Saturday, February 07, 2009

I mustered the energy to go to the grocery store last night, after I got done at the school. As I wandered the aisles, I reflected on the love-hate relationship with going to the grocery store in France.
No, make that hate-hate relationship. That means I really, really hate it, right?

When we first got to France, I did sort of love it, though. It was so clean and cool there. And so much choice. But it turned out to be too much choice (see this blog post) and so many other things about it drive me crazy these days.
First of all, the gocery carts are all out in the parking lot, chained together and the only way to get one is to slide a one euro piece into a slot. It's SO annoying, especially if, for example, you go for a big shopping expedition because all you have left at home to eat is a half a shrivelled eggplant and a box of corn starch and you find that the one euro coin that you ALWAYS leave in the car just for this purpose is gone, possibly taken by one of your kids to buy gum.

So, you rummage in your wallet and find that you actually have one euro worth of 1, 2 and 5 cent coins. Hoping to trade this huge handful of change in for a one euro coin, you go into the store and find your way to the "customer service" desk, where they do the huge service of telling you that they don't have access to any money, sorry. You'll have to ask one of the cashiers. Yeah. One of those harrassed looking people over there facing lines of customers 15 deep. Right.

If you can't get a cart, of course they do offer free of charge a shopping basket you can use. It is just about big enough to hold a four pack of yogurt and a baguette. It's just the ticket if you are shopping for a single person, hopefully an anorexic one, but is useless when shopping for six normal human beings.

And if that wasn't enough to hate, I heard no less than two songs by The Police and one by The Cure being played over the loudspeakers at the Super U. It was a bad moment for me. Nothing hurts like hearing something that you think is cool being played at the local supermarket."This is what passes as Shopping with Old People music now??!!" When did The Cure fall so low? Supermarket managers in rural France got the bulletin on this and not me?" I silently lamented.

And how about this: There you are, finally in the checkout lane after a long grueling shopping session and you are thirsty. If you are in France, you are flat out of luck. You'll just have to dehydrate, get kidney stones and die alone in terrible pain. You can't find water- not like in the USA where many shops have a nice drinking fountain right near the restrooms.
In France there are fountains, but they are the kind that are large, ornamental, outdoors and marked "non-potable".
And don't think of dragging your sadly desperate self into the restroom for a quick drink out of the sink there. That's marked "non-potable" as well.

Maybe this wouldn't be so bad if they sold cold drinks in the supermarket, but they don't. You know how US stores like to use that space near the cash register for impulse buys like candy and drinks? There's usually a grizzly bear sized cooler filled with small bottles of spring water, water with vitamins, water with extra oxygen and all sorts of other drinks, including my personal favorite: Diet Dr. Pepper, which is probably made up of 700 different kinds of cancer causing substances, but I just don't care.

Well, in France, forget that. No water, no anything.

So, there you are- all parched and annoyed and now it's time to unload your shopping cart. If you were in , say, Ouagadougou, the cashier would check out your items and they would pass down the conveyor belt and into the capable hands of two or three really nice young men who would quickly box everything up for you, carry it all to your car and load it for you. And you could give them a small tip and they would be really pleased because (can you believe this?) lots of people don't tip at all. Cheapskates. Then you drive home quickly and have a nice glass of water. (there's no water available in Ouaga supermarkets either)

In general, under the above system, everybody goes home happy.

In France, though, this is the point where the major stress is just beginning. You unload your cart as fast as you can and the groceries zoom past the cashier and are shoved down the conveyer belt. They pile up at the end, a veritable Mount Everest of groceries. This is when you are supposed to whisk out your handy, ecologically correct shopping bags Wait! Don't tell me you forget your re-usable canvas shopping bags? If so, too bad for you, because there are no free bags at the store.

Bags or no, the cashier keeps pushing stuff at you and you deal with it as fast as you can, but it's never fast enough. She calls out the total and you're not even half done packing everything, but you fumble around for your "carte fidelité" and your carte bleu so you can pay for it all.
You punch in your code and start bagging again as the line behind you grows and grows.In fact, it seems like the entire population of France is in that line, waiting for you to get your show on the road. Babies are wailing, people tap their feet impatiently and yes, that elderly priest is glaring at you.

So you throw all your stuff into bags, trying to keep from putting the bottles of orange juice on top of the tomatoes....You get the general idea by now, probably. Guess I woke up in a rant-y mood this morning.

What else is new around here?Well, it's been snowing like mad since last night, but I guess that's not really anything new. The kids are out right now, all four of them, rolling around in the piles of snow and falling flakes. I'm glad someone is enjoying it. I am just dreading having to dig the car out.
I'll probably manage to avoid going out today, but I'll have to tomorrow, as I have to go pick up Cristie the Romanian Handyman tomorrow at noon. He's coming back to help out with more work around the house. Lots of wallpapering, painting and small repairs remain to be done and Cristie's energy is needed to get us rolling again.
I'll be sure and take pictures of the work for all you HGTV fans out there


Kelly said...

This post about the grocery store is hilarious! I've been to a store in Europe and it takes a while to figure out the cart thing. And I can just imagine the French rolling their eyes while they wait in the line. They're so good at rolling their eyes in disgust! :)

oreneta said...

I have to confess, it is the same experience here and in Canada...I do not like the supermarket, which is why I go once every three weeks, buy mountains, and get it delivered. Then I go to the local weekly market for fresh fruit and veg, and the bakery for bread.....

When is your husband coming home? Seems about time, no?

Ksam said...

Haha, great post (and oh so true). But you forgot the part about having to watch out for the little old ladies - they may look slow, but they will cut in front of you in line in a heart beat if you leave even one centimeter of open space!

Beth said...

Kelly- So true. In fact, I firmly believe that if the French had mobilized their finely-honed eye-rolling skills against the Nazis, they could have sent them packing all by themselves.

Rocky- You've got the right idea on that. The less shopping the better. Now that I have a bread machine, I don't even go to the bakery. I'd like to support the local boulangerie, but I like being self-sufficient so much more. I can hardly wait to get my veg garden in this spring!!! Then I'll avoid the market, as well!

JP has indeed been gone for a good while. He'll be back this Wednesday, though. Just a side note: he hasn't set foot in a supermarket for at least a decade, the coward.

Sam- Good point. Those old ladies are killers.
In fact, there are many things I left out of my tirade. I could definitely do a Part II post about all the rest of the things I hate about the French supermarket experience.

an ersatz Frenchwoman said...


I do hope that you will do a Part 2 to this wonderful post about such a fundamental culture clash. I loved it!

I always "gird my loins" before going into any commercial exchange encounter in France:

--coins, check
--bags, check
--list, check
--tranquilizers, check
--steel-toed boots, check

You are not only an adventurous woman but a saint, if your sweet husband has managed to skirt grocery stores for a decade! He's very lucky to have you looking out for him.

By the way, I understand the homemade bread preference. While baguettes are cute, you might as well be eating WonderBread as concerns nutritive qualities of an air-filled, white flour baguette---aaarrggghhh! my feet are curling up like the Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz after typing such a heretical assertion in virtual black and white!

Great, hilarious post, sickness-induced-weariness brings out the cultural Dorothy Parker (If you can't say anything nice, come sit by me,) in you!

Have a wonderful week!

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