Grocery Shopping – Ze French Way!

When I’m in France, I love to go shopping. Yes, clothes and home furnishings are swell but my true love is food. Give me an outdoor, open market any day and I’m one happy camper. But I’ve discovered another guilty pleasure — exploring the super-sized hypermarchés that have popped up on the outskirts of most cities around the country.

You think you know how to shop at a grocery store? Guess again. Successfully navigating a French hypermarché means mastering a new set of rules. Hop in your Peugeot and on y GO!

1. Dress for Success

dress shopping

When French women head to the grocery store, they don’t show up in yoga pants and a t-shirt. Think more like dress, heels, and full make up. That’s the expected attire. Believe me I’ve tried the casual route and my sneakers were a dead giveaway of my American upbringing. It wasn’t until I slipped on a new black & grey number that I looked and felt like I really belonged.

2.  Put Another Nickel In, In the Nickelodeon

carts

Ok, so a nickel won’t actually cut it. (But a quarter might if you can’t find a euro! It worked for me…) In France, you’ll generally find shopping carts neatly arranged in their metal stables outside the store. People actually return them because they had to invest a euro to borrow them in the first place. If they want their money back, they’ll remember not to leave them flailing in the middle of the parking lot later.

So, two things: don’t forget the cart on your way in since it can be a LONG walk back to find one and make sure you come with some change. Most caddies take 1 euro or 50 centimes pieces.

3.  It’s a Whole New World!

shopping at auchan

Did I mention that this place is humongous? For the unitiated, it can be quite an eye opener to find a supermarket in the same complex as a shopping mall. So remember this common sense rule: try on those snappy little shoes and check out those handbags before you check off the fish, ice cream and stinky cheese on your shopping list.

4. I Dairy You

produits laitiers

Did you really think the dairy section was sufficient at your local Trader Joe’s? Believe me, you ain’t seen nothing like the overflowing aisles of refrigerated cheese, yogurt, creams, desserts and other milk-made treasures. Oddly enough, you’ll find the actual milk (ultra-pasteurized) stacked on regular shelves next to warmish bottles of spring water like Evian and Volvic.

5. The Price is Right

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A couple important things to know about pricing in France. First, as you consider your shopping budget, know that the price you see is what you’ll pay at check out. Taxes are already included. Second, many grocery items are priced by the kilogram (that’s 2.2 pounds of fun). You can usually buy less than a kilo — 500 grams is about 1 lb. — but keep those quantities in mind as you’re planning recipes and your budget.

6. Weight a Minute!

balance-caisse-tactile

Hey? Where are you going? Don’t leave the produce department before you bag, weigh, and label all your fruit and veggies. Otherwise, you will be banished upon arrival at the cashier.

7. Registers, Registers All Around But None of Them are Fast

a la caisse

Oh, Lord. Even if you are a quick shopper — no small feat in stores that take 10 minutes to traverse from one end to the other — you’ll need to plan for extra time at the cash register. Make that a LOT more time. Lines tend to move at a snail’s pace. Cashiers are in no particular hurry. For some mysterious reason, usually 4 of the 30 available registers are open at any given time.

Beware of the “priority lines” that give preference to pregnant ladies and those with disabilities. It’s a lovely concept but I personally witnessed two brawls about to break out on my last trip to France — one of them involving my mother, gesticulating with a cane after a recent surgery. Also, don’t try to bring that big caddy into the Express check out lane — you’ll get seriously reprimanded.

8. I Like Big Bags and That Ain’t No Lie

sacsFrench grocery stores are big on the do it yourself motto — be ready to bag your own groceries with your own bags. For environmental reasons, free plastic and paper bags are no longer provided at grocery stores. So bring your own or be prepared to buy ’em. (Note: the produce section does provide small bags for fruit & vegetables only — see #6 above.)

9. Returns? Think Again.

“Fine! I’ll keep ze hat!”

Are you sure you really don’t want that thingamajig? Remember how long it took to buy it in the first place? Consider carefully since successfully returning an item is a major bureaucratic victory in France. You may be used to American stores where returns are welcomed with a smile and often without a receipt. That’s definitely not the norm here. Expect the process to involve several vendors, each of whom will inspect the merchandise and receipt with an eagle’s eye and direct you to wait in no fewer than 3 different lines before you walk out with your 8€50. The old phrase “buyer beware” seems pertinent to remember.

10. Baby, You Can Drive My Car.

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If all of this sounds like too much work or too much choice or too much trouble, maybe you’d prefer opting for the latest rage in France. Drive through shopping! Order online, then pick it up. Total time at grocery store: 5 minutes.  No extra charge.

But what would you do with all that free time — shop???

Dare to be a Tourist

BeatnikBird

Recently, I’ve been tackling a variety of DIY tasks — things like repairing a peeling bathroom ceiling, putting the suck back into a vacuum that had gone kaput, and battling some carpenter bees that have moved into our deck. My motivation has been simple — a personal challenge to see if I could actually do-it-myself and an attempt to save a few dollars in the process.

It’s been strange terrain for me as I’ve never been terribly handy (i.e., probability’s high that I will cause unintentional harm to myself or others when I climb a ladder, grab a hammer or drop a tool.) Yet, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results.

By asking questions, getting help from in-laws or parents, and doing extensive online research, I’ve developed the courage to try. To my delight, I’ve found that I am indeed (as my 4th grade teacher once assured me) lovable and capable.

Thinking about these new challenges reminds me of something I experienced last summer and jotted down in a little, pocket-sized notebook that I’d brought along on our trip to France. Here are those notes — with a touch of editing — that I hope express my new mantra that trying is more than half the battle.

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When I lived in New York, I never had any trouble spotting tourists: they were the goofy looking ones wearing practical shoes, neon windbreakers and staring up at the towering skyline.

I couldn’t help laughing the other day when I found myself sporting exactly the same attire and striking the identical pose. There I was, part of a nature and wildlife expedition,  searching the sky for a “fantastique” bird that everyone else seemed to see.

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Up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane… it’s ?#$@!!

I started to feel like the legendary Emperor presented with a spectacular new wardrobe of the transparent variety.

Should I play it cool?

“Oui, bien sûr! Je le vois… il est magnifique.”

[Yes, of course! I see it… it’s magnificent.]

Or desperate?

“Mais où??! Je vois rien de tout!”

[But where??! I see nothing at all!]

It’s an interesting predicament. Is it better to try to blend in and pretend we understand or should we ask questions, thereby admitting our lack of knowledge?

The best path I’ve found is to allow ourselves, at times, to be novices — and join the ranks of fellow tourists in the world.

Ever said “yes” to something out of politeness or pride when you really would have said “no” had you known the terms of the deal? You probably regret not asking that clarifying question.

pirate shirt

If we happen to be around helpful, patient people, we have everything to gain. And, if we’re around jerks who don’t want to help at all — good riddance. They’re not the ones we want to be with anyway.

Wandering a wooded path in a small provençal town, I found myself in totally unfamiliar territory. Even in English, I would be lost trying to follow a lecture on birds and wildlife. In French, with layers of precise foreign terminology — patterns, wing spans, habits, and habitats… fuggedaboutit.

Here, it was obvious I was a tourist; I was wearing the fluorescent clothes to prove it. So I went ahead and asked my questions.

The more daunting task is admitting one’s a tourist in what should be familiar situations. That’s what often happens when traveling or living abroad. Exchanging a dress, buying groceries, and simply eating become pitfall-prone treks through the wilderness.

But we have to be willing to observe, participate and ask questions if we hope to grow and become, well…  less touristy.

After all, it’s OK and even wonderful that we do things differently in our respective cultures but learning the codes of etiquette are an important, continual and necessary process.

Allowing ourselves to be beginners, whether the new frontier is birding, building or learning a foreign language, is a noble pursuit. What good would we be if we stopped learning? We’d become stagnant, boring creatures, waiting to wither away.

So, in that spirit, would somebody finally tell me how to properly slice French cheese? And how much is appropriate to take the next time the plateau is passed my way?

cheese