America, land of the large

After two years of reporting from France, Mary Dejevsky is now covering the United States. She expected differences, but found that the two cultures are polar opposites
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The Independent Online
The day I arrived in Washington this spring was the day a rap artist who styled himself "The Notorious BIG" was murdered, in a type of killing that is sufficiently common here to be known as a "drive-by shooting". The death of the man acknowledged to be leader of the "East Coast rap faction", and author of certain especially aggressive lyrics, prompted much comment about those who live by the gun dying by the gun.

For me, though, BIG had other connotations. I was just embarking on what must be one of the more startling cultural transitions in the Western world. From introducing myself "Bonjour, Madame, Monsieur [nod to both, eyes demurely lowered], permettez-vous

As a rapper, BIG may have aspired to iconoclasm, but his chosen name seemed all-American, a testament to the cult of BIGness and self-advertisement. In France, where I had spent the previous two years, small is mostly positive, and discretion is a virtue. Petit(e) is a term of approval, endearment. Attached to any noun, from proper name to food item, it puts everyone in a good mood. "Big" tends to denote - aside from remote grandeur - crudeness, grossness, clumsiness.

The French doubtless find their prejudice amply borne out on the streets of urban America. It is not only the cars; we Europeans have long been familiar with giant American gas-guzzlers. Nor is it the way they are driven, though the traffic alternates the somnolent with the brash.

It is that the general artlessness evident on the roads extends to the pavements, the pedestrians, the shops and a great deal else besides. Take the pavements. In French cities there is an unwritten rule: pedestrians keep to the right. The busier the street, the more rigid the rule. Collisions are rare. Americans bump into you all the time, with a cheerful "excuse me" if you are lucky. I am still unsure whether their reluctance to change direction is part of a survival-of-the-fittest, who-blinks-first mind- set, a lack of practice in city walking, or simply inattention.

You seem more likely to be mown down on a Washington pavement (by a Rollerblader, cyclist, runner or "power-walker") than on the road. In a car you can get away with running through a red light, but failing to stop for a pedestrian at a corner must attract a penalty only just short of execution, so strictly is it observed.

The cult of bigness, moreover, degrades two of the greatest pleasures of the Gallic world: shopping and eating. Try shopping, cooking - even eating - for one, even two (Europeans) in the US. All right, so the fridge and freezer are big enough to accommodate any volume of leftovers. But what do you do with two-thirds of a giant packet of taco chips if there are just two of you? Or the giant pot of mayonnaise, if you have no school- age children needing packed lunches?

The only smaller packs you can find are super-luxury embellished or imported versions at twice the price of the huge one. A recent survey found that around 40 per cent of food bought in the US goes to waste. It is not surprising, but it is hard also not to see the hand of profit at work.

The more positive explanation would be the continual American craving for what is new and different - the dynamo of US inventiveness. The plain taco chip may be good enough for Mexicans, but not for Americans. The humble bagel, once consumed plain or with cream cheese - and smoked salmon on special occasions - now rivals the over-sugared, over-iced, over-filled doughnut in its ability to re-create itself. The apple strudel bagel advertised on my route to work risks closing the circle: bagel or doughnut? What's the difference?

How different from France, where innovative chefs find themselves pilloried for introducing a kiwi fruit where it is deemed not to belong, and where the art of cooking is an eternal quest for the perfect steack frites, magret de canard or creme caramel. And while size has a place - nouvelle cuisine was never the excuse for meanness in France that it became elsewhere - judgements of value in the French-speaking world are made not on size alone. They rest on a "bon rapport qualite/prix," with its assumption that quality and price should be (and they mostly are) related.

A French shopper might well dismiss as too cheap to be good an American- size pack of meat or biscuits. In France, it is common wisdom that the supermarket cake is quite a different creature from that of the specialist patissier. You choose according to your purse and your preference. Americans, with rare exceptions, buy on price, even if this entails motoring for miles - though driving is not nearly as cheap as the pump price of petrol suggests, because American cars are significantly thirstier than their European counterparts.

Sheets of grocery coupons, a discounting method that has almost died out in Europe, are still a part of American life. Social workers teach "welfare mothers" how to use them, but the better-off also snip them out, to get their due from the traders. Maybe I am profligate with my cents, but I find the cost/benefit ratio of the coupons unconvincing.

My non-participation in the coupon game is a small jab of rebellion against a system in which you are nothing but a consumer statistic. To my slightly abashed surprise, however, it turned out recently that there are others. An American columnist, Michael Lewis, recently boasted of being perhaps the only American ever to have paid list price for a new car. He said it was because he liked the unsalesmanlike salesman and found haggling demeaning. He wanted to apply the same principle to his shopping generally, and to campaign for what he called "new enlightened buying".

Lewis, in fact, is not as rare as he thinks; he is just un-American. There are millions of his "new enlightened buyers" in the world, many of them French, and their priorities are long established. For them, the seller/buyer relationship and the quality/price ratio are reasons for deciding where and what to buy. For those with the means to choose (and for some without), price is just one consideration.

The Americans and the French offer dozens of such cultural contrasts. Americans have a degree of probity, still, in public life, which the French can hardly imagine; the French have patronage. Americans have a truly admirable sense of individual responsibility and of their part in the collective. They clear up after themselves at McDonald's, they volunteer for good works, and they perform song-and-dance routines with a precision that puts many of the world's armies to shame.

You have only to see a French dance troupe's best efforts at synchronisation to appreciate the culture gap. As a US conductor happily based in France recollected, he got his (professional) orchestra to play together only when he stopped drilling them and inspired them with his "vision" instead. They all started playing as one, each individually won over as to the rightness of his interpretation.

I will have to pass over the American/French difference in what the Americans have learnt, with awkward political correctness, to call "gender relations", as too vast an area to be tackled here. Suffice it to say that there are two poles of expectation, two poles of behaviour. For a woman, switching between the two cultures as they have developed in the Nineties is not easy; for a man it is probably harder still.

Such conclusions may seem little more than random anecdotes gathered to reinforce primitive and largely familiar cultural stereotypes: the Anglo-Saxons vs the Gauls, Northern Europe vs the Mediterranean, predominantly Protestant cultures vs predominantly Catholic ones. That would be a valid objection if this cultural divide were narrowing; but in fact it threatens to become an ever- greater source of discord into the next century.

Over 200 years, cultural differences have taken the Americans and the French from revolutionary alliance into fierce, if uneven, rivalry. Theirs is now one of the most fraught and competitive diplomatic relationships of the post-Cold War world. If there are two ways of tackling and resolving one question, you can guarantee that the Americans will choose one and the French the other. From nuclear testing to Africa, from participation in international organisations to methods of aid-giving, from welfare to commerce, France and the US judge their priorities differently.

A pale reflection of this fundamental difference in mentality can be seen in Canada, though the more European style and outlook of Canada's English-speakers probably makes for less of a clash than there would be if Quebec were a part of the United States. It may also explain why Quebec has been able to retain its distinctiveness for so long.

But aspects of this cultural difference also exist, increasingly, within the US itself. The growing Hispanic community, with its language, Catholicism and Mediterranean ways, presents a cultural challenge to the US unlike any it has met before. The Latinos lack the "discretion" of the French, but share many of their values; and their brash energy makes them more equal competitors with America's declining proportion of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Elements of a similar system of values can also be found among those American blacks who benefited from the civil rights movement but have not been fully assimilated or made their way in white society. In and around Washington DC, which is more of a southern town than it is often given credit for, it is invariably blacks who display the manners, civility and humane flexibility with respect to rules that is such a characteristic of the Gallic world.

Any number of theories can be advanced to explain why, from the harshness of historical experience, via later urbanisation, to the existence of a more laid-back "southern" mentality. Many, however - especially whites - would deny such a difference exists, as though blacks are simply whites in waiting.

My sense is that there are real cultural differences here and that these are similar, in depth and in character, to the ones that cause the constant non-comprehension between America and France. Can it be that numbers of American blacks are as impervious to many aspects of "American" culture as are the French? Do they reject it for similar reasons - as lacking civility and flexibility, for a start? And could white America's big mistake, as with its attitude to France, be to act as though this cultural divide did not exist?