There are many things about living in France that are very nearly the same as in America. In some ways, I think these are the things that challenge me most, because I assume I can master it easily. It lures me in with a false sense of security and then foils my best laid plans, usually in a public venue.
Shopping for groceries is one of these situations. I want you to imagine your supermarket. Can you see the words all around you? Signs on the door as it slides open, a stand of flyers and ads just inside the entrance, banners or other signs hanging up to welcome you, a billboard with local advertisements, signs above the aisles, and shelves filled with branding. A grocery store is filled with words, and for a foreigner, this becomes an immediate test of their vocabulary.
It seems like it would be simple, though, right? I mean, fruits and vegetables will still look the same. So, you go pick out your vegetables and put them in a plastic bag. But if you can’t read the language, you might miss the sign that says you must weigh them and print out a price sticker for the cashier. That’ll be embarrassing in a few minutes when you’re the one holding up the line and can’t even understand why the cashier is annoyed with you. Well, soups and canned goods should be easier.
Nope. They won’t have ANY of your everyday items, so you’ll have to study the shelves carefully to find the next closest item, and in the end you’ll probably give up and decide to make something else. For example, Rotel and Velveeta don’t exist here, southerners. (or in most of the northern states I’ve been in. You’ve been warned!) You could always make that cream of mushroom soup you’ve been searching for from scratch, but the Rotel or salsa you want is a lost cause. There won’t be a can of green chilis or jalapenos anywhere to be found and the produce manager will have no idea what you’re talking about when you ask for cilantro. So, you’ll have to add it to the “Must eat more than my weight in this missing food next time I’m home” list or beg someone to bring it to you when they visit.
And there’s no such thing as family sized Lipton iced tea bags. So, do you give up iced tea or make it with English Breakfast bags and just pile a handful of them in each time you want to make a pitcher? Oh, by the way, they won’t have the gallon or half-gallon sized pitchers we’re used to. How about a liter? Just make four liter pitchers, that should work. You’ll have to chill them outside on the back porch, though, because they won’t fit in your tiny fridge.
Luckily, France has an entire aisle dedicated to cheese. Unfortunately for you, most of your family will take one look and ask for cheddar. If you’re lucky, there will be some in the imported cheese section. May I suggest you slowly begin to switch them French cheese? It’s the only way to survive this crisis. At least the dairy section takes up half the store, so there is plenty of yogurt to choose from (imagine an entire aisle of yogurt!) But when you go to buy milk, you’re going to have quite a shock, so prepare yourself. There will be one little bottle of fresh, cold milk in the dairy cabinet. One. You will stare around you in confusion. Where are they hiding the milk? These people are clearly far too dairy obsessed to have only one bottle of milk! Then, while searching for something else entirely, you’ll find an aisle of milk all stacked neatly on shelves in the back of the store, unrefrigerated. The chooses will overwhelm you and you won’t want to take a single bottle home considering its sitting there on the shelf at room temperature. It will boggle the mind. You’ll watch as people tear into the neat packages of six to take out one or two individual bottles and think the village has lost its mind. What kind of uncivilized society is this?!
But the words have hardly cast a shadow in your mind before you turn the corner and … heaven appears with the sound of trumpets and angels singing. It’s the chocolate aisle. That’s right. An entire aisle of chocolate. Its rival is the bakery section where you will find hand crafted breads for just 50c a loaf and the smell will overwhelm you. You’ll suddenly realize you are STARVING. So, you go in search of something to grab for a quick snack. Only, the chocolate and bread seem to be the only thing handy other than a section of chips at the back of the store. WARNING: French chips will confound and astound you. They are less bizarre than our unfortunate run-in with Japanese chips, but still…proceed with caution. Do not hastily grab a bag simply because they look like your favorite chip from home or else you might end up with something that looks and feels like a Cheeto, but tastes like unsweet peanut butter. Or, a potato chip that claims it’s cheese flavored, but is covered in blue cheese powder so strong it will make your daughter cry. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
And don’t get me started on the store loyalty card! Trying to figure out where to sign up for one feels like an exercise in futility, but they will still keep handing you cute little cards that look like you are maybe supposed to collect them to win a prize, or trade them with friends…I don’t know. I have a nice stack of star wars space shields now if any wants to trade with me. I have no idea why my grocery store thinks we will want to collect them, but at least its not a stack of smurf cards like the ones I saw in another local market. Maybe I can convince the kids they’re trading cards I bought for their Christmas stockings? It will be at least a year before they know enough French to decipher the truth.
In the end, you’ll go home with hardly enough food for two meals and a handful of products you bought just because they were too crazy to leave behind. But don’t worry, with that tiny refrigerator, you’ll get to do it all over again in 48 hours. Better grab a shopping ad on your way out the door so you can practice how to beg the produce manager for the vegetables your kids are willing to tolerate. Bon appetit!