“Cultural” uniformity within Europe

The BBC news site carries two stories today that really deserve more attention, especially in light of many debates on European culture and identity. The two stories highlight trends that have been going on for quite a while now and I suppose you could consider these trends to be intrinsically ‘cultural’ as they reflect contemporary behaviour patterns. Culture is not only about the arts, it is also, and maybe foremost, about the way people actually live and behave.

The first BBC story talks about the famous Parisian Left Bank losing its renowned cultural identity:

In the 1940s Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli gave the area its own jazz sound while in the cafes and bars, Sartre penned his theories on existentialism and literary geniuses Orwell and Hemingway were inspired to write novels. But the heritage of the Left Bank is now under threat as McDonald’s, Starbucks and souvenir shops begin to take over the traditional bookshops and cafes. (…) Deputy Mayor of Paris, Lyne Cohen Solal, is adamant that Paris’s prized Left Bank should resist uniformity. “All the cities all over in Europe are starting to look the same. London, Berlin they’re going to have the same streets with the same shops.”

It is a trend I have observed myself when visiting several European capitals. Culture and history are increasingly being replaced by uniform commerce. One could of course point out that much of culture and history have been shaped by commerce anyway, but I do not believe it has ever been so… uniform. At least, in my perception.

At the same time culture is carried by people. And if those people prefer uniform shopping over their own more or less unique heritage, well, to what extent should one deny them that way of life? In a way one could say that consumerism itself is part and parcel of contemporary culture. From the article:

The state representative in charge of economic development Michel Lalande believes it is time that Paris welcomed in the spirit of the 21st Century. “If the bookshops are closing down, it’s also because they have fewer customers. Preserving these bookshops is all very well, but what would be even better is if tourists and Parisians actually went to them.

The second story is even more familiar to me. It is about the touristic development of the Mediterranean. Author Julian Pettifer writes:

This is how I described what had happened to a familiar street in Torremolinos: “…then (in the 50s) it was filled with dark little shops selling oil, wine and olives and formidable-looking corsets to peasant women with long black dresses. Donkeys were the main traffic. It was intensely Spanish. Now, it could be just about anywhere. The shops have that international chic I associate with boutiques in big international airports. “The restaurants are anything but Spanish. There are French, Danish and Dutch “bistros” and something called “The New West End Fish and Chip Boutique de Poisson Frites”. This loss of national identity has introduced a new word into the Spanish language: El Boom.”

The development of the Spanish coastline I have been able to observe firsthand. I have seen how the coast of Murcia, for instance, has gradually taken on the ‘allure’ of a true Atlantic wall consisting of countless more or less uniform holiday resorts that are now obscuring from view the once so beautiful Mediterranean sea. More often than not city planning is horrendous and I know of at least one resort where the sheer amount of concrete and a lack of cultural activity have managed to make life quite dreary in the land of sun and sea. The sun has become the primary and sole reason to buy there. Or even elsewhere if local real estate prices become too high. Many Mediterranean countries seem to be perfectly interchangeable in this regard. As long as there is sun, who cares about local culture. El Boom is now expanding to countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bulgaria and even Libya. And its pattern is invariably the same. Claim a piece of land near the sea and turn it into a saleable patch of pretty uniform concrete. One wonders when supply will start to outpace demand.

Very often I hear people talk about the threat of Islamic culture to the identity and culture of Europe. But what exactly is that culture of Europe nowadays? Is it really much different from that of Americans shopping in New York, of Japanese consuming in Tokyo or Chinese people buying Coca Cola in Peking? To what extent is our cultural ‘behaviour’, driven by prosperity, really unique? And would it be worth our while to protect whatever is left of our historical heritage, like that deputy mayor of Paris wants to do, against the, no doubt envigorating, spirit of commercialism? Has it become, in short, outdated, reactionary and selfish even, to express one’s non-profitable love for something and to fight for the realisation of one’s desire to keep some things just the way they are?

Update: First of all, the comments and link have been fixed. Secondly, Paul Currion from The Unforgiving Minute weblog has an interesting follow-up to this post entitled Cleaning up in Montenegro. As it happens Paul was interviewed by the very same Julian Pettifer that is quoted here on the very same subject of the Mediterranean coastline for BBC4’s Crossing Continents. Sadly, he did not make the final cut himself but, as a bonus, he does graciously provide a link to that BBC4 broadcast.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture and tagged by Guy La Roche. Bookmark the permalink.

About Guy La Roche

Dutch translator and subtitler living in Brittany with his three cats. Has also lived in the Flemish part of Belgium. Speaks English rather fluently and in a former life used to have a decent command of Spanish. Knows swear words in German and Russian. Not quite francophone yet, but slowly getting there. Vaguely centrist observer of the world around him, extremely naive and, sometimes, rather proud of it. Writes Venale Pecus.

5 thoughts on ““Cultural” uniformity within Europe

  1. ‘Keeping things the way they are’ is rarely as profitable, so the ‘bottom line’ will continue to drive these changes.

    I think it’s interesting however, that this homogenisation – usually driven by US brands, globalisation and our consumerism/tourism-based economies – is often the driver for hostility towards the EU.

    Perhaps it is more tangible and easily blamed for growing uniformity, even though its efforts in this direction (single market, health regulations, etc) are rarely as visible (with the exception of the single currency).

  2. Interesting point, David.

    Sometimes I have the impressin that it is really the behaviour of the consumers themselves that drives homogenisation. It seems almost like an unwanted self-fulfilling prophecy or, maybe even, a confirmation of an already existing situation.

    Of course, there is still (and fortunately, AFAIC) no true homogenity. Language differences and the desire/need to belong to a certain identifiable group, for instance, will prevent that from happening any time soon. And there are plenty of culinary differences and all sorts of traditions, etc…

    But what I find interesting is the occasional difference between the psychology of people and their actual behaviour.

    To put it more simply (and simplified): In theory it is possible to believe you are part of a very distinct group of people while at the same time acting just like another equally distinct group of people.

    I wonder just how much of “identity” is purely mental and how much of it is really visible through actions. Or, to what extent is our own behaviour more “destructive” than outside influences with regards to our cultural heritage. In other words, if your own culture is strong enough, in thought and in action how could anyone else affect it in a negative way?

  3. France is all about cultural uniformity and steamrolling local languages and cultures in France that aren’t part of the French mainstream. That’s what the fight against “communitarianism” is all about. It seems to me that if France wants to promote culture in France, it should allow people to learn their own languages in public school, like almost every other country in Europe.

  4. Pingback: The Unforgiving Minute · Cleaning Up in Montenegro

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