Brand names from the US are popular worldwide, but there is a certain American quality that isn’t marketable yet.
The world is flat, says Thomas Friedman. Clearly, he hasn’t trudged up and down the streets of Europe, balancing shopping bags and a coffee cup in high-heeled pumps. But while I don’t agree with him on a literal level, figuratively he couldn’t be more right. Having been in and out of five different countries in the past two weeks, I got a chance to see firsthand this flat, even, comfortable terrain Friedman is talking about.
Dazed and confused by premature dawn after my ten-hour flight from Philadelphia to London’s Heathrow Airport – foggy English mornings are bad enough when they come with forewarning – I walked into a Starbucks kiosk in pursuit of much-needed coffee and that friendly green circle. The all-too-familiar sign is just another corporate trick, designed to gnaw at a human being’s comfort in the face of familiarity, drawing him into its serene interiors with as much the iced java chip frappuccino as the customary green and white cup.
An unambiguously British greeting (that decidedly tells apart the Heathrow joint from one of many on Market Street) and four dollars later, I sat down to admire terminal five, the airport’s latest and most impressive annex. Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, and other household American names peddle their wares across duty-free shops, enticing the weary traveler who is still somewhat suspended in time and space. It’s one thing to drink coffee from a friendly cup, but a whole different one to be accosted with impressive labels that mean the same everywhere: corporate hegemony playing havoc with your wallet.
Be it Berlin’s Ku’damm street, Copenhagen’s famed Stroget district, or Chennai’s Mount Road, retail chains and fast food giants are ingeniously similar worldwide, down to the color of their napkins and “buy one, get one free” offers. While some stores take excessive care to change nothing, others masquerade under pseudonyms carefully crafted to fit the crest and seal. Still others acquire new and better looks – it would be safe to say that no Dunkin Donuts in America comes with the Berlin joint’s custom umbrellas and matching set of chairs.
The only things the overseas counterparts seem to lack are American excesses. Your silverware comes wrapped in single ply tissue, and paper towels are rarely strewn across tables. Even the unabashed McDonald’s refuses to keep endless supplies of ketchup and cream on its counters (and you wonder why Americans are obese). Nonetheless, the meat of it all is uncannily familiar.
It’s hardly surprising then, that my shopping sprees through Europe rang drearily similar to an expensive Saturday back in the States, except for the occasional pause to snap a quick picture of a quaint comic shop, a couple hours spent poring over maps at an antique Copenhagen bookstore, and grappling with rapid-fire euro-dollar conversions and improperly-sized Danish kroners alike.
Then there was the frequent need to explain what I meant by “cream” for my coffee (European espressos are far too skinny for plain milk) and being momentarily stumped by a Danish barista’s smug “to go?” after I spent an eternity explaining to him that I’d like to carry my beverage with me. But Berlin’s rich history and Denmark’s beautiful waterways and archaic buildings more than made up for the little travails.
The similarities don’t end with fashion and food. Barack Obama stares out of book covers in English and translated editions on store windows worldwide. Sarah Palin jokes elicit ripples of laughter in any audience. Weather breaks the ice during awkward social moments the world over, especially without the Yankees to fall back on. American sitcoms provide as much an excuse for laughs in Copenhagen as they do in New York City.
I would have been pretty oblivious in my world without borders, seamlessly moving from country to country had I just observed the sights and sounds, extricating the human element from them. Brand names and even buildings are often similar in cities everywhere, but what really distinguishes a place are its people.
With the exception of the man who growled at me from the passport checkpoint during my Danish exit, most people I met in Copenhagen were helpful and friendly, speaking in pristine English when requested, and interpreting my crumpled and dog-eared map without complaint. What I missed, however, was the easy affability I’d come to know and love in my seven years in the States. So it wasn’t surprising that the three people who engaged me in conversation for conversation’s sake during the entire two weeks hailed from Maryland and Texas and New Jersey.
The Germans, however, make the Danes look exuberant with their tendency to stare down anyone who looks different, hand German menu cards to customers who are clearly foreign, and in making little attempt to speak beyond what is expressly necessary. My entry into India’s Chennai airport riddled more holes in my world-is-flat theory. A push, a shove, and a curt nod later I had no doubt that I had indeed landed in my homeland of billion-plus angry inhabitants.
I enjoyed my trip immensely, observing different people, their languages and cultures, and reconnecting with my own country. But at the end of my two -week sojourn, it was refreshing to land in Philadelphia, walk into a Starbucks café, and be greeted with the familiar “What can I get started for you?”
Eight-hour workdays, a whole load of coursework, and my nose back on the grindstone for the rest of the year, I thought. “A grande cappuccino, please,” was all I said. The rest is often left unsaid in a country where adrenaline is always running high, time is of the essence, and yet politeness and sociability never seem to take a backseat to the task at hand.
“Hope you had a pleasant trip,” said the man at the checkout counter.
“A terrific one,” I said. “But am I glad to be back!”
Karthika Muthukumaraswamy is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She writes about politics, media, Internet technology, science, tennis, travel and social issues. Her website is: karthikaswamy.com