Cultural barriers impede open borders Even hypermarket can't unite Europe

January 24, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

STRABOURG, FRANCE — Strasbourg, France -- Europe without borders means traffic now breezes over the Rhine River bridge between France and Germany without even slowing down.

Coming here from Germany is actually a little easier than driving between American states at a place like the I-95 bridge between New Jersey and Delaware.

Three hundred customs officers used to work at a post on the German side of the bridge -- now the doors are locked. There are no passport controls, no customs checks, very few police -- and you don't have to stop to pay a toll as you do on the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

The open-border provisions of the European Community's "single market" went into effect with the New Year. Eventually, the changes will create a drive-through market of nearly 350 million customers. Barriers are gone for truck drivers, tourists and shoppers.

Ordinary people can bring as many goodies as they want across the border "for their personal use."

A truckload?

A policeman on duty at the border shrugs: "A truckload. It is very frustrating for us."

Some tour companies have in fact added trucks to trailers behind their buses with the customers' trans-border purchases.

The end of legal barriers can't force the complete integration of European commerce, though. Some cultural barriers remain -- and aren't likely to disappear for years.

Consider the CORA hypermarket, a vast, airy chamber of consumerism about 10 miles down the N4 motorway in France. It brings together an appliance center, a giant clothing mart and a food market. Western European abundance is displayed in packed rows of shelves that seem to disappear into the horizon; 50 electronic checkout counters await shoppers to deliver their reckoning.

But the hypermarket can't fully unite two different cultures.

Although many Germans shop at the store, they don't buy any of the big consumer items, says Rene Puttemans, the bulky, savvy manager of the CORA market. Why? Mainly because CORA has yet to provide service in Germany.

He hasn't seen the surge of customers from Germany that some people predicted would come with the open borders. He sounds vaguely like a French monarch when he says "pas changer," or no change.

"I don't think Germans will come here to shop in large numbers," Mr. Puttemans says. "I certainly don't go there to shop. Something has to be very special for me to go there."

CORA, which operates 53 CORA hypermarkets in France, doesn't plan to expand into Germany. And Mr. Puttemans won't change his store to attract Germans. The store, whose 150,000 square feet of sales space seems big enough to film a chariot race, doesn't even have signs in German.

"The two cultures are different," he says. "Tastes are different. Habits

of consumers are different. Brand names are different."

There is a united Europe in the head, he says, but not yet "concretely."

Border-free Europe, in fact, means only France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the Benelux countries. Greece, Denmark, Ireland and Britain still have frontier controls.

"People know they must change, come together," he says, "that we are 300 [million] to 400 million people forced together. But it's difficult.

"From our children onward, we will be able to learn to accept our differences."

This Rhine River valley area is used to a sort of internationalization. Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace, a region that has passed between France and Germany four times since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Today, the French cross the Rhine to work in German factories where the pay is higher. Germans move to France because the cost of living is lower. Border controls have long been relaxed.

And some Germans are taking advantage of the easy access to France.

"They have things they just don't have in German towns," says CORA shopper Marnell Schoeneborn, who is happily packing fresh oysters into a plastic bag.

The engineer from Karlsruhe, a German city about 44 miles to the north, picks his oysters from a seafood display that could alert the taste buds of dedicated customers at Faidley's raw bar in Baltimore's Lexington Market. There are about two dozen varieties of fish, at least 15 kinds of shellfish, from clams and mussels and shrimps to snails and crabs and sea urchins.

"I'll try to come every couple of weeks to do all the shopping at once," Mr. Schoeneborn says. "The prices are cheaper, but it takes time and gasoline to get here."

At the meat counter, Doris Gunder, a smiling, black-haired woman in a red cap and candy-striped apron, presides over a luscious array of pates: pate de campagne, mousse de foie, pate forestier, mousse de foie de canard, pate de foie gras.

She agrees with Mr. Puttemans that there has not yet been an increase in German customers. They come on holidays and weekends, she says. Many came to CORA during the holiday season.

And chocolates, cheeses, coffee, vinegar, baguettes, croissants and wines -- especially bubbly Alsatian "sekt." Strasbourg, meanwhile, remains one of the great culinary centers of Europe, home of the incomparable fois gras.

"The Germans come to eat in the grand restaurants of Strasbourg," Mr. Puttemans says. "They have always come. This has not changed. And it will not."

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