Monday, October 12, 2015

10 Commandments of Shopping in France

One of the most intimidating things for me about being France is shopping. Not only is the language different, but the customs and etiquette are very different from the United States. My weak knowledge of the French language creates challenges, but the bigger challenge seems to me my poor understanding of French shopping customs and etiquette. I have garnered dirty looks more than once by touching the merchandise offered by a street vendor or walking through an empty checkout lane to exit a supermarket. Both are big "no-no's".

Food shopping seems to be a full-time occupation in France so it seems particularly important to get this aspect of the culture right. Perhaps it is because refrigerators are small and storage space is often limited in most French homes, but it seems to be a necessity for everybody to go food shopping much more frequently than in the United States. Furthermore, the French seem to believe that fresh, local food is worth the extra effort.

At our house, the day often starts with a short walk to one of the several neighborhood patisseries, where we purchase a plain croissant (Bronwyn), a chausson aux pommes (Rick) and a pain chocolat (Joanie). Later in the morning, we may go to a local street market, and for the staples it may be necessary to go to a supermarket. It is a rare day when we don't shop at 3 or 4 different places.
My fears about shopping were heightened by books and blogs that describe shopping as a battle between the shopper and the salesperson to demonstrate superiority. This line of writings emphasizes the need for the shopper to establish themselves as the master and the to make sure that the salesperson understands that their role is to do the master's bidding. That approach hasn't really worked for me. I've found that it works better to confess my ignorance of the language and local products and ask for the advice of the salespersons.  Hence, my ten commandments (or at least suggestions).


When you enter a French shop or approach a vendor in a market it seems to work best to try to get things off to a good start by saying "bonjour" and (to the extent my limited language abilities allow) exchanging pleasantries (in French). This is hard for me because I am embarrassed that I have such a limited ability to speak French, but my reluctance to speak is sometimes interpreted as arrogance.  It is considered rude to not greet the salesperson or vendor, and it will definitely get your relationship off to a bad start if you appear to ignore them.


We've learned that salespeople are much nicer and much more willing to be helpful if we confess our unworthiness (poor accent, lack of knowledge, etc.) and solicit the salesperson's advice at the very beginning of each transaction. If you ignore this step, you risk having the salesperson try to prove their superiority by humiliating you or dazzling you with their knowledge of their product.

My knowledge of the hundreds of cheeses and bewildering cuts of meet is even less than my knowledge of the French language so it is not hard for me to convince the vendor that I need their advice. Since most salespeople are very knowledgeable about their product, they usually are very helpful. I learn something almost every time I remember to ask the salesperson for advice. If you ask a vendor or salesperson to share their expertise they almost always become much friendlier. Another way to look at this is that you will get the salesperson's advice whether you solicit it or not so you might as will ask for it.

A corollary to this rule is that the customer is NOT always right. Salespeople are not hesitant to give you their negative opinions about your poor pronunciation, pathetic grammar or your choice of what you want to buy. As an example, the salesperson at a local patisserie seems upset that we have an still have American accent after a month in Angers. She seems to feel insulted that we can't meet her standards for pronouncing some basic words such as "un" (one), as in "un croissant" Thus, she makes a point of harshly criticizing our pronunciation. We are not sure how we got on the clerk's bad side, but it has prompted us to give extra care to how we treat the clerks.  Because ordering a croissant has become an unpleasant experience, we have cut back our consumption of morning pastries.



The best thing about shopping in France is the street markets.  Most urban neighborhoods seem to have at one or two open air markets per week, but on the days when there is not an open air market our neighborhood there is always another street market that is not too far away. The markets are easy to find, just follow the streams of people walking to and from the market with their shopping bags and carts.

If it is Thursday or Saturday morning we shop at the local street market in our neighborhood. There are also nearby street markets on every other day of the week, but we have not gotten to the point (yet) of going to a street market every day of the week. Vegetable vendors are on one side of the plaza; wine, cheese, fish and meat vendors are in the middle of the plaza and clothing vendors are on the other side of the plaza. We try to buy most of our vegetables and our fish at the local market.

The vegetable portion of the market in our neighborhood is divided into two rows - producers and middlemen. When you buy from a producer, you are buying directly from the farmer or artisan. Bronwyn swears that the vegetables are better and the vendors are more helpful if you buy from the producers. They also seem to have the longest lines. Fortunately, nobody knows more about the produce than the person who grew the produce. Similarly, when you are looking for the right cheese among the hundreds of French cheeses, why not talk to somebody who makes the cheese.


The etiquette of the market is different than in the United States. I have learned that you do not touch the produce. When it is your turn, you exchange pleasantries, ask for the vendor's advice about what he or she recommends for your next meal, and tell them what you want. The vendor picks out the items for you. If you failed to follow the first and second commandments, you are likely to get a bad selection. However, if you are nice, and if you tell the vendor when you will be serving the item, the vendor may pick an item that will be at the peak of ripeness at the moment that you eat it.

Describing the amount you want can be particularly tricky since we are unfamiliar with the units of measurement and not accustomed to specifying the amount we want.  (In the U.S., most items we purchase are prepackaged in standard sizes.)  In France, we generally tell the vendor how many people we are trying to feed rather than trying to guess at the weight we need. If we followed the first couple of commandments, we generally end up with exactly the right amount of food.


The shopping process (greetings, getting advice, selecting items, etc.) can take a long time, but one of the great things about France is that when a salesperson or vendor is serving you, they are willing to give you all the time in the world, no matter how many people are waiting in line behind you. If anything, the vendor seems proud of having a long line at his stand. Of course, this can be frustrating when you are at the back of the line and you hear basically the same pleasantries exchanged numerous times in front of you.


The vendors are probably right to encourage long lines because we have been advised to go to the vendors with the longest lines. Presumably, the existence of a long line is an indication that a lot of people like the product from that vendor and that they like the product so much that they are willing to wait in a long line to get it.


Another rule of shopping in France is that you almost always need to bring your own shopping bags. In general, the merchant does not provide you with paper or plastic bags for your merchandise. If you show up without a shopping bag, the merchant will ask you if you want a bag and then charge you for the bag. This means that, unlike the United States, there are not discarded plastic bags blowing in the wind and clogging up the streams.

A corollary of the shopping bag rule is that when you are buying eggs at the market, you need to bring your own egg cartons ... or figure out how to carry 12 loose eggs home without  breaking them. (We've been unsuccessful in getting all the eggs home intact if we forget our carton.)

Although there are street markets everywhere, France also has its share of supermarkets and hypermarkets. One of the interesting things about the supermarkets and hypermarkets is the allocation of space in the stores. Generally, there is one half of an aisle just for chocolate. There will be two or three aisles for wine and hard liquor. Cheese also occupies a lot of space. There is often one side of an aisle full of unrefrigerated cartons of milk. If you are looking for refrigerated milk, you will need to carefully search the store for a 2-foot wide refrigerated display case with tiny containers of cold milk.


Woe to the person who needs to use the bathroom when they are in a French supermarket, hypermarket or department store. In general, there are not bathrooms available for the use of customers. If you ask, they will look at you like you are crazy and claim that there are no bathrooms in the store. If you are lucky, they might give you vague directions to a dirty public bathroom on the street.


Getting out of the supermarkets and hypermarkets without making a purchase can be a challenge (particularly if you need to go to the bathroom). If you fail to make a purchase, you will be sternly chastised and told to go back into the store if you try to exit through an empty checkout lane or slip out through the entrance. Although there are often large signs telling you where you should NOT exit, finding the "sortie sans achat" (exit without purchase) can be a challenge. You need to search for a carefully hidden narrow lane with a gate that says "sans achat" (without purchase), which is usually under the watchful eye of the manager or security guard who will scowl at you as you make the walk of shame. On the day that I took the picture on the left, the "sans achat" exit was blocked with displays and sealed closed with plastic zip ties. Nonetheless, the security guards would not allow me to exit through the entrance. Finally, a customer checking out and a kind cashier, seeing my confusion, took pity on me and allowed me to exit through a checkout lane.

Don't exit through any of these gates
Older department stores and other large stores also have their own unique customs. Some stores require that you get a ticket for what you want to purchase from the salesclerk, then take the ticket to a cashier, and then bring the ticket back to the sales clerk (with a notation that you've paid) to pick up your merchandise. This can really slow things down because you generally end up waiting in three lines.


Finally, one unpleasant aspect of shopping in France is that we have been short-changed in France much more than anyplace else we have traveled in Europe. It is unclear whether we are being short-changed because we are Americans or whether this is something that is done to all non-regular customers. Usually, when we bring the "error" to the attention of the clerk, the problem is corrected immediately but in some cases we have had had to argue strenuously to get the proper change. Based on the number of comments on expat websites and blogs, we do not seem to be the only people getting short-changed. Some people seem to regard short-changing strangers as simply a standard business practice and others seem to think that it is reserved for seemingly rich Americans. Regardless of the reason, we have learned to count our change carefully and be prepared to stand up for our rights.

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