You would think that shopping for food in Paris would be a dream come true. Visiting the butcher for fresh cuts of meat you can’t identify, stopping by the cheesemonger for a wedge of something smelly, visiting the vegetable stand for only the ripest avocados. Sounds simply idyllic, no?
But what if in addition to your usual cheese and meats, you also need toilet paper? Or something’s missing from your spice rack? Or you actually want fresh produce, straight from the farmer (because contrary to popular belief, most markets sell the same stuff you find in bulk at the grocery store)? Well that means you have to wheel your cart to the outdoor bio market that’s only open on Saturday mornings. Then high-tail it over to the butcher who’s closed on Mondays and sometimes in the middle of the afternoon for no reason. Then find an actual grocery store that’s open past 7pm to pick up TP and milk. Oh, and that yogurt you really like? That’s at the other covered produce market, in the opposite direction from everything else, and it’s closed on Tuesdays and Sundays.
Did I mention that you have to haul all that stuff back in a neon orange cart with one bum wheel and then lug it up a couple flights of stairs?
Fun times. That’s why even though I’m only shopping for myself and Husband, and we eat out half the time, it feels as though I am just on one continuous grocery shopping adventure. I find myself picking up things I don’t really need just because I’m near that store or market or stand and they might be closed later and what if I need dried figs on Saturday?!!?
Adding to the confusion is the dizzying array of actual grocery stores in my neighborhood. There are at least 6 options in a 5 block radius, not counting the outdoor produce markets. Just the places you can go for dry goods and packaged foods. But whereas most U.S. grocery stores stock just about everything you could ever dream of, the French versions seem to specialize in having some of the things you need some of the time. And a lot of them smell bad.
To prove my point, I’ve charted out some of the grocery shopping options in my quartier, along with their strengths and weaknesses:
Has: Staples like milk, eggs, toilet paper. Random surprises like dried figs. Veggies. Dusty cans of tomato sauce next to toilet bowl cleaner.
Does Not Have: The one thing you need most at that moment. More than 100 square feet to move around in.
Picard: Frozen food bonanza! A favorite of Parisians.
Has: Everything from frozen mini quiches and canapés to whole frozen lobsters.
Does not have: Anything not frozen.
Has: A wider selection of staples, beer and wine, some meats and processed ready to eat food. Also the brand of milk I like in a large container.
Does not have: A good smell, friendly checkers, neatly organized food.
Has: A big selection of stuff, a nice butcher and cheese shop, the habit of reorganizing the aisles every week so I never know where anything is. Oh, and 2 other floors of clothing and home goods.
Does not have: The brand of milk I like in anything other than the smallest container. Beans. Anything other than chocolate cereal.
Has: Clean floors, entire shelves of American, Italian and Asian foods, fresh pasta, seafood, lovely produce, wines, lots of bio options.
Does not have: Any milk other than the non-refrigerated, hyper-pasteurized kind, a big butcher department, many customers yet.
See how something as simple as buying milk could get a little tricky? And I didn’t even get to the Carfour or the LeaderPrice or the whole other store of just American crap at the Embassy! Thank goodness my oven is broken and I don’t have to cook anything. Next time I’ll fill you in on the bakery options – one place for croissants, another for pain au raisins, another for baguettes…