CULTURE SCHLOCK : In Europe, Thank Goodness, Mickey and the King of Pop Have Nothing on Shakespeare and Bach

I'm glad to be back. Really. I am. There are only so many afternoons one can stroll beneath the trees in the Tuileries, only so many varieties of fromage one can manage to manger.

I wasn't gone long enough to forget my ATM code, but long enough that I thought fleetingly they were talking about "the Tao" when the car radio on the way home from LAX said the Dow was up that day.

And I was in Europe long enough to be reassured that, in spite of the alarms about the "Baywatch"-ification/Coca-Cola-rizing of the entire world, American culture--meaning Hollywood pop imperialism--has not yet thoroughly saturated the globe.

It is merely veneer, as evanescent as the secondhand smoke from the ubiquitous Marlboro Light, as thin as a layer of ready-made Duncan Hines chocolate fudge cake frosting, which can be found in Paris at a little American grocery store on a side street in the Marais.

Even the Simpson case is a curiosity, more Barnum than Blackstone. Sky TV's broadcast of the Simpson trial elicited my favorite call-in question from an Englishman: "If keeping the jury's identity secret is so important, why is it I can see one of them clearly reflected in Christopher Darden's bald head?"

That is not to say that Hollywood hasn't got a reach that exceeds its grasp. In Paris' Jewish Quarter, I found a child's yellow yarmulke decorated with "good boy" in Hebrew and the international triumvirate of Mickey, Donald and Goofy. And several years back, a French teen-ager committed suicide because his parents wouldn't let him get plastic surgery to look like Michael Jackson.

But I saw not a word, heard not a note of the King of Pop. The young conductor on the Chunnel train was whistling a Baroque oldie by that rockin' Bach dude, "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." Paris concert posters ballyhooed 53-year-old rocker Johnny Hallyday, ne Jean-Philippe Smet. The star turn of Saturday-morning TV was an accordion contest, the accordion and the car horn being the French national musical instruments.

As for food, what could Americans possibly offer to the cuisine machine that gave us French fries and sauces and sorbets and escargot ?

Answer: fajitas , the American-in-Paris plat du jour . Because I always test how Mexican food travels, I lunched at Indiana, one of more than 200 Tex-Mex restaurants in the City of Lights. A place in Kansas put Velveeta in the quesadillas. The salsa in a New Hampshire cantina was ketchup with chopped onions. The food at Indiana was pas mal , but the walls were hung with paintings of American Indians, who have as much to do with Tex-Mex as the state of Indiana does. No doubt a translator's glitch was at work here, as must have been the case when the old Pepsi slogan "Pepsi makes you come alive" became, in some Asian language, "Pepsi makes your ancestors come back from the dead."

And art? I already hold Great Britain in high regard--for the Magna Carta, for Shakespeare, for Dunkirk and for masterly tabloid headlines. So I was even more impressed to see, under "popular fiction" on book racks in the train stations, the novels of Jane Austen and Graham Greene.

How can I not be pleased at France's sound historical perspective, when old black-and-white photos of Cocteau and Colette bring a higher price than pictures of Marilyn? What enduring differences of Gallic nature and culture, of frugality, smoking habits and lingerie, can be divined from noting that in France, wastebaskets are small, ashtrays big and my bra size is about 95?

The most gratifying proof that there is some corner of a foreign field that has not become Burbank or Madison Avenue: The host of a London radio program was telling me over lunch about niche programming, something new to Great Britain. I asked her whether a British Rush Limbaugh had emerged yet.

"Who," she asked, "is Rush Limbaugh?"

Now that's what I call a civilized nation.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World