Wednesday, November 09, 2011

There and Back 

Commercial for EF International Language Centers

It's so odd to travel so far so easily. Air travel must be one of the most powerful forces in our modern world. Spreading people, ideas, commerce and viruses faster than ever in our history. I work for a company that not only uses a powerful video conferencing system, we also sell it. I'll even go on record about how surprisingly convincing it is to sit in front of a television talking to a video of someone and feel that somehow, you're in the same room. As sophisticated as that is, it doesn't really replace being there, shaking a hand or breaking bread with other people. I guess it's not meant as a kind of simulcrum but the idea is it'll replace phone conversations at some point. But it won't replace flight, driving, traveling to be somewhere else.

“What were the luxury bath products in my American luxury hotel? Bliss. Made in Canada. The circle is complete and unbroken...”

We must live in a rare time. We are witnessing a migration of sameness. I mean, I can go to London, a place I've been seven or eight times over the last 30 years or so, I can see the differences and I can see how the things that used to seem extremely different are fading. It feels like in the near future all major cities will not just kind of look the same but be the same. Particularly cultural things. We are sort of all moving to some mass middle bottleneck of popular culture, art, food, music and fashion. That's not to say London isn't wholly unique the same way New York, Paris etc are. It is. It's just, now, in 2011 it is less unique than it used to be. Gone are the Wimpy's (well, they've gone somewhere. Underground, maybe?) Starbucks has arrived. It's not even Starbucks itself, but the Starbucks Effect. Kids learn to sling a hot cup of brown at Starbucks then leave and open their own "unique" coffee shop where the last drops of steamed milk are carefully poured into cups of fresh roasted coffee. Now every great city boasts fine coffee and artisan baristas. Coffee slinging started where? Istanbul? Then in Venice, then Paris and by God before you know it there's a Tims on every corner of Canada. Except in Britain where coffee was mostly a foreign and questionable substance. Enter an ever expanding American enterprise and voila. For over 3 decades Starbucks itself used to be the Local Coffeeshop for those of the Pacific Northwest. In the last decade or so it's gone global. Almost any city over a certain size has a few. Globalisation isn't just about slave-like labour and container shipping. It seems to be about the normalization of the loss of local culture.

What did I covet most in London during my stay? My luxury American hotel and Belgian beers. That and more, but here's the kicker, Uniqlo, Muji and Wagamama were also on my list. The first two are Japanese chains that don't have retail in Canada nor do they ship here; the third is a British noodle shop, based on a Japanese ideal. What were the luxury bath products in my American luxury hotel? Bliss. Made in Canada. The circle is complete and unbroken.

This is a "clock", (it makes more sense with the music turned on) an embeddable video promoting clothing from Japanese retailer, Uniqlo. I've never seen a retailer give such effort to their online media. And yes, lovely young dancers did entice me as I entered the store and walked out with an armful of affordable sweaters.

It's not just shopping either. My free day was spent at the incredible Tate Modern which sits majestically on the Thames along the Queen's Walk. What did I see? A retrospective of a widely revered German painter. In Trafalgar Square, the NFL was holding a pre-game concert to promote the big game of the Chicago Bears vs the Tampa Bay Buccaneers being played at Wembley Stadium. This goes both ways as Toronto has hosted soccer matches between Chelsea and Barcelona. Even at the National Gallery across from Nelson's Column, the potrait I most admired was from Dutch master.

In Leicester Square, I drank coffee made by a Polish guy, served by a French girl and paid in pounds sterling to a Spanaird working the till. As I write, a Greek financial crisis threatens to implode the Euro and European Union throwing markets world wide into a frenzy.

Then I flew back. I flew. 30-something-thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean, in a "heavier than air" craft. Lifted by science and optimism. The Globalism that we feared or hoped for is here but did it make the world a better place or just a more homogeneous one? That's a bit of a shame. After Qadaffi was killed in Libya, a teen-ager held the former dictator's gold plated pistol aloft in celebration. The boy was wearing a New York Yankees ball cap. I was going to say he's probably never even seen baseball but then again, I'm sure they get satellite out there in the desert. Circle, unbroken.

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