Thursday, August 30, 2012

American "Culture" Abroad

The depth of America's cultural influence on the rest of the world continues to amaze me.  Here in Albania there seems to be an unhealthy obsession with all things American.  Whether it be our Ambassador, our president, our pop culture, or our foods, people in this country seem to love all things American.  My first real glimpse of this was leaving the airport for the first time and passing by the Albanian Coca-Cola plant.  In a country devoid of western franchises (no McDonalds here although there is a Kolonat that tries to replicate the golden arches), its perch on the side of the autostrada was immediately noticable.   My first visit to a cafe was spent listening to Michael Jackson's Beat It.  Streets honoring Bill Clinton and George W. Bush can be found in most Albanian cities and the town of Fushe-Kruja pays homage to W. with his own statue in the town's main square.  At a minimum most Albanian towns have a least one store, restaurant, or hotel with the word "America" in its name. For the most part I have grown accustomed to Albania's fixation with us over the past year and try to accept it for what it is.  I continue to be surprised, however, with the scope of America's influence in other, more highly developed countries.

We have seen or heard pieces of America in every Eastern European country we have visited over the past year.  Whether it be the Starbucks in Istanbul, an Apple store in Rome, the Hard Rock Cafe in Budapest, or a Sephora shop in Ioannina, we've had the opportunity (if we wanted it) to partake in American consumerism abroad.  Despite all of this, it was during our family vacation to Scandinavia this summer that I further experienced how vast this influence truly is. 

Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have all the hallmarks of truly developed western societies.  Citizens here are highly educated and have some of the highest standards of living, salaries, and corresponding costs of living, of any countries in the world.  Their capital cities are amongst the world's greatest offering impressive arrays of cultural, historical, and gastronomical delights.  Yet so many of these offerings are American.  Although a local boutique hotel, the television in our Stockholm hotel offered more American program options than anything else.  CNN was the primary news channel and American mainstays such as Law and Order, CSI Miami, and a Europeanize Biggest Loser (which unfortunately revealed a lot more than its American counterpart) filled the primetime viewing hours.  Even the movies came out of Hollywood and like their small screen counterparts were aired in English with Swedish subtitles.  On the streets we were equally inundated with Americana.  7-11s dotted every street corner in Bergen (although these stores only vaguely resembled their inner city American sisters) and the TGI Fridays on Oslo's main street was the local biker hangout.  New York style pizza and San Diego style hotdogs were hawked from storefronts in all the cities we visited. (I have no idea what the later is but people were consuming them with gusto).

Because we were in Scandinavia Volvos and Saabs were the cars of choice along the interstates, but then again Ford now owns Volvo.  We were able to listen, without understanding, to local radio shows being broadcast in Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian but more often than not, the talk was interspersed with American pop music that brought us back in time to our high school proms.  From Bruce Springsteen to Madonna and every other 1980s pop music icon, there just wasn't any escaping American music.  Instead of making me homesick, however, all of this just made me want to turn off the radio and run and hide.

We're gearing up for another foreign adventure this weekend.  This time we're headed to Italy where, in a country that despite its rich heritage, culture, and cuisine, we'll pass by our share of McDonald's and Burger King restaurants, hear American pop music on the radio, and share the road with Fords and Chevrolets.  America's influence is indeed so far reaching that it makes me wonder where I have to go to escape it.

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