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France’s Apéro Géant: Cultural Events Fueled by the Internet

Today’s world is a world of our own making. It is very exciting to be a participant in globalization. We have the good fortune to see the people of the world growing closer despite geographical limitations. We are using the Internet and mass communication to reach each other in ways we never imagined before. But are we doing it right?

In 2010, the world’s tallest building opened in Dubai. Chile experienced an 8.8 magnitude earthquake. Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland, closing much of Europe’s airspace. California’s Proposition 8 was overturned.

Meanwhile, in France people were worried about the dangers of eating snacks and having a beer outdoors.

Here in “the Hexagon,” there is a really nifty custom called the “apéritif.” It’s one of those not-so-easily-translated-into-English words that one sometimes hears about. The reason it isn’t so easy to translate is that it refers to an event in which English speakers don’t ordinarily take part. Imagine you’ve been invited to the home of a French friend or colleague. They tell you that you’ll be having lunch, and instantly you think “Okay, I’ll have a sandwich and perhaps have a cup of coffee with them.” When you arrive, they sit you down and pass around some bowls of nuts, crackers, chips, or what have you.

You feel betrayed. You wonder where lunch is.

"I was told there would be food."

“I was told there would be food.”

They start to ply you with alcohol: “Here, have some red wine. Now try the white wine. Would you like something else?” and, with your stomach being mostly empty, you start to feel the alcohol affecting you. Suddenly you are oh-so-sociable and your French is better than it has been in years. Then, everyone sits down around the table and they start serving actual food.

This is what I think of when I think of the apéro, as it is called in short. Of course, I am an outsider looking in on the customs of another culture, so don’t consider me an expert. As I see it, the apéro is the moment when everyone is waiting for the chicken to finish baking. We start drinking a bit and eat some savory snacks. It’s like warming up for a long run, except you’ll be horribly bloated at the finish.

One day, as I did every day, I walked through the town where I was studying and approached the local castle (cool, I know). Normally on a beautiful spring day, I’d walk through the tranquil grounds, drinking in the sights and sounds of gravel crunching underfoot, birds chirping in the trees, and the sun shining on the grass outside the walls. On this particular day, however, the grounds were absolutely covered with bodies all busy drinking and snacking on treats.

While marveling at the strange and wonderful sight, I suddenly noticed an armored vehicle at the perimeter, surrounded by police officers in riot gear. I didn’t know what was happening, and as far as I knew, it was the strangest riot I had ever seen, given that everyone looked so very jubilant.

Later, I learned that what I had seen wasn’t a mass of people angrily protesting something. I had witnessed an apéro géant (giant apéritif). It’s the same idea as the apéritif I described before, but this time, it was in public, and with hundreds of people.

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A few years ago in France, young people began taking advantage of Facebook to communicate to one another the locations and times of these apéros géants.

In the US, public intoxication is a punishable offense that is taken very seriously. In many other countries around the world, however, it’s just fine to drink yourself into a stupor and talk to pigeons, stare at the sky, or play a board game in the park- whatever you’d like to do, unless it isn’t breaking a law like stealing or breaking-and-entering. It’s also illegal in France, but I doubt that I’d be arrested for stumbling along the street on my way home here. Perhaps a more relaxed treatment of public intoxication enabled this kind of event to expand?

"I don't care if you think it's weird; he understands me."

“I don’t care if you think it’s weird; he understands me.”

As we communicate more easily, we can begin to see this communication affecting our cultures and the way we interact in them. This is exciting and dangerous. While the apéro géant is a nice idea- it is akin to an American college party—it does have negative aspects. Apéros géants have been used as political platforms, some of them anti-Islamic in nature. At one apéro géant with more than 9,000 participants, a 21 year old man fell from a bridge he had climbed. He later died as a result of his injuries. At a different apéro géant, three men were arrested on charges of having raped a 17 year old Irish girl.

Under current French law, apéros géants are treated as public gatherings that can be regulated according to laws designed to maintain public order. In order to host one of these events, someone must first declare her or his plan to host it and may be held responsible for the conduct of the participants. The host(s) must sign their name(s), include the names of participants, the motivation for holding the event, and might even be required to include an itinerary. Failing to comply with the law may result in a fine of up to 7, 500 euros and/or 6 months in prison.

Should the French government have the right to limit the freedom of the people to gather for these apéros géants? Should the government be required to provide security and safety at these or other public events? Is it wrong for people to use Facebook and other forms of social media to manipulate long-standing cultural traditions? In doing so, are these traditions diluted, or are they enhanced?

What do you think?

[Click on images to find their sources; the image of the apero geant has been slightly modified for better visibility in accordance with copyright restrictions.]

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Written by Gwendolyn Arvidson

If you’re reading this, I’m flattered! I’m an American expat with a strong interest in eating things without knowing what they are, learning tongue-twisters in new languages, and I feel most at home when I’m not at home.
Currently residing in France, I often think of returning to South Korea, where I lived for just over two years.

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