Can Bobo culture really exist in Europe?
My move from London to Spain a year ago coincided with an introspective period in my life when I started reading and re-reading several of my favourite books, one of which was David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise, originally published in May 2000. Years since I’d first picked it up, I couldn’t help but feel a strange change in perception to my first interpretation of this still-relevant account of upper-middle class culture in North America. He posits the “Bobo”, or “bourgeois bohemian” is a uniquely modern cultural group torn between their desire to make money while maintaining more intellectual, ethical and artistic pursuits. The Bobo could not have existed without the prosperous American 1950s, the rebellious flower children of the 60s and 70s, and the economic boom of the 80s. The evolution of American culture through the second half of the 20th century led to the explosion of Bobo powerhouse brands like Starbucks, Apple, Restoration Hardware, The Gap, and so many, many more. These brands combined the dual-value system of the Bobo speaking both to economic prosperity, but also a softer bohemian need to feel good about oneself.
Fast forward to last week. Me, in the Catalan region of Spain, trying to buy a bed and sofa for a new flat. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest of America, knee-deep for the first 22 years of my life in Bobo culture, I may be living the dream of so many North American Bobos, but I cannot, for the life of me, find a single piece of appealing furniture to live with in Spain. (I know, this is an embarrassingly first-world problem).
The thing is, I don’t think Bobo culture exists in continental Europe. I don’t believe it can exist here, with the exception of a few isolated individuals (hence, not a culture, but rather an idiosyncracy).
Much of Bobo material culture, eating habits, and brands are derived from European traditions. Artisanal, hand-painted ceramics with Dutch design influence, glassware inspired by Italian cut crystal, olive oil, baristas, fine wine and Belgian-style beer, French upholstery, all made to be a little bigger and more palatable to American tastes and expectations. All selling the unique and heady mix of bohemian European sophistication, and American prosperity, carefully created or selected by designers and buyers in New York and San Francisco.
Bobo culture very much shaped my taste, style and consumer values, and at 33 years old, I find it hard to shake. I find myself thinking (while standing in the middle of a beautiful market square in Spain searching for the perfect Spanish-style cooking pot), where the hell is a Crate & Barrel when I need one?! Believe me when I say the irony is definitely not lost on me.
Bobo material goods are just that: Americanised variation on an authentic cultural style, perhaps more robust, more expensive, larger, softening the cultural edges. It’s Spanish-style, not Spanish. Bobo brands are power-houses because they’re palatable to such a wide number of people.
The thing with Europe (I’m excluding the UK here because I think it has adopted much of North American Bobo culture), is that it has traditions. Actual traditions. Not traditional-style. It has a class-system that to a certain extent, is still in-tact and relatively un-changed. Barbers still wear suits to work and take a two hour lunch break not because of some deeply ironic nostalgia, but because it’s never really been otherwise.
Yes, there is a beautiful mix of cultures that has happened as immigrants from the rest of the world have moved to or through Europe, but at the heart of each local culture is a deeply rooted sense of tradition, meaning, and values that are largely un-changed. There was never a prosperous American 1950s or booming American 1980s here. While I imagine plenty of 60s and 70s flower children passed through this part of the world (some seem to have stayed), they remain in some sort of pure “bohemian” stage of life that never tried to fuse with economic drive. From my passing observations, it seems like Europeans are far more likely to be either all-bohemian or all-business, but rarely try to be both, like almost all middle-to-upper class Americans.
Starbucks could have never been created in Europe. Neither could Apple, The Gap, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Restoration Hardware or Crate & Barrel. While they might borrow values, tastes, traditions and styles from European (and Scandinavian and Japanese and African) culture, they will always soften the blow and make it more palatable to American tastes.
I feel like there is so much here to explore, and try to understand why Bobo culture doesn’t exist — at least not in the same way — in Europe. I can’t seem to find anything written about this yet, but I’d love to hear from you if you have ideas or thoughts on this. What did the First and Second World Wars contribute to this culture? What about the desire to maintain local identities and traditions? What about physical space (there’s a lot less of it)? Meanwhile, I’ll continue my likely fruitless hunt for Spanish-style home furnishings in Spain.