Monday, August 10, 2009

Is there a Brooklyn in Germany?

In Italy, we were trying to find TV we wanted to watch in our hotel room when suddenly we found a truly amazing informercial. The product? One of those electronic devices that's supposed to make you lose weight and tone up without any exertion whatsoever. But rather than, say, a vibrating belt, this was a vibrating platform you had to stand on for 'just 15 minutes a day' or something like that. What the infomercial amounted to, then, was women in next to nothing shown on these machines, with special attention paid to their quivering, cellulite-free rears. The mix between the cheesy-to-no-end visuals and the Italian man's voice in the background promising a 'vacation credit' with your purchase (and the implied vacation spent with fellow owners of this product) was almost too much to take.

The infomercial's main point seemed to be that you should choose their vibrating platform over those made by others (there are others?) because theirs, they explained, in English all of a sudden, was "Made in Italy," whereas the others were junk due to having been made in China. (Yes, there was a xenophobic interlude about Asian goods between the butt-shaking scenes.) The name of this fine Italian company? Amerika Star.

I was slightly offended - if not shocked - that my country is seen as representative of this type of product, one designed explicitly for the lazy and vain. I was also reminded of a mattress chain in Israel called American Comfort, suggesting a massive suburban home with separate bedrooms and king-size beds for each child and air conditioners and dishwashers in each room, if not espresso machines on each floor.

The trend of giving an American name to a local product (albeit one not necessarily manufactured locally) extends to Germany and elsewhere in Europe. One sees plenty of the reverse in the States - lattes, Haagen Dazs and its gratuitous umlaut and double vowel, the fact that a restaurant can charge 30% more if it calls itself something with "Le," "La", or "Chez" - but one imagines Europeans not to go for things - the occasional Levis and burger aside - that scream American. But it seems to go both ways.

Munich - and to a lesser extent, Heidelberg - is filled with Starbucks (Starbuckses?), but also with American-style coffee bars of German origin, modeled on the 'independent coffee shops' of college towns, with menus in a mix of English, German, and American-coffee-shop Italian, that offer bagels and muffins. Always bagels and muffins. I even passed a store that sold a special multitiered container specially designed for housing one's muffins. The San Francisco Coffee Company, all over Munich, does not appear to have a San Francisco branch, but it looks primed to replace the Biergarten.

Europe as it once was.

As an American who can't get over the wonderful German-Austrian tradition of mixing coffee with ice cream, I find it baffling that people here line up for anything that comes 'to go' (although people don't often seem to get the items to go) and in a cup with a clear plastic dome on top. Or I did, until I discovered what I think is a German take on an American take on Italian coffee: the latte macchiato. The drink, which sometimes comes in a special glass that says "Latte Macchiato", consists of some trace amount of espresso with sweet milk, plus a thick layer of foam on top. It's quite good, although not quite at Eiskaffee level. Just as Americans may have perfected that European mainstay, the rustic farmers-market, Europeans win at innovative ways to make coffee more fattening and thus more delicious.

But it's not just coffee. Clothing, too, comes from stores with names that evoke the States, at a time when fashionable Americans look in horror at countrymen whose clothing identifies them as such, and when Americans imagine Europeans to be aesthetically put off by anything hinting at Americanness. Yet American Apparel has a spot on Heidelberg's quaint main shopping street, where it looks ridiculously out-of-place, along with two around the corner from each other in Munich, near the university. That the store not only is but also upfront calls itself "American" does not seem to have taken anything from its hipster caché, given the constant flow into those shops of German young people already in that style of clothing. But those wishing to dress American but shop European can also go with European chains like New Yorker, Forever 18, Marc O'Polo (a Ralph Lauren-esque shop), Madonna (from which was recently blasting Madonna music - is this legal?) or, in Belgium at least, Brooklyn. Is there a Brooklyn in Germany? Who knows.

... and now, with harem pants alone bearing the responsibility of differentiating women's fashion on the two continents.


Britta said...

Just have to comment on the exercise thing--in China they are extremely popular, I see ads on tv for them all the time. Usually they depict a pale, semi-skeletal Chinese woman who looks to be in the last stages of TB standing on one of those machines. She's wearing a white sports bra, but it's hard to tell because her skin is blindingly white. Nothing jiggles at all, because the woman does not possess enough body fat (or even excess skin) to have any jiggly parts. They don't seem to have any association with America though. I always assumed that they were designed for women who wanted to lose weight but not develop any fattening-looking muscles, a not uncommon desire for young women in China.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

So the Italian infomercial wasn't making it up that there's a made-in-China competitor! Anyway, we also saw this ad in Belgium, where it was clearly an English-language ad dubbed into Flemish.

The Italian women were not emaciated (and were certainly not pale), they just had perfectly sculpted behinds, whose modeling careers are clearly based on that part of their anatomy. I tend to think, given the cellulite ads, that the concern here was in part to get thinner without bulking up (and my sense is, if you see a woman with well-defined leg muscles abroad, there's a good chance she's American, something I'd always attributed to the over-exercise versus cigarette methods of weight control), but primarily to achieve an ass straight out of the Uffizi.

Patrick said...

If you consider that Brooklyn comes from Breukelen (in the Netherlands), this is perhaps even more disconcerting. The American appropriation of a European city name, which is then re-appropriated in a different European context. The circularity is amazing!

Vance Maverick said...

I can confirm that "Made in Italy" is a well-known idiom in Italian. See these hits from La Repubblica, for example. I assumed that this derived from the days when the US required such labels on imports, so Italians would have seen it on clothes, musical instruments, etc. And yes, the impulse to make things glamorous by associating them with the US somehow survives.

Vance Maverick said...

Dang, let's try that link again, shall we.

Dick. said...

Many years ago, my first business trip abroad was to Zurich in December. Although I hate to shop, I ventured into many downtown stores, looking for European gifts for my kids. Unfortunately, the hot item that year was sweatshirts with American College logos on them. :-(

I ended up coming home empty-handed.

However, on the second trip, I became a local hero by buying everyone a Swatch before they had ever been heard of on these shores.

MonkeyBoy said...

Back in 1990 we were in Paris and were looking to buy children's clothing with French words on them to be given as gifts back in the States.

They were impossible to find. The only shirts that had words had English words - And no we were not shopping at tourist traps unless you consider Galeries Lafayette to be one.

We eventually wound up buying shirts with Babar on them.

Anonymous said...

There is a Brooklyn in Berlin - the neighborhood of Prenzlauerberg is a combination of park slope (families with baby carriages) and williamsburg (hipsters, clubs). But don't tell anyone - it's too crowded and gentrified here already.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yes, Europe is where t-shirts and pop songs are in English unless - as with music in France - the government steps in to fight those market forces. (Clearly, I repeat myself.)

And it has nothing to do with being in a touristy area - the t-shirts that say slightly odd things in English (not all-out odd, as I've heard is the case in some Asian countries) are obviously not being marketed to Americans, obvious both because of what the shirts say and because of where they're sold.

And Patrick, agreed that the influence is often back-and-forth. Thus the latte macchiato in the German coffee bar inspired by American coffee bars inspired by Italian ones. Thus also, really, the bagel's presence as a hip item in German cafes - the bagel comes from much closer to Germany than to the States, but the bagel is definitely understood in Europe today as an American import, the coffee bar with bagels assumed not to be an Italian-Polish establishment, as the cappuccino and bagel would suggest, but rather, if someone were to get specific about which parts of America, a Seattle-New York one.

Anon, I'm assuming the end bit of your comment is intended as humor - the 'my neighborhood is an undiscovered gem and everyone who arrived since I did ruins the aesthetics of the place' genre can, at this point, only exist in that form.

Britta said...

Yeah, I'd imagine a large part of the vibrating commercial differences can be chalked to different aesthetic standards in Italy vs China. I'm curious though--in Italy is a woman supposed to have a big butt with no cellulite? No butt? A small but shapely one? In China, the thinner the better, but there is recognition a shapely (very) small butt can look nice, at least on some women. They also sell mini vibrators you can strap to your stomach to vibrate away your ab flab.
On cultural travel, in Beijing there are lots of coffee shops/bars/restaurants that are clearly based on a Western model, but when I lived in the city of Qingdao (a "midsize" city of 7 million on the coast), all the coffee shops/bakeries/pizza places were clearly catering to Koreans. That made business sense (60,000 Korean expats vs. 3-5,000 western ones), but it was a bit discombobulating to see food that was almost like home, but not quite, e.g., ketchup and corn on pizza, weird mayonnaise sandwiches, green tea cheesecake, etc. At first I was like, "oh, the Chinese don't get western food." but then I realized they weren't trying to. They were doing Korean food, which happens to include things called pizza, cheesecake, and sandwiches, and, judging by the popularity with Koreans, were doing it pretty well.
Long rambly post, but last point. I once ordered a bagel with lox on it in China. The bagel looked like it was made out of brioche, and the sandwich had more mayonnaise on it than cream cheese (it also had butter). The salmon was thick and chunky and in no way resembled lox, and it also had lettuce, tomato, and came with a ketchup bottle. It was so wrong it still makes me laugh a little to this day.

(sorry. one more--shirts with crazy English are super popular in Beijing--everyone wears them, some of them are nonsense--random letters strung together, and some are more nonsensical in a hipster sort of way, like "I'm eating in a cafeteria right now" or "I like coffee and doughnuts")

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


All this is fascinating! I didn't realize the Western-food-that-isn't was Korean. I'd assumed it was usually Japanese, but now that I think of it, at Korean restaurants, among the bowls of kimchee and the like there's sometimes a mayonnaisy deli-type salad that I can't quite place. Perhaps it's both?

And that bagel and lox sounds so terrible, but it's good you mentioned it, because it reminded me of a much more positive, if odd, experience with lox in Munich, that I should report...

As for Italian informercial women's butts... The ideal could best be described as 80s aerobics instructor - fit and tanned but not bulging and muscular, but not emaciated, either. In other words, more swimsuit model than runway models, so a fairly standard Western ideal.