moment. Understand that the French are serious about their flavors, and when the weather is fine are enthusiastically ready to queue up on the Ile Saint Louis for hours for an intense little cornet of fruit de passion or noisette. The size is of little importance, and thus is painfully miniature. Value in France is rarely measured in volume; whereas value à l’américaine is hinged to volume. But here was something out of the ordinary, a Haagen Dazs stand at the crowded bank of check-out lines in the Prisunic giving out free Dixie-cup-sized samples of this new product. I wolfed both a chocolate and a rum raisin freebie without a blink while observing the French méfiance. Why couldn’t this young glace-maiden succeed in giving away perfectly good portions of ice cream? Well, for one, it’s not yet summer and for the French ice cream is a seasonal treat – which makes perfect sense. Why eat cold things when it’s still cold out? Which isn’t unrelated to why endive is eaten in the fall and cherries are heaped up at the fruit stands in June. Living in an American city I knew seasons by what sports were televised, not the ripening schedule of the Acme’s produce section. In America we all know that fruit’s picked green and couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Secondly, the ice cream was absolutely free. The French are so unaccustomed to getting anything for free – other than a sprig of parsley with the purchase of three liters of mussels – that shoppers passed by the frosty goblets with nonchalance dripping from their distrust. Although the French speak of promotion all the time and have even usurped for their own use the word (but not the pronunciation) “marketing”, they don’t get it that a give-away is a give-away, that the pay-back comes later.
Lastly, it was new. Haagen Dazs as a brand is not familiar, nor is the presentation of glace in a cup. Or ice cream handlers dressed in retro airline stewardess get-ups. If it’s new it’s going take time. It took cookies twenty years. Haagen Dazs in their new Boulogne corporate offices know it; that’s why they were in my Prisunic, at the Première Vision trade show, in the American University of Paris’ student café, at the Place Contrescarpe and a stone’s throw from Notre Dame… My neighbors, though, would certainly not buy something that was new, cold and free.
While being fair-minded, I must say that grabbing some pizza has never really been “going out for dinner.” In France, you can’t just grab a slice or two as your evening meal (unless you go to Slice Pizza); even with pizza you need the entrée, the dessert, the wine and the coffee to meet minimum local requirements for humanness.
From the moment you swing into the spacious and brightly lit pizza mecca, you know you’re not in France. There’s something too roomy and positive about the atmosphere. You’re greeted by a friendly sign inviting you to wait to be seated by a friendly host or hostess. The flip side serves to thank you for your visit and wish you a speedy return. Americanness in the world – aside from military aggression and great Hollywood stars – is characterized by friendliness. And friendliness on the PR scale is primordial for business. Service: stop rendering it in the USA and you’ve bit the commercial dust. The French don’t start with this underpinning and so continue to accept goods and services without the service, as the norm.
Which leads to the fascinating series of cultural adaptations and compromises that Pizza Hut’s central brain somewhere forged into the overall product. Kir, Caribbean Punch, and Pineau de Charante would never show up at the Hut in Peoria or Patterson. To welcome the local clientele, Pizza Hut includes a pizza du pêcheur with mussels, squid, shrimp and tuna, an unimaginable menu item in the Lower 49. The stunning hook, though, for the incredulous French diner is the combination of the “Et si vous composiez vous-même votre pizza” option – the welcoming of compositional newness, and the open offer on how to get a better deal (more pizza for less money). Profitez du prix de la double. At the bottom of the plastic menu are the calculations of price per person – 70F with the Normale Super, 55F with the Double Super, 49F with the Triple Super. Ah, America, the land of the bargain. In France, one doesn’t dine to save money.
Back to the atmosphere. The booths are sprawling, spread-out, and subdivided like the building lots in a suburban housing development; you get the full sensation of your own private space – très anglo-saxon. The American is a social animal that gives all for his privacy. There is no elbow rubbing in this context and glass dividers act as aesthetically unoffensive fences between the booths. Light passes, but smoke doesn’t, nor does conversation or odors.
The issue of applying American smoking attitudes in France today is a tricky one. Cigarette smoking, as we all know, has become a highly anti-social habit in many corners of the North American arena, a fact that strikes most French people as exaggeré if not complètement ridicule. Large American establishments with retinas focused on international markets, like MacDonald’s and Disneyland, have slyly bridged the cultural gap by introducing unalienating com¬promises. At Pizza Hut, a brilliant little innovation has been introduced — a tiny table-size sandwich board stating on one side “FUMEURS, SOYEZ COURTOIS, MERCI (Smokers, Be Courteous, Thank You.)” and on the other side: “NON FUMEURS, RESTEZ COURTOIS, MERCI (Non-smokers, Stay courteous, Thank you.)” Across the glass barrier from the privacy of my own place setting, courteous glances are exchanged but no one knows if courteous means “Put it Out, Please” or “I Won’t Put it Out, Thank You.” The antagonism persists but the little sign removes the responsibility from the establishment. They’ve done their socially conscious bit.
Finally, both cultures share a new form of super-efficient techno-alienation, which, in fact, seems long overdue. Each waitress or waiter is decked with a remote control zapper which electronically relays the order directly to the kitchen. Your food is programmed, your bill prepared, inventory controlled, waste eliminated, your every wish their command. All with the elimination of the need for human intervention – less language, no mathematics, fewer collisions in the kitchens, etc. Both the French and American clientele are reduced to one plane of commonality – Consumer of the Nineties.
In the meantime, the new American commercial kids on the French block serve to point out what we hate and love about our infamous American Way of Life, and intro¬duce our host culture to another generation of ambiguous ingenuity…at great prices, of course.