Back where I grew up, shopping for groceries was a chore. Get in the car, drive five miles, find a parking space within a mile, walk up and down the aisles for an hour under fluorescent lights and constant sales announcements. Not that the food in Paris magically appears on my doorstep, but I’ve learned to appreciate its finer points. The first lesson most of us Americans learn when we get here is a simple one, in theory: slow down!
Super? Not! Sometimes I think I’m in a hurry to go somewhere, but I’m really just trying to get away from where I am. If I take the convenient route of walking across the street to supermarché, I’m usually in a hurry because it’s too bright, too crowded, and I never find what I want. However, if I go three streets down to the open market, I can take my time in each of the shops separately. At the boulangerie, I get my whole grain bread loaf, always tranché because I hate to slice it myself. At my favorite produce stand, I have to point and ask for what I want, which may take longer, but the fruits and veggies aren’t all bruised from people rummaging and squeezing. The second butcher shop from the far end of the street always puts extra juice in with my fresh rotisserie chicken, and they never take them out of the roaster before they’re purchased. I still sneak into the small market to get cereal and soup, to the biological store for soy-milk and whole wheat pasta, and to the traiteur on the corner for the occasional quiche.
Learning the Ropes I’ve learned quite a few things since arriving here five years ago. First of all, having a shopping bag or a cart is useful, otherwise you’ll end up carrying fifteen plastic sacs which cut off the circulation in your fingers. I’ve figured out which stores don’t need a ten franc piece for the trolley. I’ve learned to watch what others do in a store if I’m not too sure where I’m supposed to pay or which way the line goes. As most natives here know, it doesn’t hurt at all to get to know the shopkeepers. The smaller ones love to talk about their products, and when you’re two francs short one day, they don’t care. I’ve learned to shop on Saturday, because the markets close on Monday, and the supermarchés close on Sunday. I’ve figured out which late-night convenience store has the best choices without ripping me off. And I know that no matter how long the person in front of me in line has been standing there, they will always wait until their turn to start looking around to see what they want. Patience. I’m in no hurry.
Gourmet Marché So maybe you like markets, but it’s just too cold, raining, or you hate the doggy doo landmines. If you don’t mind going to Sèvres-Babylone to do your shopping, the Grand Epicerie at the Bon Marché is simply the best combination of American selection/convenience/size and French quality/taste/aesthetic. It’s like a gourmet market, but indoors. They have a huge selection of regional French foods and international foods (chocolate chips and marshmallow creme!), as well as home and beauty products, free samples, and fast checkouts. You’d think they were paying me for this gushing praise, but I’m just in a jolly and generous mood today because our neighbor upstairs has finally fixed her plumbing so that we don’t hear it screeching on those early Sunday mornings.
A Lesson for Life Again, it’s these little things that I try to enjoy. It’s just as easy to hate Paris as it is to love it. And when you’re an expat who has chosen to live here of your own free will, that can be a frustrating experience. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, if you’re in a regular work-metro-dinner-bed kind of routine, it’s easy to get sucked into the mire. My own advice to all of you is to give yourself a little more time out of the house. Take the bus instead of the metro, go to the open market instead of the Franprix, eat a long lunch in a cozy bistro at least once a week (with wine, of course). Try browsing for new dinner ideas, indulge yourself with a long stroll down Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, and take a good book to the post office to read in line. Hell, why not read the entire Pariscope to see what might be an interesting excuse to waste a ‘sick’ day. And relax. Besides, people look surprised if you’re on time in Paris.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors Check out the “Tourist For a Day” links if you’re really hurting for something different to do, but don’t spend too much time today surfing around (I’m definitely not paid to say that). The long, dark days of January are for cozying up at home. But for now, while the crisp air is still a novelty, and your new cashmere scarf is still fluffy, get out there into the streets. Don’t go inside, don’t go down into the tunnels, and stay away from that monstrous mall at Les Halles. You may find something that will slow time down for you. And you will stop running. And Paris will be as glorious as it was the first time you came.
November 2019 Update
This article from November 1999 really hit the nostalgia buttons for me. The French Francs are long gone, but so are the long waits at La Poste, the doggy doo landmines I used to step on at least once a week, and supermarkets that close on Sundays. I remember how happy I was to have finally “figured out” the food shopping thing in Paris. We still need to slow down and enjoy Paris while we’re here. To that I would add: look up from (and not at Paris through) your smartphones once in awhile. 😉
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’m publishing them all here, one by one, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris”