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Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

Say good-bye to Europe; hello to the EU

And no, it isn't the same thing.

Europe used to be a handful of different countries, with different cultures, different foods, different shops, and different ideas of exactly which bits of territory belonged to who. For better or for worse, these differences are disappearing (though in the case of the territory thing it's generally viewed as positive.) The Europe of the European Union and its nearby nations is an increasingly unified geographical mass, with its cultures and foods becoming more and more prefixed. Pan-. That is the prefix of which I speak.

This has annoyed me over the last 15 years during which I have been going regularly to Vienna (my wife's family lives there), and my recent trips to Lisbon and Moscow really drove it home. Vienna, when I first saw it in 1992, was clearly a Central European city. The chain stores (Julius Meinl - groceries & gourmet foods, Palmer's - ladies' unmentionables, Kika - furniture, etc.) were different, the ads on the streetcars were for brands I'd never heard of, the cafés were a uniquely Viennese institution -- and particularly amazing. Situated in beautiful 19th century buildings with huge ceilings, no two sported the same architecture, quite the same menu, or the same clientèle. They traced their histories back to social movements, arts subcultures, and business groups. But the really great part was that they didn't care so much about pumping customers through. All of the German-speaking worlds' major dailies, plus a few other European ones, would be on hand to read while you sipped your cup of coffee. No staff breathing down your neck, little noise, and the interiors didn't look like they had all been mass-ordered at the same time from the same IKEA catalog.

Fast-forward.

We went to Lisbon in May. I was hoping to see something different, something unique, something untouched. It's still a beautiful city, and you can do great walks and eat well, and they do have public elevators designed by one of Eiffel's students to get you up their many hills. And they have McDonald's, and fnac, and Benetton, and if I showed you a picture of a main shopping drag you would be hard-pressed to identify the country. "Spain," you might say, "or southern France. Perhaps Italy, maybe even Slovenia."

In June I went to Moscow, and it was actually worse. Maybe because the less competitive local stores had been that much more rapidly replaced by wealthy foreign chains; maybe because with a growth rate of ten percent per year everybody and their realtor is trying to get in on the gold rush. Sbarro's. KFC. McD's. Zara. H&M. Auchan. Intersport. If you take enough turns into enough side streets, you can certainly find a Russian supermarket. But out on the main drags, in the center of the city, you are in a deeply pan-'d Europe. Pan-European restaurant chains, clothing chains, supermarket chains, fast food chains. Other than the well-preserved historical buildings, in the middle of Moscow you could be anywhere. Even Vienna.

And in the middle of Vienna, most of those lovely old cafés are now Starbuck's franchises, with the corresponding drop in the quality of the coffee, the charm of the establishment, and the sense of relaxation. Buy cheap, drink fast, move on. Pan-European mediocrity, born in America (fast food) or Spain (clothes) or Sweden (furniture), is changing the face of what was Europe into what is the European Union. Fewer wars = good. Fewer differences = boring. Same buildings, same stores, same food, different climate. Yawn.

It's enough to drive you into museums.

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Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

December 2011

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