People slurping slushies, devouring pizza, picking on boxed sushi, clamping down on sandwiches. All of this while sitting on the steps around a huge watering hole, with fountains, light shows, the whole shebang. Above us is a great glass cupola, through which you can see a medium-sized skyscraper, and from which are hanging dazzling wreaths, baubles and sparkly lights. Where are we?
Let me give you some more hints. Around us is a sprawling anthill of shoppers, scurrying from one store to the next, carrying multicolored bags that prove to the world which stores they can afford and which they cannot. All you can hear is the buzz of overlaid voices, along with the faint bubbling of the fountain below and the washed out tunes of Christmas songs. Sound familiar?
But of course, we’re in a mall, somewhere in consumerist America during the busiest shopping season of the year, the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Yes, we’re in a mall. Yes, it’s December. No, we’re not in the United States. To be precise, we’re in Part-Dieu shopping center, right next to the Part-Dieu train station in Lyon, France.
Never before had I fathomed this sort of consumerist culture in France. I had participated in the soldes, always keeping my distance so as to resist my innate super-spending impulses. As a member of this consumerist trap of a society, I control these artificially, commercially imposed instincts with the utmost discipline, but they are still unequivocally there. It seemed like the French had some sort of gene that made them more immune to the spending disease. The soldes drew a large crowd, but it never seemed as strong a pull as in the United States, where any sale is a pretext to buy, buy, buy.
Here, I’m tempted to retract that statement. I had never been to a French mall like this before. This is what this mob of French citizens has chosen to do with their Saturday. Shop. In a big heaping mess of holiday spending spirit. I thought I had escaped it to some extent by moving here, but clearly I have not. Not that it’s completely negative. I feel like I’m back in Westfarms Mall in West Hartford, CT, or maybe in the St. Cloud Mall, in MN, browsing for last-minute Christmas gifts with my mom or my cousin Emily. Consumerist culture does indeed bring back some good memories with people, and I cannot deny I don’t enjoy that tingling feeling that a fresh purchase can provide.
About a week ago, I taught a class on American consumerist culture and showed videos of Black Friday and news reports on this year’s holiday spending trends. The senior class concluded that this specific phenomenon, this out-of-control shopping frenzy, pertains specifically to the United States. But now I’m having my doubts. If the French have come so far as to emulate an American mall, as to pack all of their chain stores into one multi-layered building, conceived to play on their innermost shopping impulse, with food courts, water fountains and the works…will they someday reach the Black Friday extreme? Methinks, eventually, yes.
Granted, people tend to be dressed more classily (stereotype, yet real), the men seem to enjoy shopping much more (stereotype, yet hilariously true), the restaurants in the food court are classier (stereotype, yet real), their fast food sandwiches are crispy baguettes stuffed with delicious meats and fresh salad and greens (stereotype, yet wow this is delicious), but still…If the French are moving towards the American spending model, what sort of changes are they capable of? What American cultural element will invade them next? What will they let in despite their strong national pride and refusal of Americanization? Are the Americans invading the French or are the French letting themselves be invaded?
Thoughts on that?