The American food blogger David Lebovitz in his memoir “The Sweet Life of Paris” talks about the moment he realized he had become a Parisian. It was the moment he changed clothes to take out the garbage. I still haven’t had my “moment” here, but I’ve stepped up my dress to grocery shop.
Grocery shopping here is an event. Everyone talks about la boucherie (butcher shop), la boulangerie (bakery), la charcuterie (pork only butcher), la confiserie (candy store), la crémerie (dairy), la fromagerie (cheese shop), la magasin de fruits et légumes (greengrocer), le vinotheque (wine shop), la pâtisserie (pastry shop), la poissonnerie (fish shop), and the list goes on. They are all wonderful – but they not conveniently lined up all in a row. Nor or they helpful when you need pretzels or a 3 volt battery. But because lunch boxes need to be filled and kitchen scales need to be operational (I do ounces, they do grams) – a weekly trip to the hypermarche (the real grocery store) is required. There are a few to pick from. I picked mine based on proximity. No one picks based on convenience. No matter which one you choose, it’s a multi-hour affair. This is why people dress for it.
This is AUCHAN. Think taking a shuttle bus to Costco on a Saturday morning, in low heels.
For starters, the hypermarches are anchor stores in a mall. This means that you will be parking far, far away in a multi-level parking garage. There is no such thing as a quick in and out. It’s a full on commitment with parking tickets and having to remember your negative parking floor and A-Z row. It’s the kind of scenario that would make you cry if you forgot your wallet, or the location of your car.
Next, you’ll need a cart. You’ll also need a 50 cent or 1 Euro coin to use one. This requires some planning, especially when little hands like to rummage through you change purse for extra piggy bank money. The system is actually quite brilliant as it incentivizes people to return their carts to the right place, but it also means that there are no freebie carts roaming around. And you’ll need a cart just for the sparkling water.
Look at all those options. There are also more jamon (ham) and yogurt options than can be explained. We are making our way through all the sparkling water brands and forming opinions about how tight the bubbles should be. Pellegrino has some competition. Greek yogurt was always at risk for me, and jamon cru (raw ham) is just plain wrong. The Spainards know how to cure, the French don’t seem to bother.
I am convinced that hypermarches are hyper big because they put all their inventory on the shelves. One brand of one product can span multiple shelves. So at first glance, it looks like there is a huge selection of American cereal. On further inspection however, it’s just different size boxes of Corn Flakes, Special K, and CoCo Puffs. But when you have all varieties of European museli and granola (much of it with chocolate), who needs Grape Nuts?
I do need chicken broth and an IKEA shortcut however, but that is not happening. (When I read my virtual boyfriend David Lebovitz said the exact same thing about chicken broth, I felt so validated. I’m all about cooking from scratch, but chicken broth in a box is one of my go-tos and bouillon cubes are a salty mess. I am happy to report though that I got a tip early on about some gelatin chicken cups that are so good that I refuse to translate the ingredient list.) Ditto the not happening on frozen corn and anything in the Mexican food category. Call me a snob, but Old El Paso will never passo my salsa test. (Neither will our bread ever pass a French test.) There is (one brand of) peanut butter that is passable, but the jam options and the French butter and the honey make up for it. Most everything else I can find. Google Translate is my friend when I can’t read a label. When it comes to cheese and just about everything else, you don’t have to worry about labels – it’s all delicious.
One thing you do have to worry about it weighing your fruits and vegetables at a stand in the produce section before you get in the checkout line. There is no fall back plan once you get to the register. I’ve sent more than a few bunches of bananas aside because of this. You also have to take a number to get the fish, another number to get the meat … the official cueing makes complete sense so long as you don’t pull a number when there’s a shift change. If you see that happening, best to go sample some wines – which are being sampled at all times of the day. By the time you get back, your number just may be up. It’s all part of the event that is the hypermarche.
Finally, it’s time to check out. The checkers don’t stand, they sit. That’s different. They also don’t start checking your things until you have placed every item on the conveyor belt. Everyone that stands behind you is completely comfortable with this process. The only person that feels in a hurry is you, in part because you know that you are also responsible for bagging your items on the other end. The people before you make this look easy. But for you, this is a slightly sweaty ordeal. Once it’s time to pay, the checker asks if you have an Auchan Card. Ahh – the familiarity of grocery loyalty cards. But while some things are the same as they are back home, the happy-to-be-waiting people in the produce queue, the fish queue, the checkout out queue – now that is different. All I can figure is everyone is happy appreciating each other’s outfits.
So when you ask me, “What did you do today?” And I say “I went to Auchan”, you will understand that it was a full day.