Monday, February 14, 2011

Fast food in cultural paradise

Another week down!
Last Monday we went to the Opera Bastille to see Madama Butterfly. It was an interesting experience and for many of the kids in my program, it was their first time at an Opera. The libretto was in French, of course, so I did my best to understand it, but it wasn't always easy. The orchestra was fabulous and Butterfly's aria was beautiful. The production itself, however, was a bit odd. The director is known for being extremely minimalist and as such, there was little scenery and no props (made for an interesting death scene). Next week we're going to the ballet (Caligula?) at the Opera Garnier, which if nothing else, should be extremely beautiful. 

Monday, I also had an equally interesting but far less cultural experience - lunch at KFC, in Paris. Rachel had previously shared with me an article that tackled the question: Should you eat at American chain restaurants when you Travel? And after reading this, I did a bit of my own research. In my travels I've seen a ton of MacDonalds (MacDo for short, here) and Quicks (pretty sure this is actually the only Europe-born fast food chain). And on my way home from school each day I go by a Pizza Hut and a KFC. So after a week of passing by these fast food moguls, I decided I might as well check it out. The menu at KFC was half in French, half in English (leading me to order like this: Je voudrais des chicken tenders) and while the offerings were mostly identical to the chain's American counterpart, there were some notable differences. Biscuits and mashed potatoes were absent from the Parisian KFC's menu, but chicken came with the option of a side of curry sauce. The restaurant was clean and lacked that overbearing smell of grease, present in so many of the American locations. It was also just a KFC. Not the KFC/Taco Bell/Basking Robbins combos you'd find in the US. Prices were jacked up a bit as well. This leads me to believe that while a fast food restaurant is still a fast food restaurant, even on the other side of the world, each country adds their own bit of flare to such establishments. The French are characterized by 2 things (in my opinion): first, an extraordinary attention to detail, and second, an over-appreciation of free time and rest. As such, fast food here seems slightly better (i.e. meat that looks like meat) though it comes with a price - no dollar menu here. You'll also have trouble finding your late night fix of burgers and fries, as the concept of a chain that's open late or even 24 hours is absent in this culture. On a similar note, street food is pretty non-existant, the only exception being crepe stands. Even so, it's weird to see people eating and doing anything else simultaneously (walking, driving, talking on the phone etc.), as the French take a bit more pride in their food and take the time to enjoy it. 

Since then, I've also been to a Starbucks, which was pretty much the same as say the Chappaqua, NY location, including the same comfy velvet armchairs. You might wonder why in a city full of wonderful cafes someplace like Starbucks would be popular and gain a reliable clientele. After being there, I can somewhat understand the appeal. The coffee culture here is wonderful, but not always the most practical. Coffee with milk is primarily drunk only in the morning. When you order a cafe, you'll receive espresso. I'm pretty sure skim milk and to-go-cups are unheard of. If you're in a hurry, you'll drink your coffee at the bar, and kill only half an hour rather than the 2 hours you can burn sipping your cafe creme at an outdoor table at your neighborhood cafe. At the Starbucks, there was a ton of seating and a ton of young people in groups - a much easier and relaxed place to hang out than at a cafe. You could easily grab your coffee (the American kind), chai or favorite half caf-no whip-double shot-frappa-whatevers and sit there forever chatting with friends, doing homework or grabbing hold of the free wifi (here, pronounced wee-fee), a luxury here. 

So while I wouldn't make it an everyday routine (you're welcome, arteries), dining at fast food restaurants can be a small reminder of food at home, yet still offering that tiny bit of French culture, with your side of frites. 

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