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Cultural Relativity, and the Quiet Beauty of Taco Bell

After several years traveling and living all around the globe, I once again find myself settled in my suburban existence – only now with a much greater understanding of how differently people around the world live.  In my time away, I learned to loathe some of the trappings of my “old life”, and learned to appreciate things I took for granted.  Time away from what you consider home is a microscope you use to analyze the structure of your life to that point – the combination of homesickness and a sudden abundance of free time give you plenty of time to reminisce and contemplate.

I think we can all agree that Paris is somewhat different than suburban Detroit.  Further, I don’t think there are many people who would disagree with the statement that Paris is one of the most – if not the most – beautiful cities in the world.  Personally, I’m a Rome guy, but it’s #2 at worst.  Where my perspective starts diverge from that of most people, though, is in determining just how much “better” Paris is than my home town, my home state, or my home country.  Through all the highs and lows of the new experience, I never strayed far from the premise that life in Paris wasn’t better than life in suburban Midwestern America, nor was it worse.  It was just different.  France wasn’t inherently a better country or a worse country than the United States – it was simply a different entity altogether.  Apples and oranges.  Or, in this case, cheese and donuts.

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When you maintain this viewpoint, however, as a 30-something professional male living in Paris, it isn’t long before you get branded by myriad groups of people as a flag-waving, xenophobic Ugly American.  There’s an unspoken expectation from these people that you should be ashamed to be American – that all you stand for is excess, obesity, lack of “culture”, war mongering, and ignorance.  Coming from young Parisians who have never left Europe, or even France, it is predictable – they are just as unqualified to evaluate American culture as a cattle rancher who never left Texas is unqualified to critique the French [although, my guess is he would somehow work the word “faggots” into his evaluation].  That ethos, incidentally, isn’t native to Paris only – there’s a subset of Americans who like to consider themselves more “cultured” because they fancy themselves aficionados of the same things a stereotypical Parisian would – fine wine, high fashion, gourmet cuisine, classic art, and the like.

When you take a step back from preconceived notions of what is considered “cultured” and what is not, though, it is hard to find any concrete, tangible way to validate that assumption.  If one has an encyclopedic knowledge of wine origin and production, that person is high-class and culturally savvy.  If one possesses the same knowledge of beer, it is considered a quirky hobby.  Why?  Are grapes classier than hops?

If you fancied a tiny restaurant on a quiet street in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, you must be a fine connoisseur of haute cuisine… if that identical food was served at 30 different locations along the Eastern seaboard, you’re a rube who likes chain restaurants.

How is a fan of classical music any more enlightened than a fan of hip-hop?  Cannot they both impart feelings of happiness, of passion, of anger, of excitement?   Cannot they both be written from great depths of sincerity with vibrant brilliance?  Then what makes one a more valid currency in discussion of your “appreciation of the arts” than the other? An irony I took great pleasure in witnessing many times in Paris was having locals claim that there is no worthwhile culture in America, only to hurriedly break from the conversation because they need to go dance to the Kanye West joint that just started playing.

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As someone who has observed both the audience at the Opera Garnier on a Friday evening, and a smoky, boozy bowling alley on that same night on the East Side of the Detroit suburbs – I have to tell you, the bowlers seem to be having more fun.

Do what you want to do, and be proud of it.  No one is smarter than you because of the music they like or the alcohol they choose.  The only score that matters is the number of moments you spent on this Earth being happy.  If that means enjoying a Mexican Pizza on a lawn chair in your back yard with your feet in a kiddie pool while you crack open a Budweiser – then just savor it.  And pass me one while you’re at it.



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