Monday, December 9, 2013

Our Daily Bread // Notre Pain Quotidien

I’m looking forward to James Courrier’s panel on Bitcoin Tuesday at @LeWeb, but I have to warn him he’s got his work cut out for him when he talks about value and growth. It’s a tough subject on every level.

Bobby Manhattan's site will tell you lots about baguettes.
A few days ago I was chatting with a young French woman in Grenoble who’s never been out of France about the euro versus the dollar and gave her some examples of what shoes cost, or a car or gasoline in the US versus France, just to explain the difference. 

But really, it only made things more complicated as I explained that we pay a lot less for shoes, especially for brands like Converse. Our hightop sneakers might be $50 and theirs are100 euros. And cars … how do you explain that many more cars in the US are Japanese brands and we don’t have many of the major French brand cars?  Or that despite the major US auto brands on the brink of bankruptcy (or in it) most Americans didn’t feel any loyalty about buying American cars a few years back when OUR companies were cratering.

Then even try to explain gasoline prices – forget it.  Europeans have a price for a liter that looks like the price we pay for a gallon I told her, giving rise to a more and more confused French face in front of me.

I could see her reaching for something more basic. Finally she said, “Quelque chose simple.  Une baguette, combine ça coute aux Etats Unis?”

"How much does a baguette cost in the US?"  This blew my mind and I started to laugh.  A baguette. I suppose you could translate it into “a loaf of bread” but ours and theirs hardly compare.   Their loaf of bread is so deeply entrenched and so essential to the French way of life, it is something completely alien to our notion of a loaf of bread. So now we were in deep muddy cultural waters, despite her trying to give me an easy point of comparison.

So how do I explain to her, we don’t even HAVE baguettes as a basic item. A baguette is some fancy French thing you pay $3.50 for in high-end stores and is often as not practically stale.  While the French pay less than a euro in many towns for incredibly delicious, fresh bread and it’s available in bakeries on every street corner in every town in the whole country. 

And the French base so many moments in their lives around their iconic bread.  From the moment they are welcomed at the table, as little kids,  drinking bowls of hot cocoa and jamming their mouths with buttered "tartines" and "confiture", their marmalade (which is not marmalade really), or nor is it our idea of jam.

And the freshness of a new warm baguette.  How do I explain that we don’t actually get much fresh food in the US compared to Europeans.  We get a lot of food, but it’s not that fresh because it’s trucked around endlessly. If you’ve eaten anything in Italy, you know what I’m talking about.  The food is so fresh and simple it feels like they just picked it out of the garden and it’s still growing, because they probably just did go out the door and pick it five minutes ago.

And we don’t have bakeries every three feet and people carrying fresh bread under their arms heading home after work ready for an amazing French dinner.

And we don’t have bakers regulated and subsidized by the government.  The French government has to do this I suppose, since not having French bread in France would be like not having gravity on Earth. Inconceivable.

And we don’t have very many schools where kids learn to be bakers or apprenticeships where they perfect the art of baking amazing bread and incredible pastry. We don’t have the tradition.  Nor do we pay bakers a living wage. She would cry if she ate what we consider “a loaf of bread.”

I was flummoxed. This conversation was just not going the right way.  “Attends,” I said. I picked up my phone and searched Google for the exchange rate.  1.00E is about $1.31 now.

“Voilà,” I said, ending the conversation but not answering the big question at all.  Can you compare two cultures and what they value and come up with a real understanding of what the words expensive or inexpensive mean?  No.

And in a market or the older version – an actual marketplace – can you predict how another buyer might feel about a price that you, as the seller, feel is fair?  No.  There is no price or cost or value without a context.  It gets back to supply and demand and the oldest underlying principles of what people value. 

Now that I’m in Paris for @LeWeb I see this same issue.  When people talk about the value of Twitter or Pinterest or Dropbox, does it make sense that they are worth billions?  And don’t get me started on that new rollercoaster of high tech value, Bitcoin, I’ll leave that to Courrier and his colleagues to figure out.

It’s just like the French open air markets we’ll pass along on the bus, heading up to LeWeb, no better place to learn that value is subjective. As for technology, sometimes, it's about living your life and what makes it easier to live and ultimately what you care about. So perhaps it is about earning and eating our daily bread.   

Photo Credit: Bobby Manhattan

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