Lost In Translation (And French Supermarkets)
“”Effet immédiat”, oui c’est exactement ce qu’il me faut” I declared
“immediate effect, that’s exactly what I need”
I was browsing our local pharmacy, trying to find something (anything, dear Mother-Of-God) that would stop the dreaded harvest chiggers (Aoûtats) that had been happily munching their way across my stomach and inner thighs for the last few days. The sunflower harvest had just started, and I’d already managed to accumulate around 50 splotchy, red bites that were driving me absolutely crazy-itchy insane. Seriously, harvest chiggers are the worst…
“J’ai même besoin de quelque chose qui marche en arrière” I added, chuckling at my fine attempt at humor
“I even need something that works in reverse”….or at least that’s what I was trying to say
This was met with dead silence, much like an aspiring echo in the vacuum of space, followed by a concerned frown on the brow of the pharmacist. Ah yes, a classic example of yet another miss-fired Nina joke, a crash and burn on the black-ice of French language and cultural norms. Alas, this happens to me often….
So I did as I usually do. I smiled vapidly, mumbled something unintelligible (thus giving the impression I was actually trying to say something entirely different) and then swept my Danish-American butt as nonchalantly and quickly as possible out of there.
I may have to avoid the pharmacy for a few years….
They say humor is the last step of any foreign language, a leap that’s only possible when you’ve truly mastered a tongue. But it’s also much more than that. Humor is rooted in the culture of a place, the politics of it, the little nuances that make a language like French, well…truly French. Often it doesn’t translate in any direct way, at least not until you understand what’s behind it. Which is probably why I still struggle to make a joke.
A wonderful example of this is the French saying “il a fait le minimum syndical” (= he did the minimum required by the syndicate….in other words, he did he absolute bare minimum he could). It’s hilarious in French because everyone knows that French bureaucracy is crazy with reams of paperwork and rules that cover just about every conceivable aspect of life. So, if you really can’t be arsed to make an effort, you simply follow the exact written rule and literally don’t do an ounce of work more.
See….it’s funny once you get it…
And thus it is with many things in a foreign country. It takes time to get to know a place, to understand how everything functions, to recognize the subtleties and yeah….to make jokes. So I thought it would be interesting to share with you a few of the cultural differences we’ve experienced since we started living in France, starting with grocery stores. Food is always a good place to start, no?
Curiosities Of French Grocery Shopping
One of the first ways you get to know a place is when you go to the store to buy stuff.
In many ways, French grocery stores are not that different from US ones. They’re smaller perhaps (for the most part, although we do get some big “hypermarket” stores in France), and they pretty much stock all your standard grocery stuff….meats, veggies, packaged foods etc. But there are also few things that are distinctly different….
No Coin, No Cart: An interesting oddity (at least for us Americans) is that all the grocery carts in France are locked together, and you need a €1 coin (or a plastic token of around the same size) to access one. It’s a rather ingenious way to ensure your customers always bring back their carts, but it’s also a royal pain in the derrière if you happen to have forgotten your change. We got caught out by this one a few times in the beginning, but have now learned to carry tokens in both the car & RV.
No bags, No bagging: Coming from the US, the whole self-bagging thing was a bit of a culture shock to begin with, and led to quite a few rather hilarious (in retrospect) encounters. Basically I would stand at the check-out line waiting impatiently for someone to bag my groceries, while the check-out lady (or lad) would wait equally impatiently for me to get started. We would stare at each other, in the French-grocery-store-equivalent of a Mexican stand-off for hours (OK, maybe it was minutes) before I finally realized what I’d done. Darn foreigner….Interestingly enough, now that I’ve been living here a while I don’t miss or carry bags anymore at all. I simply cart all our items directly to the car where we’ve got two large collapsible CleverMade plastic crates to load them into. Then, once I get home, I just bring in the crates inside to unload. Way less hassle and zero bag waste.
Pink Toilet Paper Is A Thing: yes literally PINK. Apparently it has something to do with being “skin-colored” and thus somehow more pleasant to use, although I’ve only ever personally attained that particular shade of lobster when I’ve accidentally exposed my blindingly-white Scandinavian belly to the sun for a few too many hours. Either way, I do not find it appealing. Still, it’s considered totally normal, and very French.
Out of Season, Out Of Stock: another rather interesting abnormality in France is that stock in the store changes as the seasons change. This is not too different from what happens elsewhere in the world, just that it’s much more dramatic and abrupt here. For example, once summer ends and tomato season drops off, you can no longer buy mozzarella….like at ALL. I mean, why would you need to?? So sometime in October the entire mozarella-shelf, all 4 levels of it, simply vanishes only to re-appear again magically in the Spring. Lots of other ingredients flow in and out of the store like this, such as fruits, veggies and various other seasonal items. But the mozzarella thing, that took me a while to get used to.
There’s also little oddities that took me by surprise, like the fact that broth is literally impossible to buy here. French stores offer 30 different cartons of soups & veggies for sale, but not one single version of basic broth (you have to use “fond” or cubes instead).
And lastly, I find it uniquely curious that you cannot, just cannot buy any kind of notebook with regular old parallel lines in it. The pages are all either filled with small cubes, or with what seems like a senseless excess criss-cross of teeny checkers.
WHY?? How do you even write in these things???
And The Good Things
And then there’s the good stuff, the things that may have seemed odd or excessive at first, but that we’ve come to truly appreciate….
Tarte Bases and Lardons: There’s not a single store in France that doesn’t offer a full shelf of lardons (bacon bits, basically) and ready-made tart bases. It’s the “pizza” of France, the one meal anyone can make, anytime with minimal effort, and everyone does. Just roast the bacon bits, chuck ’em in the tart base with some eggs & cream, maybe some veggies (or really anything else you want), bake it for 30 mins and Bob’s Your Uncle (or perhaps Pierre is your Ami?). Either way, it didn’t take us long to appreciate how easy and tasty this routine is, so much so that we now make a tart at least once a week.
Plus, it turns out tart ingredients are predictive too. When the whole COVID-19 thing started blowing up back in March, one of the first shelves to empty out at our local store was the lardons. That’s when I knew sh*t was getting real…..
Wine & Cheese Galore: I’d always imagined that the wine & cheese selection in France would be incredible, and indeed it is even in the smallest of stores. You won’t find a ton of foreign stuff in these aisles, but then again, why would you need to? There are over 1000 distinct types of French cheese, and around 27,000 wineries, more than enough for several lifetimes of gourmandise.
Plus every year in fall, the stores run a “Foire Au Vin” where they offer cases of wine at ridiculously discounted prices. So for €2 you can get a totally drinkable daily wine, or you can spend €5 for something a better. And if you really want to get fancy you can splurge and get an excellent one for €10. What’s not to love?????
Apéro Stuff: The French version of “Happy Hour” is Apéro, but it’s also much than that. Apéro is what you invite your French neighbors over for when you want a casual get-together, and it’s a whole evening of stuff with various finger foods, wine, playing some kind of game (e.g. Pétanque), hanging out, chatting. Everyone does it, everyone enjoys it, and the grocery stores are happy to assist it. So, you can find all kinds of interesting apéro-related foodstuffs in the local store from drinks to cheeses, chips, nuts, mixes and apéro-you-name-it-more. It’s a fine tradition and I totally dig it.
Oh, and perhaps my favorite little French grocery store curiosity? The bread slicing machine in the bread section of almost every store. Yes, this fabulous little device allows you to buy fresh, crusty straight-out-of-the-oven warm French bread and bring it home perfectly sliced thanks to the flick of a switch. Genius….
Plus Of Course Bureaucracy
I don’t know if I’ll ever really get used to the amount of paperwork that needs to be done in France. I know it’s part and parcel of living here, but even locals (and yes I’ve asked around) consider it ridiculous and excessive.
This week we had two fine examples….
On Monday I got a notice in my online Ameli account that my Carte Vitale (my French health care card) was undergoing a yearly review. This is apparently totally normal (or so I found out) albeit it does happen somewhat randomly, and it’s done to ensure I’m still resident in France and thus still entitled to the card. OK fine. All I had to do was complete a 3-page form, print out 12 months (!!!) of bank & savings statements, provide proof of residence, a copy of my last French tax return, and a few other bits and bobs. Around 100 pages later, I had the required inch-worth of paperwork, which I lugged to the post office and posted on Thursday. Let’s hope it’s enough…..
And the septic….oh, the septic. We got an approval letter from SMDEA/SPANC this week, or rather we thought it was an approval letter. In our giddiness at receiving the last (hahaha) official document we needed to put the bleeding septic tank in the ground, we failed to read the fine-print which said that although we are “conforme” (meaning our installation is in essence OK), we need another approval before work can actually begin. Arrrrrghhhhhhhhh!
This final, final (????) approval is from the la communauté de communes du Volvestre, an organization I had no idea existed and which was never mentioned in any of the multitude of paperwork & forms we filled out. But apparently they own the ditch into which the treated water from the septic tank will flow, and thus their official stamp is needed. So, we’re hopping backwards once again, stuck in the never-ending rain-dance of French paperwork. And meanwhile, our old septic tank flows on…..
And Finally In The News
I’ll finish up with couple of fun news items, just to take your (our) mind off our septic situation, and the ever-present news of rising COVID-19 numbers all over France.
Topless sunbathing: French government defends right to bare torsos -> French police were chastised for telling topless sunbathers to cover up in the SW of France. As a Scandinavian, I can only applaud this. Fly free, be bare, my friends. Vive la France…
French nudist resort reports ‘worrying’ level of COVID-19 cases -> It seems even the nudists are not immune to our rising COVID-19 inflection numbers, despite the fact that they took precautions to ensure everyone was wearing a mask. I dunno, I just felt I had to share that mental image….
Oh and that grain experiment I teased you with in last post? Not quite ready yet….we just need a few more steps before I can be write about it, which I guess is rather French of me. Maybe I am becoming a local, after all.
So my dear readers, in your many travels, have you found interesting and unusual things in the various supermarkets you’ve visited? Stuff you loved? Stuff that seemed crazy? DO tell and share below!
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