Our first visit to a French supermarket

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No matter how hard my husband Larry and I  tug at the last cart in the cart corral, we can’t get it loose. Then we realize that, as in some  airports, one must insert a euro into a slot in order to release a cart.

Once inside, Larry, food lover extraordinaire, slips behind the linguistic barricades, and morphs into commander-in-chief of all that’s purveyed.Larry thinks of supermarkets, whether French or American, as food museums, or maybe libraries. He loves to read the shelves. He’s especially excited by the display of fruit juices. “Jus d’orange, jus de poire, jus d’abricot,” he exclaims and puts one of each in his wagon. He can spend two hours fully engaged in a supermarket doing research, or merely marveling that the French sell bouillabaisse in vacuum-sealed glass jars and foie gras in the meat department.

Supermarkets overwhelm me by their size and the variety of goods they offer. They make me feel stupid. I have trouble finding my way through the aisles of my local Super Stop and Shop. It’s way too super. I encounter a profusion of green leafiness; romaine, mâche, raddichio, frisée, Boston, bib, kale, arugula, spinach – baby and grown up – in addition to mixes of all of the above.

If I hadn’t run into our neighbor René, I never would have found the garbage bags. I didn’t know the French word for garbage at the time – les ordures — so I shifted into charade mode and acted out a garbage man carrying a heavy bag over his shoulder.

At first René looked perplexed – he must have thought I was doing Père Noël, Santa Claus – but then his eyes lit up in recognition and he led me over to les sacs à ordures.

I make my way to the cereal aisle. I know the word, les céréales, but I face yet another stupefying challenge. I’m looking for bran flakes, but I haven’t any idea of how to say it. To make matters worse, I am unfamiliar with French brand names. I look at the pictures on the packages but cannot tell the difference between one kind of flake and another. When at last I find Kellogs’s All Bran amidst the alien corn chex, I hug the box as if it were a long lost friend.

The produce department presents a puzzling challenge. Some of the fruits and vegetables are displayed loosely in bins, much as they are in my supermarket at home. Others are segregated in slatted wooden crates, labeled with their country of origin – often Spain, but sometimes other countries, including England and Belgium. As a result, foods must now be labeled with their country of origin. I assume the unlabeled produce comes from France and so, being almost French myself, I select what I want from the bins.

Meanwhile, over near the meat counter, Larry’s sausage imitation is drawing a crowd. “Just point!” I cry, desperately, turning his attention to the phalanx of sausages lined up in the glass display case. Larry has no trouble choosing. He chooses them all. Then he moves on to breads. While I worry about which one is best, Larry takes four and tosses them in his cart which already contains the juices, organ meats from assorted animals, hard, soft and semi soft cheeses from cows and goats, and a variety of regional red wines.

Checking out is a nightmare of incomprehension: we should have weighed certain items before showing up at the cashier’s line. You can’t separate the bananas the way you can at home. You have to pay for the plastic bags. I barely understand a word the check out lady is saying to us. My eyes well up with tears of humiliation and frustration. Larry, who can’t wait to cook up a pituitary gland or two, is in high spirits. He sorts his way through our ineptitude and pays the bill – 150 E.

When we return our cart, the slot spits out a euro.

About Mary-Lou Weisman 1 Article
Mary-Lou Weisman is the author of five books: INTENSIVE CARE, A Family Love Story (Random House); MY MIDDLE AGED BABY BOOK (Workman Publishing --a best seller) TRAVELING WHILE MARRIED (Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill AL JAFFEE'S MAD LIFE, (HarperCollins;)and her latest, PLAYING HOUSE IN PROVENCE: How Two Americans Became a Little Bit French; (iUniverse)