Food shopping in another country, in another language, is an exercise in hunger and humiliation. You see what you want, it whets your appetite, and how you speak gets you something other than what you think you’d asked for. During my first months in Paris, I forged ahead regardless of how little I knew.
Luckily, at supermarkets, such as the Monoprix around the corner from the apartment in the 14th arrondissement where I spent the first four months of my initial stay in Paris, I didn’t have to engage so much with the locals. Though I did quickly learn to nod no when the cashier asked me if I had my fidelity card (“Avez-vous votre carte de fidélité?). I like browsing supermarkets in different countries, to get a sense of what people actually eat (rather than what food writers claim they eat). I’d worked for a supermarket industry trade magazine for a few years, and had seen all sorts of different ones across the U.S. and Canada, marveling at the space of those outside of New York, and at the regional items they carried state by state.
I didn’t expect much in Paris, in terms of the size of the supermarket, but I was delighted at the range of products that showed local – that is, French – preferences. You could buy tubs of crème fraîche everywhere, costing from €1 to €2 euros (you can find small tubs of crème fraîche that cost five times as much in New York). In France, a dairy-producing country, crème fraîche is as widespread as sour cream is in the U.S. (they’re somewhat related, but different). And like a true French gourmand, I quickly learned to work crème fraîche into much of my cooking.
You could buy really good dried pasta, although the shapes were limited to farfalle, penne and spaghetti (the French don’t think much about pairing pasta shapes with different sauces – for many of them, a sauce is either tomato, bottled Bolognese or some crème fraîche stirred into the pasta before serving).
You could treat yourself to excellent olive oils at reasonable prices. You could work your way through regional sausages with unpronounceable place names without repeating yourself over the course of a month. And you could, of course, sample dozens of different French cheeses (the selection was predominantly French; the only international nod usually being parmesan and mozzarella).
But because part of my goal in living in France was – and is – to broaden my horizons, I wanted to shop at the celebrated open-air markets, or marchés, that run in most neighborhoods one or two times a week.
Twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, on the rue Boulard, near my apartment, a small marché did business on the Place Jacques-Démy. On Monday and Thursday evenings, a team of city employees would set up the awnings that delineated each vendor’s space, and around 7 a.m. on Tuesday and Friday, the sellers would arrange their stalls. The same city open-air-market specialists would break down the tents after about 2 p.m. on the day of the market (most run from 8 a.m. to about 1 p.m.).
My first stroll through the aisles of this marché left me wide-eyed. It was as if I’d never set foot at Manhattan’s Union Square greenmarket, or seen something as humble as leeks laid out so lovingly. And like a lot of newcomers in sudden thrall to a profusion of fruits and vegetables and meats and fish on display, I overbought, sometimes because I couldn’t gauge exactly how much something might weigh.
I’d been told by friends who’d lived in France a while not to handle the fruits and vegetables myself – but to ask the vendor, or maraîcher (truck farmer), for the quantity I’d desired. For this provincial American, that also meant converting ounces and pounds into grams and kilograms. So I usually asked for twice as much as I needed.
I would prepare for each little open-air market shopping trip by boning up on the vocabulary of fruits and vegetables and the phrases with which to request a morceau of bread, a tranche of cheese or un peu de fraises but, more important, I listened to other shoppers ask for things before I ventured on an order.
Old ladies – or women of a certain age – were particularly useful to me, since they spoke distinctly, sometimes loudly, usually slowly and, I learned, they asked for the teeniest amount or quantity of something. And so I tried to imitate what they said, but nevertheless upped the amount of what they’d asked for by too much, still fairly ignorant regarding metric weights.
Often I simply nodded when one of the vendors filled a paper bag with mushrooms or strawberries or green beans. He’d ask me if that was a good amount, and I’d nod a yes even though I knew I couldn’t ever finish what was being sold to me, but not wanting to appear stupider or even more foreign than I evidently was.
But I also quickly learned to respond to their, “Vous desirez quelque chose d’autre?” With a, “C’est tout, merci,” before I ended up spending more euros than I carried.