Faire les courses: Grocery Shopping in France

I’ve kind of come to hate grocery shopping here. The more involved, personal interactions that feel missing in the U.S. sometimes feel way too personal on days when I’m sick, don’t feel like wearing makeup, or just want to be anonymous.

I have not chosen an anonymous life. That’s not to say I’m the Ron Burgundy of Tarbes, far from it. But in Toulouse, you have the anonymity of the big city, and anglophones and internationals are a dime a dozen. Here in Tarbes, my local grocer definitely knows who I am, and I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m super weird.

Let me back up. There is an overpriced, neighborhood grocery store about… 30-50 paces from my apartment. It’s run by a husband and wife team, and sometimes their middle-school-age daughter is there, too.

So if I need a quick stock up to hold me over until I can go to a better store that’s farther away, I pretty much have to go there. Especially if I’ve been sick as a dog for over a week 😦

But even when I can go to the giant supermarket E.Leclerc, I get to be anonymous and have low prices, but then I have to deal with all the people.

I have lived in France for almost three years (this time, nearly five years if you count the other times I’ve lived here), but I am STILL not used to the way French people grocery shop. It is something we take utterly for granted: personal space and expectations of how people accommodate your moving through a space.

Generally speaking, French people will NOT wait for you to finish looking at an item or even to get all of an item (say apples) off a shelf before they stand right next to you or basically on top of you to get what they need, sometimes interrupting what you’re doing to get their item. This unnerves me every time. It’s really not personal, and it is what they are used to, but so help me, my American-ness kicks in and gets all riled up.

Part of this may relate to how they direct the flow of traffic on the road: In France, through traffic is often expected and/ or given signage to make them yield to turning traffic. In the States, he who goeth straight hath the right of way unless there is an exceedingly strange road configuration. Period. End of Story. But my husband and I kept noticing through traffic on a major street coming to a complete stop for us when we were trying to make a right turn onto the road.

Anyway, back to the grocery store. So personal space is definitely smaller here, and French people do yielding backwards, so the person who’s already doing something for longer is expected to halt and allow the person just trying to break in to do his thing before continuing on her marry way. Fine. But then we get to how they look at items on the shelves. I’m used to being out of the way if I stand closer to a display. Normally, the person will look at the items and easily walk past me. Not so here.

People tend to look at the items close up, so while I’m trying to do what was helpful in the past, I’m really in the way here. Part of that is because French people don’t follow the rules I’m used to. They walk with purpose and in a straight line as if they will not be stopping, making it impossible for me to know if they are “just passing through” the aisle or if they are about to stop to pick up an item, which usually is what happens, and I am in their way.

Result: I feel like I’m in the way everywhere in the grocery store! Maybe one day I will figure out where to walk or stand in the big supermarket, but that has not happened, yet.

On the positive side, the ingredients lists are SUPER short here compared to the States, and that is for over 90% of non-organic items that are at relatively low prices. Also, I really like that you will rarely (read never) find grocery carts strewn about the parking lot because you deposit a coin to free up your cart and have to return it to have the money back in your pocket.

Also, the ample selection of wines at basically any grocery store is pretty fantastic as are the baguettes you can finish baking in your own oven at home 😀



2 thoughts on “Faire les courses: Grocery Shopping in France

  1. Pingback: Freedom in Laundry | The French Paradox

  2. hahaha I loved this post! Grocery shopping in France is similar to Spain. Here people often abandon their carts to go look at something/get something. At first it was annoying but now I just do the same (if I can fight the urge to keep my cart with me). When I lived in a smaller city, it took me a while to understand why everyone looked so nice on the street all the time and then I realized that you always see the same people. If you go to the grocery store without makeup on or in your sweats, people are going to talk! hahaha

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