The funny thing about French grocery stores

Intermarche declares 1600 stores Anti-Expensive Life zones

To all my fellow adventurers who are living in a foreign country and getting around and starting to conquer the language and feeling pretty smug as you walk out of your flats and into the street, jingling the keys to your foreign apartment just in case any tourists are passing: this post is for you.  If you ever feel that you might be getting a little too smug too fast, I have found the cure, and it’s name is Intermarché.

This afternoon I walked out the door with a recipe in mind, euros in my wallet, and a grocery list in my (Longchamp = French) bag.  It was a great day, even if a little chilly, and I had a real spring in my step for no reason in particular.  As I crossed over the Seine a high school aged girl sitting on the other side of the bridge waved at a passing camion, then glanced my way. When we heard the “beep beep” of the truck driver we smiled at each other: success.  I thought for a moment of my brother and I trying to get passing trucks to honk on the highway, pumping our arms up and down like crazy for five seconds and then wait…wait…beep! beep! Success!  Some things don’t change, no matter what country you’re in…at any rate, there was a certain satisfaction in the bond this girl and I shared, if only for the moment on the bridge.  She didn’t know I’m American. We didn’t exchange a word.  But we shared a smile and the simple pleasure of her successful sign language with the truck driver. It made me kind of proud.

But I tell you what.  Just as soon as you start feeling proud, you better walk right down the street to the Intermarché.

And that’s just what I did.  (Well, I was going there anyway, wasn’t I?)  I walked right through those sliding glass doors like a true French woman.

Then, I promptly made it 100% obvious how foreign I am.

I got through most of my list with no problems. I’ve been shopping in France before.  But you know what? I have never bought sugar in France.  I know this with positive certainty because I would never, ever look for sugar where they put sugar in French supermarkets.  So, when I came to it on my list, I went right where an American would go: to the baking aisle.  I saw flour, I saw chocolate, I saw pudding.  I did not see sugar. Oh well, I thought after two minutes of staring at the flour, wondering if maybe a bag of sugar was hidden there. I’ll come back later. So I did.  I finished picking up the other things on my list and I returned to the same aisle.  Guess what? Still no sugar.

I circled the aisle, hoping the sugar stock had overflowed to another side. Nope. Do they not bake with sugar in France? Impossible. Maybe it’s in the foreign food aisle. Yes, I even checked there. It was nowhere to be found among the soy sauce and miso soup.  Oh! I know! It’s with the cookies! (How stupid that I didn’t think of that before!) But it wasn’t there either.

I circled. And circled again.  I started not only to recognize the same products, but also the same faces.  In my confusion, I was passing the same people over and over again, but I was so frustrated I couldn’t even register embarrassment. Finally, I grew desperate.  I spotted a nice looking woman and watched her head from the spice aisle to the baking aisle…and I followed her.  I gave the aisle one last glance-over, so as not to make it entirely obvious I had stalked the woman from the other aisle.  Then I scrunched my eyebrows and caught the woman’s attention and I pleaded.

“Madame, est-ce que vous savez où se trouve le sucre, s’il vous plait?”

Bien sûr.” (Why did she have to begin with “of course”? As if everyone knows where the sugar is.) “Juste là-bas, à côté des œufs.”

Just over there? Beside the eggs?

I can’t even remember if in my surprise I said merci.  The one place I hadn’t looked was the refrigerated section of the store.  (Can you blame me?) But, just as the woman said, right by the eggs was the sugar. I went over, snatched it up, and left the store completely aware of my Americanism.

Un oeuf

Le sucre

They say you learn something new every day.  Today I learned that in France, eggs and sugar go together — as Forest Gump would say —  like peas and carrots.

A pea and a carrot


Filed under Chatillon-sur-Seine, Laugh it off, Recipes/Cooking

13 responses to “The funny thing about French grocery stores

  1. I know when I went to Germany it was the same thing. I LOVED going to the grocery store and seeing the differences in products, and how they were promoted. And, it was humbling….even for someone who didn’t speak the language. (You know I try but know very little) There was something really funny about their mayonnaise, but I can’t remember now what it was. I just know Kathleen and I about laughed our heads off…..

    Very fun post!

  2. Melie the french sister ...

    Don’t worry Em, only people born in Chatillon sur Seine are supposed to know that !!! but they obtained what they wanted … you went through the entire supermarket … did you bought things that were not on your list ?

  3. I’ve just discovered your blog and I’m loving it! As an ‘Anglaise’ in France, even though I’ve been coming here for 30-odd years, it never fails to intrigue me. I still can’t find chillis. Maybe it’s different in Paris, but I can only find those stupid big ones that haven’t got any fire in them at all. How can they pretend to like Thai and Vietnamese food without chillis??!

    And, ridiculously, living in amongst fields of sweetcorn in the Charente, I can find neither frozen nor fresh sweetcorn in the supermarket or at the market. It’s weird.

    Little absurdities that make me smile. I do love how you can get a good bottle of wine for three euros. I don’t love how you can buy horsemeat.

    • So true, Justine. I was just talking about the horsemeat thing today — and it probably is the only real thing that bothers me about the supermarkets/cuisine here. Thank you for reading my blog, and for loving it! 🙂 I haven’t had the same problem with chilis, but that’s only because I haven’t developed my cooking skills enough yet!

  4. Mickael

    aaarrrrgg, what was the recipe by the end ? I want to know !

    See you soon… sugar 🙂

  5. maryanita

    Love your image of passing the girl on the bridge and the honking horn truck driver! You make it come to life for us here in Kentucky. Keep writing, love your blog….. miss you.

  6. palmer

    I learned something new…. a)you do crunches to the likes of Dr. Dre b) you are still a little redneck and c) sugar is sold next to the eggs… I LOVE IT!!

  7. Jack Tanner

    Delightful! Love the images too, both photographic and literary! Yes literary…those imaginay places you take me when I can’t actually go along…Sharing the experience this way is better than not sharing at all. Have fun!

  8. Jenny

    I was proud of myself just for FINDING the Carrefour yesterday! You’d think it would have been easier to find one of the only 2 stores that are probably that large (the other being the Ikea, of course) but my first trip for groceries was certainly an adventure. This post was too funny; I laughed out loud. But good to know… I was just thinking this morning that I forgot to buy sugar for my tea!

    • Thanks, Jenny! I’m so excited that we are both here. I assume if you went to buy groceries you have found a place to call home. Congrats! Let’s keep in touch and meet up soon — after we get the hang of our school responsibilities (which shouldn’t take too long, of course!). Bisous!

  9. Deirdre

    Emily, your intermarché is crazy! here in the alpes the sugar is right next to the flour. 🙂

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