Dear people of Europe

Please for the love of god, stop making me bag my own groceries. I’m already stressed out by the language barrier, and worried that I forgot to weigh my produce, and feeling sheepish about my conspicuously large, undoubtably American-size haul of goods. Oh, and I’m probably not feeling too good about the toddler screaming in the cart and the infant strapped to my chest either. So is it too much to ask that you just slide my groceries into a bag (that I paid for) after you scan them?

Apparently, yes.

Here’s how shopping goes in Austria: you push your wayward cart through the tiny aisles, using all the strength you can muster to keep it from swerving into the giant barrel of serve-yourself sauerkraut. If you’re wondering a) why the cart is so wayward and b) what’s up with the barrel of sauerkraut, let me explain: every single cart here, no matter the store, has wheels that are on the swivel. So as you’re trying to make forward progress, it haphazardly glides sideways. Usually into old ladies or the aforementioned barrel of sauerkraut. Which is apparently so popular that it needs to be sold in bulk.

Anyway, once you have all your stuff, you glide sideways with your cart toward the dour-looking cashier. He/she sits and stares at you with dead eyes as you unload nearly everything in your cart onto the conveyor belt. Only then does he/she perk up, as it seems the cashier’s only joy in life comes from watching customers scramble to the other end of the belt, fumble with their reusable bags, and frantically try to keep up pace with the rapid scanning.

I usually get about 3 items into an actual bag, and then resort to throwing everything back into the cart. It’s during this process that the most damage occurs: in all the haste, I’ve dropped yogurt containers, smashed bananas, and seen others break jars of jam and bottles of juice. No one in the store seems alarmed by all these damaged goods. Casualties of war, I guess. Perhaps they’re saving so much money not bagging your groceries that they can afford to waste a few things.

Once you have about 2/3 of your goods back into the cart, the cashier is ready to ring you up and the other patrons in line start breathing down your neck. So you have to dig out your wallet and work the credit card machine one handed as you continue to chuck groceries blindly in the direction of your cart. If you have a toddler kicking in the front seat, that spot may have shifted 2 feet to the left, thanks to those swivel wheels.

Cart chaos.After everything is paid for, you move quickly to the bagging area. This is where you take all the items back out of your cart and try to sort through the madness and get everything evenly dispersed into bags before your children implode. Then, you guessed it, the bags go back in the cart, and you go out to your car, where the bags go into the trunk. Finally, after returning your cart and getting your euro back (oh, did I forget to mention the part where you have to pay for a grocery cart?), you drive home, and one last time, just for fun, you pull all the groceries out again and put them away.

Does that sound like a whole lot of extra steps to anyone else? Aren’t the Austrians supposed to be super efficient? Should I write a letter to the UN or something to see if we can get this situation fixed?

Advertisements

I know what I am.

Remember when I rocket-launched a six-pack of Orangina all over the grocery store floor? And then just a month or so later, when I accidentally spiked 3 bottles of Coca-cola at the register, sending shards of glass into other people’s shopping bags?

Well, as you might guess, all of the cash register ladies at my local FranPrix pretty much roll their eyes every time I walk through the door. Like here comes that dumb pregnant American who keeps breaking things. So yesterday when I waddled in and very delicately picked up a few bottles of sparkling water, I made sure to smile a lot and take extra care putting everything into my bag. In fact I was so focused on not causing another glass massacre that I left behind a shopping bag containing Husband’s newly polished dress shoes.

And when I realized this, oh, about 3 hours later, I panicked. I flew out of the apartment in yoga pants and flip flops (which, while fine everywhere else in the world, makes you look like a raving lunatic here), ran across the street, and burst through the automatic doors gasping j’ai perdu un sac en plastique avec des chaussures!

I lost a plastic bag with some shoes! Somebody help me!

But the entire line of patrons and my stone-faced cashier just stared in wonder tinged with disgust. So I repeated my plea to the cashier, explaining that I was there earlier and I think I left the bag and I’m sorry to bother you and…dear god just somebody say something.

Finally the cashier lady sighed and pulled out my bag from underneath the register. I said a sheepish merci and backed out the door. And as I walked home I decided that I would not be surprised if there’s a sign in the employee break room with my picture on it that says casse-pieds– pest, pain in the ass, or literally, foot-breaker.

Vocab Friday: Un rêve

Since I’ve been spending such a good deal of time lately complaining about the grocery stores here, I thought I’d take a minute and share my idea of the perfect food shopping experience, complements of the riverside Sunday market in Bordeaux:

1. Garlic shrimp grilled to oder. To fortify you before shopping.

2. Plenty of cheese and other farm fresh products.

3. A French Elvis impersonator, to keep you energized. Bonus if he can do the splits.

4. Post-checkout wine and raw oyster bar. Truly a thing of beauty.

*    *    *

un rêve

Pronunciation: uh rehv

Definition: A dream. As in,

“It’s mon rêve to someday find a beautiful outdoor market that also sells toilet paper.”

 

 

 

 

A lesson in grocery shopping.

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:

Proxi Market: Kind of like a really small 7-11, with produce. Always open!

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.

 

 

 

Franprix: Bigger selection than Proxi, but not a full on grocery store like we’re used to in America.

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.

 

Monoprix: Closer to an American grocery, except for the clothes.

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.

 

La Ferme: A new addition and oddly run by Franprix, this store is a godsend.

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…

It’s time to go.

Have you ever dropped an entire 6 pack of glass Orangina bottles in the middle of the grocery store isle? In France? Well just in case your answer is no, let me explain how it goes:

You see the woman in front of you taking her time, perusing every possible beverage option while blocking the aisle with her cart. She finally picks Orangina, and carelessly drops one of the glass bottles on the floor. It doesn’t shatter, but starts fizzing madly and making a small mess. She walks away like nothing happened.

You become incensed. How could someone just drop a bottle and leave it there?! At least alert the clerk! My god. Who are these people?!? you think to yourself smugly as you also reach for another 6 pack of Orangina from the top shelf. And just as you gingerly slide it off into the air, the bottom drops out and 6 highly carbonated glass bottles go crashing to the floor, spewing orange soda and shards of glass into the air like miniature spinning Orangina rockets.

You shriek. The woman from before pops her head back around the aisle and says, “Oh! I just dropped a little one.” Thank you madame. Thank you. You stand there for a moment wondering if you should help clean up, or pay, or something. Then you decide it’s best to just get the hell out of there.

And if your morning goes anything like mine, you’ll arrive at your doorstep, sticky and sulking, to a friendly gardienne waving some important mail in your face. It will be an envelope stamped with the official Republique Francais symbol. And when you open it, it will be a speeding ticket. From one of the 3 times total you’ve ever driven here.

I think the gods are telling me it’s time to get outta here for a while, no?

Grocery store hate.

After nearly a year of living here, I have quickly learned that France is a place of many contradictions. It’s a land where stunning beauty nearly knocks your socks off at every corner, but also where dog poo threatens at every turn. Where one can fathomably subsist on cheese, pastries and wine and still not gain a pound. Where people will not hesitate for one second to mount a fierce strike or protest against even the smallest infringement, but only if it doesn’t interfere with les vacances.

But I’ve found these contradictions in national character to be no more prominent than in the grocery store aisles. Where else in the world can you find more than 200 kinds of cheese and 20 varieties of cream, but not one single can of beans? No beans, people! Not dried, not canned, not anywhere to be found. Only lentils. Man do these people love their lentils. But any other bean? N’existe pas.

Now, I can fully understand when I go in search of Worcestershire sauce or instant oatmeal or canned pumpkin and come up empty handed. Those are weird American things. But beans? Aren’t they an international magical fruit? It’s ludicrous. And it just further confirms my love/hate relationship with the supermarché.

You see, I try to shop at the open air markets as much as possible. They’re wonderful. Spectacular. A regular cornucopia of fresh goods. But it also means you have to speak French to lots of different people, explaining what you want, when you want to eat it, how you were thinking of cooking it. And you have to plan really well, because the markets are only open certain days, for certain hours.

Sometimes you just want the old isolating American shopping experience, where you don’t have to interact with anyone and you can go at whatever time you want (well, almost). Other times you just really need toilet paper and diet coke, so a trip to the grocery store is a necessary evil.

I say evil because the grocery stores (in Paris at least) all seem to give off a communist Russia vibe. They smell bad. They’re not particularly well stocked. The isles are cramped and full of old ladies who won’t hesitate to run over your toes to get the last jug of milk. They haven’t yet caught on to the idea that if you make the food look nicer, people will want to buy more of it. And in mine, if you want to buy toilet paper, you have to go up three floors from the food level, where it’s stashed in between children’s toys and office supplies.

Many an afternoon I stumble across the most perfect sounding recipe ever, only to find out that the MonoPrix is out of flour and cannellini beans are considered an exotic legume. It’s super frustrating, and further supports my theory that the French government is secretly giving everyone crappy ovens and smelly grocery stores to bolster the restaurant industry. Which, now that I think of it, is pretty brilliant. And totally fine by me.