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Wisdom from the ages

Travel today has become the norm, but it strikes me as odd the more we travel the more we build homogenous and interchangeable complexes, buildings, stores etc. The styles are beginning to look the same no matter where you are in the world.

Recently I had the chance to enjoy a trip to France. As the editor for Shopping Center World, it was my natural inclination to take in the shopping centers, supermarkets and other venues covered by the magazine.

These places were of particular interest as the cover story in this issue takes a look at a trend toward retailers setting up shop in the United States. Will they bring with them their unique, traditional and novel methods of setting up shop? How will this affect us?

The reason for my trip was purely personal. For a year and a half I planned, organized and systematically arranged a family reunion. My father hadn't seen his sisters for 30 years and my parents were having a 50th wedding anniversary. Three generations were represented with ages ranging from one to 80 years old.

Planes trains and automobiles were put into service to get everyone to Paris and then on to Angers in the Loire Valley. Family members came from everywhere: England, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Canada, Wales, Central America and several states in North America. It was quite a feat to get all 24 people transported, met and accommodated. It took most of us somewhere around 24 hours to arrive at our destination.

The 16th century chateau Le Pin, I rented a year and half earlier, was the perfect gathering place. The gothic architecture, gargoyles, ghosts and lush gardens hosted us ideally. The absent television was a blessing. We played games, cooked, talked, put on a magic show, shared memories, soaked up cross-generational wisdom and got to know one another as cousins, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, aunts and uncles.

On the pragmatic side of life, we had to shop both for the practical necessities such as food and toilet paper, as well as for fun. These too proved to be gratifying just like the entire reunion and allowed me to observe the French provincial approach to the world of shopping centers.

Each town had the equivalent of an American grocery store, but instead of all looking the same, each was distinctly unique to that particular village. All the essentials: the baker, the butcher, the eateries and the clothing shops were centrally located and within walking distance. While some of their inventory was similar, the shells were not. It made shopping seem special. It made me feel like I was looking for treasures I'd never find anywhere else and hence made me want to buy more.

I equated my experience to the new trend taking place here at home - the demalling of America. The drift toward community living where shops, grocery stores, home and work are all centrally located allows each development to reach for individuality. Each mall, neighborhood center and shopping development fills a need and has its place. Perhaps those European developers were on to something.

We often forget that history, like family generations, can be great teachers. We really don't all want to look alike and lose our ethnic identity, do we? If we do, what's the point of traveling to see new things if all we'll find is sameness?

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