Ah, food shopping in Paris. With enticing specialty shops lining most commercial streets, I find myself spending my days in a permanent state of gastronomic desire. The smells from the boucheries, boulangeries and patisseries fill the sidewalks and beckon passers-by to sample the delicacies within. Lucky me, I often do.
And then there are the open air markets that Paris is famous for. A few blocks from our apartment is one of the city's best beloved marches, Le Marche Saxe Breteuil. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, dozens of vendors crowd the tree-lined boulevard every Thursday and Saturday to sell their artisanal, mouth-watering goods. Fresh-from-the-farm cheeses, succulent sausage and piles of fish and seafood compete for space with jewel-toned fruits, veggies and olives basking in vats of fragrant oil. The air is rich with the scent of fresh bread, garlicky roast chicken, leafy herbs and the perfume of just-cut flowers. Yum.
A trip to the outdoor marche, however, is not for the faint of heart. Navigating the aisles crowded with well-dressed ladies and their rolling caddies, straw baskets and delighted dogs (who lap up the obliging scraps) can be a challenge. The French don't share our appreciation for personal space so the marche at peak hours can be a cozy experience. Determination and a dose of attitude are required to secure a position and emerge with your desired goods. Success comes to those who push (and cut in line); frustration (and hunger) to those who wait.
Working up my courage, I make the weekly journey to our local marche, practicing what I'll order as I stroll the two scenic blocks. "Deux escalopes de veau, monsieur. Des olives vertes. Un poulet roti avec des pommes, aussi." If I'm feeling especially brave, I may question the freshness of the meat or even press a round of soft cheese with my thumb to be sure that it feels just right.
Insisting on the best is definitely a French trait and one that I'm determined to master. In fact, I've learned that being demanding and petulant is actually respected here -- almost required to get what you want. Self-deprecation and timid pleas for assistance get you nowhere; a haughty toss of the head and an impatient air earns an immediate response.
I, however, am not French. So despite my admiration for this way of life, frequent shopping trips for the freshest specialty ingredients and thoughtful menu planning have required some adjustments. Accustomed as I am to driving to the store and loading the minivan with a haul to last the week, daily shopping trips to purchase only what I can carry has been well, different.
Of course, it's not realistic to do all our shopping at the marche. For the daily needs, I head to the neighborhood market and brace for yet another adventure in cultural confusion. These are Paris' far less glamorous establishments: Franprix, Dia, Leader Price and the like -- the everyday supermarkets that populate the city streets. They are also the places I feel my American-ness more than ever and long for the cool, orderly aisles of Whole Foods and the upbeat conviviality (not to mention the peanut butter and kid-sized shopping carts) of Trader Joe's.
Eggs and milk are not kept in the refrigerated section (Don't ask). Cereal boxes are so small that we seem to plow through one a day. Shelves are stocked at all hours so aisles are routinely blocked by piles of boxes that preclude access to daily necessities. Employees are amazingly unhelpful. ("Excusez-moi madame, ou se trouve les oeufs?" I ask. "La bas," ("Over there..") the clerk responds with a limp flick of her wrist.) The eggs, naturally, are not "over there," so I track down another clerk and pose the same question, only to be told that the eggs are not yet unpacked. "Plus tard, peut-etre?" he says with a Gallic shrug.
To proceed smoothly through the check-out, you must first weigh your produce on a mini-scale that spits out a sticker to attach to the produce bag. Woe be the shopper who forgets to weigh an item or fails to correctly label their selected produce. There will be no "price check on aisle four," just a frustrated and embarrassed American grumbling about the weight of her tomatoes.
But none of this compares to the near Olympian feat of bagging your own groceries like you're playing a game of Beat the Clock under the withering gaze of a line of impatient Parisians. Not yet broken of my American habits, I remain determined to load up on as much stuff as possible in the vain hope that I won't have to return the following day. This means that I invariably buy more than I can carry, leaving me to trek home like a pack mule weighed down with plastic bags and trailing a bulging red trolley.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. Vive la difference, as they say. So ciao for now, gotta go. Thursday in la septieme is marche day!