The American eye expects a vista. We enter the Walmarts, the Target, the Walgreens, the mega-grocery store, and we expect to see the commodities arrayed there like the corn in Oklahoma fields, spread out, flat. We expect the great plains. When we come in, when we look at the goods extending as far as we can see, under one roof, we are pioneers, we are … we are that mythical creature from economics, the sovereign consumer. We see the checkout counter on one side, and we see the staff in their designated shirts doing inventory. We don’t think of that staff as advisors, fellows who have solved our consumer problems, but as walking signposts, to whom we can ask directions.
In France, on the other hand, what confronts us are corners.
Vistas abhor a corner.
Yesterday we went shopping for Adam’s birthday. We have incautiously invited his class to a party, tomorrow, in the park, and the class responded with a large yes. So now it was time to get little gift bags together, as well as getting Adam his gifts. So we headed to Village JoueClub, which is located in the Passage des Princes, near the Grand Magasins. The Passage turned out to be one of those beautiful 19th century constructs that Walter Benjamin and the Surrealists raved about. The Village JC occupied the whole of it. But here’s the deal – the store was split into several stores, organized by several themes – outdoor games, toys for children under three, etc. – and each of these shops was typically French. That is, at no point were you given the Vista. Rather, you would enter near the counter, and some path would trickle back to a room that would then shoot away at a right or left angle. You would wander among these shelves with the curiosity of city walkers scanning the display windows rather than with the arrow like intentness of pioneers harvesting the prairie.
Against the American vista, the French pit the atelier, the artisan’s shop. To an American, it is a little weird. It feels more like a professional workspace, like a doctor’s office. In a doctor’s office, there are little rooms that seem to branch off from corridors that are doored off from the waiting room. The space is all about being a “patient” – that is, being patient. Patient is a big French word – when you stick your credit card into the machine for such, the screen will tell you to patientez. To bear up, to bear suffering, to endure – such are the etymological roots. It is not something American machines tell you.
Yet, as we all know, the sovereign consumer is a joke, a cardboard king in a kingdom of parity products, cheaply manufactured, quickly running to shabby. The distance from the atelier of manufacture is naturalized in the vista, the false vista, of all those commodities like plants.
But to continue with our story – so we had a great time buying toys at the Village JC. It overflows with trinkets and unfamiliar games, and it confines the legos, blessedly, to one shop. I’m crossing my fingers for the weather to be good tomorrow. I want Adam to be pleased.