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Our life in France – grocery shopping

January 3, 2010

(Please note that this post reflects our experience in the early 1990’s – I can’t speak for what anyone would experience today.)

One of the things I had to adjust to when we moved to France was grocery shopping.  For everyday shopping, I would go to a marché, the bakery or a produce stand, but I have to admit that I never felt sure enough in my French to buy meat at a butcher’s shop – I was afraid I would come home with horse or rabbit.  For meat and other major shopping, I went to a supermarché.

The first thing that was different at the supermarché was all of the shopping carts were chained together.  If you wanted to use one, you had to insert a 10 Franc coin into the last cart to release it from the rest.  When you returned your cart after shopping, you would get your coin back.  The next thing that you would notice was that all four of the wheels on the cart pivoted 360° (in the US, only the front two wheels rotate), so the carts were very difficult to steer.

Although the supermarchés were large, they didn’t carry near the variety of goods you would find in a store in the US.  There were about 20 different varieties of cereal and maybe half a dozen brands of soap and laundry detergent.  (One time we visited a grocery store in Switzerland and found a different variety of cereal and Vance had to call his cousin because he was so excited.  Needless to say, his cousin didn’t get it.)

A lot of food was different from what we’re used to.  All of their salad dressings are like vinaigrette – there’s no “French” dressing to be found.  The only milk we ever saw came in boxes and didn’t have to be refrigerated until opened.  All of the eggs were brown and they weren’t refrigerated either.  There were some brands and logos that were familiar to us, like Coke and Nestle, but of course, many of the foods we were used to couldn’t be found.  I was able to buy microwave popcorn and taco shells, just to name a few, on the “exotic foods” aisle of one local supermarché.  There were health and beauty products available but you had to go to the pharmacie for pain relievers, cough medicine, etc.

Of course there was a huge variety of delicious cheeses to choose from, but I had to go to Marks & Spencer (a British department store) to buy cheddar cheese.  (I also bought English muffins there.)  The wine selection was excellent (and inexpensive) and their produce was outstanding – fresh, with lots of variety.

When you purchased produce at a supermarché, you placed it on the scale, looked up the code, punched the code in and a label would print out that you’d place on the item, so the cashier could check you out.  A few produce items were sold by the piece, though.  We’d only been in France a few months when I found small watermelons at the supermarché.  I chose one, put it in my cart and assuming it was sold by the piece, didn’t weigh it before I went to check out.  When I got to the front of the line, the cashier informed me that it was sold by weight.  Leaving Vance and the rest of my groceries at the register, I ran back to weigh my watermelon.  I scanned the list of items by the scale and realized I had no idea how to say watermelon in French.  I held my watermelon up to other shoppers and said, “Qu’est-ce c’est?” (What is this?) At first I got blank stares and finally someone said, “C’est une pastèque.”  I weighed my watermelon and ran back to the register.  Needless to say, I’ve never forgotten how to say watermelon in French!

The stores did not bag your groceries – shoppers had to do that themselves.  You could bring your own bags or the cashiers would provide you with a few plastic bags.  Heaven forbid you ask for an extra bag!   I never could figure out why, but requesting another bag always made the cashier unhappy.

I always liked to take our guests to the marché when they came to visit, because I felt like it gave them a feel for what it was like to live in France.  They almost always found a product they had to buy to take home with them.

55 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2010 7:10 am

    I always love going grocery shopping in different countries. It really gives you an interesting perspective on their lives 🙂

    I feel overwhelmed in American supermarkets because there is so much choice but I do miss the choices when I’m back in Europe. And I have to say I don’t miss much about Marks & Spencer (once upon a time I worked for them) but I do miss their English muffins.

  2. January 3, 2010 7:13 am

    That’s so interesting about the shopping carts. It makes me wonder about theft. In Italy they didn’t put change in your hand. They just slapped it on the counter which was so disconcerting. The wine was very inexpensive and good as well.

  3. January 3, 2010 7:26 am

    What an interesting shopping experience! Carrefour here in Malaysia also practices the shopping cart policy like you mentioned.

  4. January 3, 2010 7:49 am

    I love these posts. I could write a post-ish comment back just comparing all of this to grocery stores in Poland. I have seen huge progress in the shopping experience in Poland over the last ten or fifteen years. Back when I first went, it was just like this. That boxed milk is HORRIBLE. I’ve never had to shop by myself before over there, though, so I can imagine the intimidation. That meat thing is dicey. When I was in Nice once, I was at a restaurant and thought I was ordering veal, but instead was veal intestines. I threw up in my mouth, I swear, once I took a bite of it.

  5. January 3, 2010 8:11 am

    Shopping was an experience France 🙂 Having grown up in a small town I have got so used to local grocery stores and personal attention to shoppers that when I started college I found it little difficult to adjust to supermarkets . Guess this is how we learn 🙂

  6. January 3, 2010 8:15 am

    I’d be in big trouble if I had to look produce up on a chart since I only can say grapefruit and orange in French. I think the bag thing is due to recycling but I’m not sure. I saw recyckling bins for every color glass. When we toured Germany and I bought some books, I had to ask for a bag. Europeans seem much more waste conscious than we are. Wondrous word Wednesday, you could always throw in a french word. That would be fun!

  7. January 3, 2010 9:21 am

    The chained carts is done in my area at a store called Aldi (I think owned by Trader Joe’s). I don’t know if it is regional or national but you never see carts taking up space in the parking lot. People want their quarters back : ) I love this post – and its true, when I’ve shopped for groceries while traveling I love to bring items home that aren’t available in my area.

  8. January 3, 2010 9:58 am

    I shopped at Marks and Sparks too when I lived in the UK. I loved the supermarket story. I was not aware of having to make a deposit for a shopping cart — at least you got your coin back!

  9. January 3, 2010 10:00 am

    Ah…..I LOVE these posts!

    I think if I lived in France my staple diet would be a baguette, some brie, and an apple. I could never tire of that meal. Oh, and of course, a glass of Bordeaux.

    Your descriptions remind me of a discount grocer here in the midwest (maybe all over US?) — Aldis. You must pay a quarter to get a cart, but receive the quarter back when you return it. You bag your own groceries too, but the prices are quite inexpensive. I think they are based in Germany (?) so perhaps this is a European thing.

  10. January 3, 2010 10:12 am

    I wonder if the extra bag request prompted a scowl becuase of environmental issues? Or maybe they just consider us Americans gluttons so that extra bag validated that thought? LOL

    I don’t know if I’d survive in France with the lack of variety at the supermarket. Though there is a reason they are far more healthy that we are I suppose. They’ve got to be doing something right 🙂

  11. January 3, 2010 10:14 am

    A lot of the things you talk about here are now being used in the U.S., like bring your own bags and weighing and labeling the produce before you go checkout.

    I don’t speak French (despite 2 years of it in college), so I was totally intimidated to go into the stores there.

    Straight From Hel

  12. January 3, 2010 11:16 am

    Another great story! And reminds me of trying to buy food long ago when we were in Germany. To this day I can still see, in my minds eye, the jellied meat with the hair (or whatever it was) still on!

  13. January 3, 2010 11:20 am

    This post took me back to the four months I lived in Oxford, England.

    I never shopped at Marks & Spencer when I was there because their food was much more expensive than the Sainsbury’s right down the road.

    I remember being most upset by the fact that I couldn’t find a box of macaroni and cheese (like Kraft) in any British grocery store. I was in college when I lived there, on very little money, and didn’t know how to cook, so macaroni and cheese was my best bet.

    I had to have my mom send me several boxes!

  14. January 3, 2010 11:50 am

    Kathy I love your France posts! The milk on the shelf? That’s the way it is in Honduras too… I just couldn’t get used to it. In my head cold things have to be cold and hot things have to be hot. Not a fan of vinaigrette dressing either… however the wine and cheese are both pluses for me! I would love to have the opportunity to visit France some day! 🙂

  15. January 3, 2010 12:02 pm

    We’ve always had to put in a quarter for a shopping cart at ShopRite in New Jersey – I’m amazed that this is strange elsewhere! It’s the same in the UK but I had just assumed it was the same everywhere. How funny. =) They’re very stingy with bags here too – many places charge you for them and you’re expected to bring your own reusable bag.

  16. January 3, 2010 12:27 pm

    I am loving your posts about life in France! I’ll bet you really had to change the foods you cooked to fit the foods that were available.

  17. January 3, 2010 12:38 pm

    I think that sounds really interesting… I wish there were fresh markets near where I live in NY (fresh markets are at least 20-30 minutes away- not exactly eco-friendly when you’re driving!).. I also wish wine was cheap here- I spen entirely too much on it 🙂

  18. January 3, 2010 12:39 pm

    If I ever do go to another country I believe the supermarket is one of the first places I’ll stop. The differences always astound me. I once won some candy from Germany that the person must have picked up from the gas station or something but I had never even heard of half of the stuff. Loved it all though!

  19. January 3, 2010 12:52 pm

    Kathy, great post. I just read it aloud to my daughter, who spent fall of 2008 on a semester in Paris, and she laughed out loud at the watermelon story. Her biggest travail was trying to find sauerkraut when preparing a Thanksgiving meal for her host family. You’ll be relieved to know that there are more cereals now — and that many include dark chocolate!
    p.s. You’ve made me hungry for Nutella.

  20. Esme permalink
    January 3, 2010 2:35 pm

    I am so envious of your life in France stories-A few years ago I thought of taking a leave of absence and going to Cordon Bleu-in Paris-and then I decided to start my own practice. Another time I rented an apartment in Paris only to have the couple in the middle of a nasty divorce and then husband had changed the locks. One day I will live there. For Christmas I asked my dad for an apartment in Paris-he initially did not hear me as he asked where we needed to go to get one. One day.

  21. January 3, 2010 2:55 pm

    Thank you for yet another another great story, Kathy. I so enjoy them and learn!

  22. January 3, 2010 4:10 pm

    Thanks for another great post about living in France. When my sister-in-law lived in London she shopped local markets almost every other day. The main reason was her very small refrigerator and no car. She only bought what she could carry.

  23. January 3, 2010 4:11 pm

    Kathy this is a great weekly feature of yours that I love to read. I have actually see some places with the chained carts.

    I am secretly going to admit that even I didn’t know what watermelon in french is LOL and I live in Quebec.

    Looking forward to your next story from France kathy. 🙂

  24. January 3, 2010 4:18 pm

    I’m really loving these posts- they are a window into a world where I have never been! Please keep doing them until you run out of things to say 🙂

  25. January 3, 2010 4:47 pm

    What a great story! How cool!

  26. January 3, 2010 4:48 pm

    I love these weekly posts and enjoy experiencing France through your eyes!!

  27. January 3, 2010 5:12 pm

    I hate to grocery shop as it is — that would be a nightmare for me! We have a discount grocery store here where you have to “pay” for usage of the cart.

  28. January 3, 2010 6:12 pm

    the only foreign country I have shopped for groceries in is Ireland..and of course they speak English. Well, usually.

    I love the butcher shops there and many small towns will have one. Some very interesting bits and pieces. Including rabbit, which is quite nice. ;-q
    But the supermarkets are fun too, to see what we have in common and what they have different.

  29. January 3, 2010 6:26 pm

    Grocery shopping in France sounds like a UNIQUE experience. It sure seems a lot easier and more one-stop shopping here in the US. Perhaps things have changed a bit by now –let’s hope so, the French don’t know what they are missing 🙂

  30. January 3, 2010 7:03 pm

    Très intéressant, Kathy!

  31. stacybuckeye permalink
    January 3, 2010 8:45 pm

    That whole not speaking another language thing is what causes me the most stress when travelling outside the country. I love our French tour 🙂

  32. January 3, 2010 8:45 pm

    Another interesting story of your life in France Kathy. I am enjoying your stories and sharing your experiences. It does remind me of my trips to Germany as their shopping is similar. It seems the bag issue is due to the focus on recycling. Europe was ahead of us in many environmental areas. As many have mentioned, Aldi’s here in the US is a German owned company and have the cart plan where you pay a quarter to use the cart and it pops out when you return it and hook it back to the other carts. No bags there either or you can buy them or bring your own.

  33. January 3, 2010 8:57 pm

    I love your stories of life in France. I learn something new with each post!

  34. January 3, 2010 9:37 pm

    I love this post. One of the things I missed when I was in Germany was visiting one of the local supermarkets. I find it fascinating to see where people buy food and how it differs from our huge super stores here in the U.S.

  35. January 3, 2010 9:42 pm

    I think I would have a hard time adjusting to the milk in a box.

  36. January 3, 2010 10:30 pm

    Never knew that about the grocery cart wheels…how about that?
    Nothing says culture shock more than the simple act of shopping for food, does it? Even the concept of “supermarket” differs, depending on where you are. Fascinating stuff, thanks!

  37. January 4, 2010 12:56 am

    I enjoyed reading this post, Kathy!
    You know, our supermarkets here have the same shopping carts policy and the weighing of certain produce too. 😉

  38. January 4, 2010 2:16 am

    You have to insert coin to use a cart? Well at least they return the coin.. But I guess, that was meant to organize the flow of usage on the carts?

    I believe, a shop or a grocery store has so much to say about the country. It’s weird though, but here in the PH, we never (not that I know any) had milk in bottles. It’s always in boxes.

    That cashier is maldita! It’s just a plastic anyway..

  39. January 4, 2010 7:21 am

    Just moving to Massachusetts from Kansas was a grocery-culture shock. They almost only sell brown eggs here and I couldn’t find Velveeta cheese. My very first time, a kid asked if I wanted a carriage (and in the New England accent.) I could NOT figure out what he was asking because to me it is a grocery-CART. Not that different but still! perhaps since I wasn’t expecting it to be so different of an experience…
    I love your France stories. One of my college friends moved to Belgium and we are so glad we were able to visit her.

  40. January 4, 2010 9:45 am

    I love these posts. Wow, that’s funny that you had to shout out in the grocery how to say watermelon! Fantastic. I’m happy to hear they answered you!

    what an interesting experience…in the Azores grocery shopping is going to one giant store that has clothes, shoes, pharmacy, and food. I think it is because it is a small island…though most people did shopping at the smaller farmer’s market for veggies and the bakery for bread.

  41. January 4, 2010 2:53 pm

    That watermelon story is priceless!

  42. January 4, 2010 4:40 pm

    Great story! I like reading about your life in France.

    How do you have the time to read all your books, write your great blog, and leave so many comments?

  43. January 4, 2010 5:56 pm

    It sounds as though buying things from the supermarket was more of an adventure in France than it would be here. I would love to visit one and see what kinds of strange things I could find in there! Though I can’t imagine what I would do if all of my favorite things were simply not there and I had to choose from so many new things. I still think it would be more fun for me, rather than the chore that grocery shopping has become.

  44. January 4, 2010 6:14 pm

    Shopping in France sounds a great deal like shopping in Rome! Or so I gather from my reading of Keeping the Feast. Loving these posts!

  45. January 4, 2010 8:11 pm

    So interesting. I love how so many aspects of life are so different than here in America. It must have made every day an adventure.

  46. January 4, 2010 9:40 pm

    This was so fun to read. It took me back to shopping off base in England when I was a child. I remember most fondly the row of potato chips in every sort of meat flavor one could imagine. I still miss the shrimp flavored ones which I have not found stateside.

  47. January 5, 2010 12:15 am

    Oh dear, that reminds me of my experience here. Shopping is almost like an adventure in a different country, isn’t it?

  48. January 5, 2010 7:30 pm

    That is so funny about the watermelon. I laughed out loud. I can just imagine the other shoppers thinking that you were some sort of nut – a grown woman who had never seen a watermelon before.

  49. January 6, 2010 3:23 pm

    Keep doing these posts – I love hearing about your time in France!!

  50. January 7, 2010 10:45 am

    I’m really enjoying these posts! Keep them coming!

    Having to weigh your own produce and print out the sticker reminds me of Wegman’s. I’ve only been there once, but I had a lot of fun with that.


  51. January 8, 2010 5:44 pm

    Another great post Kathy! We actually have several stores in Canada including some grocery stores that have their baskets chained. You pop in your money and the chain lets go. I can’t imagine not having a huge variety though, that part would drive me crazy. The wine and cheeses would be great though!

  52. January 12, 2010 1:58 pm

    I love, love, love these stories, Kathy! I experienced great culture shock at the supermarket when I moved from the East to the West – I can just imagine how “shocked” I’d be in another country! But see, now we all bring our own bags to the market, too.

  53. January 13, 2010 1:25 pm

    I am loving your France posts. I think supermarkets speak for the area that surrounds them, like lots of fresh fruits and veggies, people probably eat better. That kind of thing. They don’t typically have big kitchens either, do they? No need to store lots of food, no eating when not necessary? Very cool post 🙂

  54. Jennifer permalink
    June 24, 2010 11:27 pm

    What a wonderfull post, the differences are outstanding! But I live in Canada and here the supermarkets are quite similar. In most places you do have to pay for a cart, you pay by weight (Bulk foods, most fruits, some veggies), and as for bagging your items it varies by store. It sounds amazing out there in France and I would love to go sometime. I do know french so I would be alright but I always knew Watermelon as “Melon d’eau” so finding out that it is infact called Pasteque is very interesting!

  55. Lyna permalink
    August 22, 2010 7:58 am

    Great post, thanks for sharing your experience! I must say that the lack of variety in the grocery stores isn’t true at all. It’s quite the opposite compared to American stores. In Franc, they have 2,3 aisles of cheeses. The last grocery store I shopped had 4 aisles of yoghurts, puddings, plain yoghurts,etc. Aisles of sausages, pate, different meats. Here, what do you find? 4 varieties of yoghurts, sharp cheddar, medium cheddar an mild cheddar. That’s it. I miss my French grocery stores.

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