They’ve gotta have it
Don’t take your cranberries for granted, America. Or your stain remover either.
This time of year, yearning for American stuff reaches a fever pitch among American expats, including the more than 100,000 of us in France. Products that seem banal on the aisles of U.S. supermarkets and on TV become fetish items when you’re more than 3,600 miles across an ocean.
In fact, they come to seem like America itself. Even with a wannabe American running France, there’s often a pregnant pause after I tell Europeans I’m American. And a lot of expats I know are ambivalent about many things from home -- from its wars to its waistlines.
But we have no problem embracing Twizzlers. And Triscuits. And the conviction that American stain removers get out the dirt better, and that our brown sugar makes for far chewier oatmeal cookies. A woman I know, who says she won’t move back to the States until a Democrat wins the White House, has a nationalistic zeal best summed up as a belief in the superiority of American Ziploc bags.
Halloween opens high season for our consumer patriotism. There’s a frantic exchange of e-mails in the weeks beforehand: Why do the French have such puny pumpkins? How do you translate “dry ice”?
I spent that day escorting my 2-year-old to expat parties, where other parents confessed to schlepping candy corn back from business trips and to having relatives FedEx costumes across the Atlantic. (Forget about getting locals into the spirit. Parisians consider the holiday so foreign that they pronounce the “H.” An acquaintance gave up when neighbors tossed croissants into her kids’ trick-or-treat bags.)
The fervor peaks at Thanksgiving. I know expats who ruin dinner parties by ranting about American healthcare, then spend most of their free time searching for American cornbread mix and a French butcher who’s willing to roast an entire turkey (don’t bother trying to fit one in those tiny European ovens). There’s always a last-minute missive from someone looking for dark corn syrup to use in American-style pecan pie. Thankfully, stale baguettes make decent stuffing.
It’s possible to spend all year inhabiting this imagined America, which resembles a hypermarket more than a country. The French may have perfected entrecote, but they don’t do corn tortillas, graham crackers or raisins in small snack boxes.
Show me an American expat, especially a mother, and I’ll show you someone who arrives at Charles de Gaulle airport lugging Flintstones vitamins, Grape-Nuts and Neosporin. One mother confessed on an expat message board that she filled an entire suitcase with boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. (Someone else wisely suggested that she dump the tiny elbows, which you can find in France, and just bring the cheese packets.)
Because it takes nearly $1.50 to buy a euro, it’s understandable that Americans on home leave would buy shoes at Stride Rite and sweaters at Banana Republic. But cost doesn’t explain why foodie friends, who spend their weekends in Paris buying organic frisee at farmers’ markets, return from the U.S. with ranch dressing and Pop-Tarts.
It takes more than food to construct this idealized America, one sans assault weapons, shock jocks and Abu Ghraib. Television contributes too. Friends back home, who imagine that I lead a glamorous life in Paris, don’t realize that I walk around groggy-eyed because I’ve been up late watching back-to-back episodes of “Weeds.” When expats meet, we don’t exchange names of bistros or gossip about the Sarkozy divorce; we swap boxed sets of “Entourage” and “Grey’s Anatomy” (which tantalizingly runs on French TV, but dubbed).
Maybe we’re on to something. If you find yourself feeling ungrateful about America this holiday season, take a deep breath and open your refrigerator.