Robert’s Column: Another American in Paris


The Parisian waiter gave me a quizzical look and, then, after what seemed like an eternity (but was in reality only about three seconds), nodded.

I sat back in my chair and sighed. I had done this so many times in the last week, and it was still just as awkward.

The request had been simple. I just wanted a glass of cold water. But so far, every waiter I had asked had not been forthcoming. When I asked for water, every glass I’d receive would have warm water – not the most refreshing of drinks after spending all day in the 100-degree sun. I’d have to specifically ask for water with ice in it, and subject myself to the odd stares that came with it.

I mused about it, for a bit, and as my glass of water came – with only two ice cubes– I remained in thought. Why were Europeans so miserly with their ice distribution? The first waiter I asked, in Rome, was visibly disturbed by my request. That day was nearly 110 degrees. Try to imagine me, drowning in a veritable ocean of sweat and racked with heatstroke, and trying to explain to a waiter I wanted ice water.  Eventually it came. It wasn’t paradise, but it tasted like it.

I was fortunate enough to spend two and a half weeks touring the great cities of Europe this past July. I visited sights I had only up to then read or dreamed about.

I glided on a gondola down the winding canals of Venice, the most beautiful city in the world. I braved the harsh, biting winds on the very top of the Eiffel Tower. I viewed picturesque mountains and lakes in Switzerland. I paid homage to Charles Dickens at his historic home in London. In Rome I knelt, in reverence, in front of Michelangelo’s Pietá, and, like everyone else, got sore from craning my neck upwards to view the beautiful ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I have always loved history and literature, and this trip was an opportunity for me to study everything I had learned about for years.

As much I enjoyed the trip, the “little differences,” as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction called them, between America and Europe, were even more enjoyable to observe. Noticing these differences has created within me a hypersensitivity to the little things we do in California.

Here, tipping in restaurants and coffee bars is required, while It isn’t, in Europe. In the United Kingdom, as everyone knows, cars drive on the left side of the road. (“The right way to drive,” our tour guide, who was English, glibly observed.) Latte in Italian means milk; if you go into an Italian bar and order a latte, you’ll get a glass of warm milk. And, of course, in a continent where one can drive through three different countries in an hour, everyone spoke multiple languages. A sobering observation, coming from a country where many citizens are proud to say that they only speak English – and imply disdain for immigrants for speaking multiple languages.

The most amazing thing I noticed wasn’t the little differences, though. It was the similarities. Every city had its own fashionable, high-end street—the Champs-Elysées in Paris, the Via Condotti in Rome, Oxford Street in London. And each street had the exact same stores on it. Louis Vuitton. Giorgio Armani. Chanel. Rolex. The high streets were exactly the same. While there were no Starbucks in sight in Italy—a blessed relief in the land that invented cappuccino—the amount of McDonald’s I noticed was a depressing amount.

I do not mean to criticize Europe in any way. Europe is so much more than mere stores. But we travel to see new things—the “little differences” and the big. The Leaning Tower of Pisa was amazing to behold. The McDonald’s outside the courtyard? Not so much.

Globalization has connected our world in ways that were impossible two decades ago. But we need to ensure that it does not destroy culture and the unique cultural identities that we appreciate.

When I travel, I want real, authentic food, not fast-food. I want wonders, not the ordinary. And as annoying and enigmatic as it first may seem, I do want glasses of water with two ice cubes in them.

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