One thing I have noticed again and again living and traveling abroad this year is the obsolescence of the following clichéd proto-exchange:
“Oh, you’re going to Belgium!”
“Yeah, for a few days. Mostly business but I’m hoping to do some shopping, too.”
“Well bring me back some chocolate, and make sure you eat a waffle and drink some Duvel.”
The fact is that very little exists anywhere in Europe, and almost anywhere else (at least counting the places I’ve visited recently) that can’t be gotten almost everywhere else. Want Belgian chocolate? Just go to the chocolatier at the nearest shopping mall. It turns out if you ask a Belgian what their favorite chocolate is they are likely to say “Godiva.” Want a Belgian waffle? Well, of course you don’t have to be in Brussels for that. You can get a machine at Target, find a recipe online and make your own. And as for beer, there are 99 trappist varieties on tap at one of my favorite bars in Greenwich Village, and even Riga now has its own Belgian bar (and no, I’m not talking about the ubiquitous Stella Pub).
I suppose this is not entirely new. Traditional foods and of course beers have been imported for a long time. But part of me wonders whether the idea of an ineffable particularity of place, at least in terms of the products that can be consumed (it will be hard to build a Louvre in every city, but damned if Dubai isn’t trying), has reached its breaking point. Simply put: what can you buy or eat anywhere in the world that you can’t also buy or eat somewhere in New York or London?
The easiest way to discover this is to travel somewhere and try to find good gifts to bring home. Even handmade crafts can be bought at internationally focused boutiques in the US and Europe. What’s the point of bringing back chocolate or candy when every variety can be bought at home? And no, nobody quite does cassoulet like a brasserie in Toulouse, but my favorite French place in Baltimore comes close.
If the very idea of regionality has not yet curdled, the concept of the “regional speciality” as something to be experienced only in a particular place certainly has. The spaces of consumption in Western countries are coming closer and closer to resemble the fantasyland of Epcot Center, where every commodifiable world culture is packaged into its own shopping and eating pavilion, allowing the visitor to stroll from a Tokyo fish market to a Parisian bistro in a matter of minutes. That Eiffel Tower at the chintzy Las Vegas casino-hotel might look and feel fake, but Joël Robuchon’s food most likely does not, nor does the Pouilly-Fuisse sitting in a temperature-controlled cellar beneath the Nevada desert. If it can be moved, it’s everywhere.
One wonders when the marketers will team up and create a backlash, exporting certain items but restricting others in order to extract a monopoly rent (Marxist jargon for the price premium that comes from “authenticity” and “singularity”) from their exclusive sale in the “country of origin.” At least maybe then there will be SOMETHING worth bringing home from Belgium.