Friday, May 15, 2009

Made in China

So Madame Mère and I were doing her Christmas shopping yesterday (bought and wrapped, thank you very much; the floor may be covered in dust lapins, but we are Good at Christmas). We had made our choices--I am not, for obvious reasons, at liberty to tell you what those choices were--and I handed them over to the shopkeeper, an intense and tiny woman in her late 20s. I've been a periodic customer in her shop for a while now, enough so that she recognizes me.

I handed her our choices; she took them and then paused.

Je dois vous dire, she said, que ceux-ci sont Made in China. I have to tell you that these are Made in China. That's how she said it: Made in China in carefully enunciated English.

Really? I said, not completely certain of what the appropriate response was, or where this conversation was going.

They are. They used to be made here, in France, locally, by artisans, by hand, but then the company was sold, and now they're all Made in China in factories. See, on the bottom, it just says, Hand-Painted. They can't put Hand-Made, the way they used to, because they're not Hand-Made anymore.

I see, I said, beginning to have a glimmer.

But they're being sold at the same prices now as they were before, and people don't realize, they don't know that what they're buying doesn't have the same quality. The man who owns this shop--he won't post a sign, he won't speak the truth about what he's selling. And then foreigners come in here, and they think they're buying something unique, something artisanal, something made in France, and they pay a lot of money but they have something that is Made in China. See--she took me to look at the pottery display--all of this is Made in China (a display of kitchen doodads festooned with plastic baguettes and tiny bottles of red wine) but all of this (the signs of the zodiac in rough clay) was made in France. You can see, it has a completely different spirit.

And it did. I mean, if you went in for a largish ceramic Virgo painted in faded blues and greys, you needed to look no further.

But people, foreigners, come in here, and they don't know what they're buying. They buy the cheaper stuff that is Made in China, because they say that the other things are too expensive. But it's better to have fewer things but things that are of quality, that have their own spirit, than to be surrounded by soulless cheap mass-produced tourist crap.

That last bit was a pretty loose translation, but I promise you that that's what she meant.

I was following along with Madame's logic completely--local, yes, factories on the other side of the world doing it cheaper and with less character and undercutting the cottage industries that have been the life blood of the region for centuries, no--but I still had the small problem of the Christmas gifts that she was holding in her hand and gesturing with as she declaimed. I cleared my throat.

But are there any of those that are not Made in China? I ventured.

In fact, there were, and they were on sale, because the shop owner didn't even understand that they were so much more valuable, being hand made by local artisans who were carrying on the tradition of their parents, than the other, newer ones that had been (all together now) Made in China. And, yes, she would sell us those.

Relieved, I put the Made in China ones back and took the local ones instead. We paid for those, and she sent us out to take a little walk through the village while she boxed up our purchases. When we were outside, I told Madame Mère, who had caught only the vaguest gist of the conversation, that the shopkeeper had given us 5% off on everything.

But why? she asked.

The only way I could explain was to talk about the patrimoine--the French notion of their national inherited culture, its intrinsic value and meaning--and the equally (though not exclusively) French fondness for Sticking It to the Man. (You can take your boss hostage, or you can shut down the national rail system, or you can charge customers who are sympa 5% less). And whether it's parking your tractor on the Champs-Élysées to protest McDonald's, or insisting that the only Champagne comes from Champagne, or calling mass-produced tourist crap mass-produced tourist crap, it's the same cultural instinct. Up with the small, the hand-made, the human; down with the giant, the mass-produced, the impersonal.

When we went back a few minutes later to pick up our purchases, she had boxed each and wrapped everything in brightly patterned Provençal paper. She handed the bags to me with a conspiratorial air and we went on our way.


  1. It's like that in Italy too - some fashion companies ship in huge bales of jeans and they hand sew on the labels in Italy and then say they are sewn there! Or they have giant vats of olive oil from somewhere else that they bottle in Italy. But ask an Italian - they will tell you, like the French they will also stick it to The Man

  2. I think I would like that about France quite a bit.