I remember my first trip to Europe. I was 18. For you history buffs, this means we didn’t have Internet, text messaging, or even cell phones. Getting around was really difficult. People didn’t speak English, and the signs were hard to figure out.
This summer I visited Stockholm and Amsterdam, a short 21 years after that first trip. Oh how the world has changed.
First of all, everyone speaks English. Nearly 100%. It certainly wasn’t this way in 1990, and I haven’t encountered this level of English fluency in Argentina, Brazil, or China, or even Oklahoma for that matter. In Sweden they begin studying English in second grade. In Amsterdam, the Metro conductor announces upcoming stops in both Dutch and English. That, along with the Map app, made getting around easier by a quantum leap.
In 1990, we were so excited to eat at McDonald’s in Amsterdam. Partly because the local food — served mostly out of vending machines — was substantially less edible. Ironically, it was such a novelty. Imagine, the same crappy burger we get at home, 6,000 miles away! I must have told people for a year that they sold beer at Burger King.
I remember being appalled that my buddy wanted to shop at The Gap in London. Not just because it was The Gap, but because he could get the same wack clothes at home. But this is when the upper middle class used to fly to Europe to buy Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags for cheap. Not the kind they go to China for today.
Today, there’s a Starbucks on every corner, just like there is here. Okay, not quite, but there are plenty of them, and local Starbucks knockoffs.
We rented an apartment in Amsterdam on PC Hooftstraat, which is like a mini Rodeo Drive. We slept on top of Tiffany’s, with Louis and Gucci down the block. We visited H&M, Adidas Originals, and saw a ton of other global brands. We even found the same organic baby food pouches that we get at home in Sweden’s version of CVS, and Amsterdam’s equivalent to Whole Foods.
Why is this news? I’m not sure it is. I guess I saw the flatness of the world in a very different way.
In some ways, globalization makes a lot of sense. Just as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Best Buy are converting Nowhere, USA into a livable environment (depending on your definition), finding familiar brands puts cities all over the world on a sort of par that is comfortable and convenient.
But is par really what we’re going for? What are the long-term implications of wiping out the cultural differences among us? Are we going to stop traveling if what we see is the same as what we get at home? Or are tourist-driven cities and countries going to innovate to make their uniqueness stand out across the seven seas of same?