Monday, May 11, 2009


Many of us may take food shopping for granted while we are at home, but it is a whole new experience in France. Let's face it, we are accustomed to going to the store, putting whatever we want in the cart and having the cashier ring it up for us. Then, miraculously, everything is bagged
for us, either by the same cashier or an additional person whose job is solely to help bag customer's items for them. It's not entirely the same when traveling abroad. That being said, it is best to get with their program while you are here. So, pull out your learning cap. It's time for a course in Groceries 101.

One thing to note, is that with the exceptions of La Grande Epicerie and Le Bon Marche, you will be hard pressed to find too many large supermarchés (that's supermarkets to you and me) in Paris proper.  If, on the other hand, you travel into the banlieu (the burbs) you most certainly will. Paris may not be able to fit massive super-stores in its borders, but the rest of France has taken a cue from Walmart, Target and the like and created their own version of the mega-market. If you have a hankering for being overwhelmed with an endless sea of stuff, then take a drive out of town to find your favorite spot.

If you find yourself at one of these stores make sure to enter it only where entree sign is located. You will know it as it will be the spot where the security guard is located. This may seem pretty basic, but at home if someone is exiting the store while we are near the exit door, we may feel inclined to sneak in that way. It may be the wrong door, but no one makes a big deal about it. It is a different story in France. It is a big deal here. With all the stink that they make, one would think that a wanted criminal that was armed and dangerous just walked through the door—and you are the wanted criminal. In other words, just don't do it. It is simply not tolerated here.

Furthermore, while you may feel inclined to cut through the closed cash register aisle to make an easy access into the main store, I encourage you to not bother trying. Here is a glimpse of what may happen if you do. A rather over-sized hulk of a man donning a security guard suit will chase you down, arms flailing, whistles blowing, all the while, he is reprimanding you as you are trying to make your way through the aisles. Yep, it happened to me!

Keep in mind that if the store is small enough to only have only one entrance, as most of them do in Paris, you will be in the clear as none of this will be an issue for you. The supermarchés inside Paris are so small, one can practically see everything from where the cashier sits. Needless to say, a security guard is not required.

Another idiosyncrasy you will need to know before going on your shopping excursion is that fruits and vegetables that are not pre-packaged with the price clearly attached will need to be priced by you. Don't bother with your pen. That won't be necessary. Here is what you do: put your broccoli in a bag and look for the scale located somewhere nearby. Thankfully, you don't have to speak or read French to operate the scale. Just find the corresponding picture of the item you desire and press it. Your price will be tabulated and a sticker will pop out. Slap it on the bag and you are good to go.  If you don't pre-price everything in this manner, there will be hell to pay at the cash register. So, just get in the habit now of doing the work.

One thing that troubled me when I first began shopping here, is that eggs are NOT in the refrigerated section. Yep, it was a shock to me too. The first time I tried finding any eggs, I searched the refrigerated sections so many times, I thought the wheels of the cart might fall off. I started wondering if they had any eggs at all in this country. Maybe we only had them in the States?

When I finally I asked where they were located, I was astonished to find them in a regular old aisle, with a regular old shelf—without a cooling unit in sight. After questioning the employee why it wasn't refrigerated, I quickly gave up and decided that when in Rome do as the Romans do and the same applies for Paris too. For those of you who are worried about safety issues, remember, chickens don't put their eggs in the fridge either—it's just us Americans who do so. As an avid egg lover, I ate them nearly every day while I was here and never once became sick from food poisoning.

After your cart is filled with all the delectables you desire, head for the check out line. By all means, when it's your turn, don't just stand their waiting to pay. You will need to start bagging your groceries as they are being run up. Coming from my own cultural background where the employees do everything except unload the cart, that is what I have always been used to. Much to my chagrin, I made the unfortunate mistake of falling into this cultural habit the first time I went shopping, only to be scolded by the cashier, all while receiving fierce looks from the other patrons waiting their turn. Worse yet, my French was pretty terrible at the time and I had no idea why I was being yelled at. So, she continued yelling at me and I just wanted to hide. Needless to say, it wasn't fun.

The first time I bagged my groceries it took me so long that two other people behind me finished their purchases before I had completed my bagging. Thankfully, with a little practice, I am now a pro. I come to the grocery store, armed with my bag ready to place each item in it as the cashier slides them down the counter. If I ever need a job at Safeway, I am certain they would be happy to hire me.

Furthermore, since we are talking about bags anyway, it is customary to bring your own. If you forget ask in advance for, "Un sac, s'il vous plaît" (uh sock see voo play). If you would like more than one bag just show how many with your fingers. Just know that you will be charged about ten centimes for each one.

The good news is that grocery stores are a whole lot cheaper in France than they are in San Francisco. So, your pocketbook will be a happy camper indeed.

Enjoy the experience and bonne journée!