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Jaded Elegance : American Fast Food, Television and Slang Are Changing the Face of Europe

June 12, 1988|JACK SMITH

I EXPRESSED SOME concern here recently that the passing of the British queue was a sign of civilization's final collapse. English gentlemen no longer dress for dinner on safari, I suppose, but as long as they queued up for buses, I could believe that the traditional society remained intact.

Rosemary Colston, a native Englishwoman now living in Valencia, insists that England is not simply collapsing but is being "pushed flat" by that bete noire of European society--Americanization. Mrs. Colston observes that each dominant civilization in turn has influenced and colored the world: Rome, the British Empire, now the United States. She has a rosy-colored vision of Britain's genteel rule:

"The Empire blessed her dependents with a graceful, jaded elegance, each in his place, everything running more or less on rails (recall the wonderful Indian steam railway system). The servants may have been just that, but oh how we looked after them and kept their uniforms clean and starched and their turbans perky. . . . We stood to attention at the end of every movie while the National Anthem was played. . . ."

One may wonder whether the servants in their perky turbans stood at attention with equal fervor; but I concede that in the Edwardian era, and even between the wars, Britain bore the white man's burden with style.

Today, however, Mrs. Colston finds Britain turned to trash by such American institutions as McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Rambo, "Hill Street Blues," "Colors," "Miami Vice" and other exportable products of our rapid culture. She protests that even the quaint little town in South Devonshire where her 85-year-old father lives has its own Kentucky Fried Chicken store "with its gaudy red, white and black revolving bucket on top and all-pervading odor of grease wafting over the narrow streets, while "Dallas," "Kojak" and worse blare out of the TV sets. . . ."

When she first came to Chicago in the 1960s, she was shocked at the display of license: Children climbed all over statues and wrote on walls and subways. "No one seemed to have any respect for anything or regard for anyone else. I felt I could walk down Michigan Avenue naked and no one would notice. . . ." (I doubt that.)

Oddly, Mrs. Colston almost began to enjoy her new environment, the "freedom Americans are always on about. I thought, gee, it's great. No one queued at bus stops--we just sort of made a dive and the best man won. . . ."Mrs. Colston loves America dearly, she says, and she chooses to live here; but she complains that America has always had a problem knowing the difference between freedom and lawlessness. It is our lawlessness and trash that we are exporting to England (and other countries). She fears that the prospects for England are grim. "Is it any wonder that people there no longer queue? Somehow they have to show the world that they've been set free--that they're aware of how people in the real world (America) act."

Mrs. Colston does not mention another corrupting American influence--our slang, which is catching on not only in London but in Paris, Tokyo and Moscow as well. No other threat to French culture has so outraged its leaders and the Academie Francaise, that petrified guardian of the nation's most precious treasure--the French language, as the felicity with which Frenchmen (and French women, too), adopt American slang.

Despite a French law banning any foreign word or phrase from advertising if a French equivalent is available, American slang has thoroughly polluted Parisian society and commerce. Everyone eats le hot dog , admires le cowboy , wears le T-shirt drinks le cocktail and frequents le drug store . Other Americanisms for which no sensible French equivalent exists include blue jeans, sexy, gadget, checkup, check-out, nonstop, jukebox, call girl, baby-sitter, topless and businessman.

As for fast-food joints, they may yet be the link that binds American and communist societies. Recently, I saw a TV news clip of the opening of the first McDonald's in Bulgaria. An enormous crowd was pushing impatiently at the doors to get in. I also have read that McDonald's is opening a chain in the Soviet Union, with McDonald's owning 49% and the Soviet government 51% of each outlet.

It's not disarmament but it's a start.

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