On cultural differences and bricolage

All my thoughts are wandering around culture tonight. Or, more exactly, cultures, their variety, their differences. For some reason, it's about France, the UK and the US, probably because we are close friends (don't analyze this please). Let's start with the bad thing so we can end on the good ones.

On the range of weapons of cultural destruction, I hear that Governor Bush -- as Michael Moore calls him -- will not eat French toasts anymore on Air Force One, for in another little step into ridicule, some primate has decided to rename them "freedom toasts". Does this have any effect on us French? None, zip, nothing, because "French toast" means nothing for us. Neither do French fries which most of the French people will attribute to our Belgians friends (check the secret history of French fries). Those expressions are true parts of the American culture, and renaming them is hurting nothing but the American culture. If it weren't that bad, it would be laughable. We shall see, between a culture and a government, which one is stronger.

A few days ago, I read a post from Gavin Bell about French vs. UK markets. Gavin describes the richness of the local markets, shops, press in St Omer compared to the dominance of supermarkets in the UK. Even in Paris (mais Paris n'est pas la France), the local shops and street markets are predominant, my explanation being that it is a part of our social life, like the pubs -- something we do not have in France -- are a part of the English social life. In a subsequent email chit-chat, Gavin pointed the difference between "pubs which traditionally serve men beer, whereas in France there are cafes that serve everything to anyone." To which I added another difference between our cultures, the one hour lunch break in France vs. the 5-to-7pm beer drink at the pub (which are, to me, equivalent socializing traditions at our respective workplaces).

Gavin further elaborated on the French cafe-bar, English pub or US coffee chain. I am impressed by his insight on something that has become less noticeable for me, living in a city where between two cafés, there is a café. Cafés rhythm our life as long as we are awake, from the morning café-croissant, through apéritif, lunch, afternoon drink, apéritif again, diner, digestif, to the last 3am decaf, including cigarettes, newspapers, stamps and tons of games. If you want to extend that experience 24 hours a day, enjoy the all-in-one hôtel-restaurant-brasserie.

What strikes me is Gavin's point about the US coffee chains. While they are spreading in the UK, somehow competing with the pubs, they are virtually non existent in France. It never crossed my mind until I read Gavin's post, but there is no Starbucks in Paris. Exactly like the local shops repel the supermarkets, our cafés repel the mono-function coffee chains, or at least maintain a very healthy competition against what looks like a cultural step-back. You are never far from a good coffee in France and if you want more diversity, there are plenty of brûleries which sell coffee from all over the world that you will prepare yourself at home.

This gives me a handy transition to another cultural difference. There is no English equivalent to the French word bricolage. The closest thing is "do it yourself", a whole expression which sounds rather unfriendly at first, to French ears at least. In 2000, the bricolage market represented €91bn in Europe, €300bn worldwide and €15bn in France, 5% of the total market! It is the first personal equipment market here, before furniture, electronics, telephony and computers. I know one English man who, when his better half tells him to do something he doesn't want to do, tells her "bricolage". It is not exactly acculturation, but it is a good start.

Bricolage has other meanings and related words in French, like bricole which is a triffle, a little thing. The verb bricoler can be translated as arranging, knocking up, tweaking, tinkering. The French lesson du jour will then be that renaming French toasts is both a bricole and a cultural bricolage. In a future lesson, I might tell you why W. is a bricoleur.

12 Comments

I always thought that the main reason that there were no starbucks in paris was due to the appalling quality of american coffee...
but you could be right, I just remember wellington NZ which got its first starbucks in 1999... now there are two...
Wellington is a city obsessed by coffee, wine food and theatre... hence the starbucks experiment hasn't really taken off, there are SO many independent cafes that make fine coffees...
anyway, I miss Paris... must visit again

You are right, coffee quality is a factor too. I would also add that a Starbucks is far from being a friendly place, or at least as far as a fast food can be. While with traditional cafés, you have plenty of nice places where you can sit confortably, waiting for your café (or anything else) to be served at your place. Better product, better service, better confort, tons of competitors, the Starbucks Paris business case doesn't look too good :)

Thanks for this excellent blog entry.
Just as a reminder, US coffee was totally disgusting 15years ago. Even Swedes were calling american coffee "water". I had my first good expresso in Boston in 1995. And now you can find a good expresso almost everywhere.
In the meantime, italian coffee is still the best of the world, swedish coffee is still water, and french coffee that we are so proud of is still completely disgusting in comparison with italian and starbucks'.
Worse, french coffee is much more expensive that its european or american counterparts.

hi,
few days ago i started translating a text on human rights- from english to persian- where i encountered phrase" ideological bricolage" . i could not find any good equivalent for bricolage in persian and you did not explain it to me either! Help me , help! otherwise i would give up the whole translation for only one word.
take care of yourself and ME ,
bye
hatif

What do I know, hatif? If your English text is using the word bricolage, which has no translation itself in English, what can I say? From past experience, I an only infer that it is used in a rather negative way, meaning an "ideological bricolage" something that has been assembled randomly or roughly without much attention and seriousness. The word bricolage is often used as the contrary of serious building. You should get a French-to-Persian dictionary ;-)

hi everybody sorry for my english!!
i worked in a starbucks in london and i juste want to tell that in october, the first french starbucks will open in paris. i don't know really the date exactly, but i know he will be open on the champs elysées. second things, in france we have a company like starbucks, colombus! the same politics the quasi the same products, but i'm not sure about the coffee.
the coffee in london are more expensive than the french espresso. i want to tell also that the french coffee are better than the products of starbucks. it's not the same culture of coffee in france. most part of coffees in starbucks like caffee lattes, or capuccinos, in france will be disgusting. for starbucks it's one shot of coffee and three quarter of milk. for french people a good coffee, seems to be 4 shots of coffee and 2 quarter of milk. in conclusion i'm not sure about the succes of starbucks in france!!

Yes, Starbucks will be opening a shop in Paris (Opéra, not Champs Elysée) and this american implant is pretty happy about it. Oddly, I never (really never ever) drink coffee, but Starbucks, to me, is other. It's a fun environment (comfy chairs, good music) with a halfway-decent chai tea (I DO love tea) and even better hot apple cider with caramel.
Do I think Starbucks will work in Paris? Yes. I've beenhere for two years and that does not at all make me an expert, but still. I think that Starbucks offers an experience that does not yet exist in Paris (Columbus Café notwithstanding - their Chai tea sucks !) and their mix of coffee, sweets and comfy living room chairs will make some people want to come and stay for awhile - while their sippy cup toppers will allow other to drink as they stroll the streets. Plus the brownies will be a welcome addition to Paris life !!

I'm fascinated with the bricolage idea, but still not grasping it. Does it really mean somehting not well-made, or is that just the pejorative? I understand we have no word for it in English. But, do we have bricolage itself, the actual stuff? Elaine in U.S.

Yes you do, it's what you call DIY. In French, the word bricolage carries both this concept of doing things by oneself (non pejoratively) and screwing things up (pejorative). It all depends on the context.

So, it is someone doing something outside his profession? If a mason does his own brickwork, it's not bricolage. An artist whose medium is found objects, is not doing bricolage because he is a professional. Bricolage means ameteur?

Elaine again, thanks.

Here we are in 2009 and it seems Starbucks is running back to the US with its tail between its legs. At least here in the UK. They are making huge losses.

Not sure how well it is doing over their in France.

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