Moving to a new country for a semester came with many challenges. Many of these were things I was aware of before moving to France, for example: different wall outlets, the language barrier, the public transportation learning curve, etc. But, one thing I never really thought about being a challenge was grocery shopping. I chose to live in an apartment with other international students in my program rather than living with a host family. This meant that I would be responsible for cooking my own meals, among many other things. I grocery shop and cook for myself on a regular basis in Charleston so I thought: how hard could it be? After my first trip to “un hypermarché”, I immediately thought what on earth have I gotten myself into?
In France, there are a variety of options for grocery shopping. You can stop at “le marché” which is the farmer’s market, “le fromagerie” where I discovered more types of cheese than I ever thought existed, and of course “le boulangerie” where you can get a fresh baguette or any other baked goods. However, if you would prefer to buy all of your groceries at one place and at the best prices rather than bouncing around to the cheese shop, the bakery, the butcher, the farmers market and so on, you can go to “un hypermarché”. At a hypermarket, you can find literally anything you need whether it’s slippers, chocolate, fresh produce, or a frozen pizza. This is great because it’s like a one stop shop. However, if you walk into “un hypermarché” on your second day in France, extremely jet-lagged and nowhere near fluent in French, you might just want to cry a little bit.
I had no idea that I was walking into a hypermarket, I simply used my phone to route myself to the nearest grocery store. Little did I know my closest grocery store was about 3 times the size and intensity of a Wal-Mart on the day before Thanksgiving. On top of this, absolutely nothing around me was written in English and not a single person in the store was speaking English. Of course, this was expected, but no matter how much you prepare, language immersion is extremely overwhelming.
Believe it or not, this hypermarket really grew on me over the semester and grocery shopping eventually became one of my favorite things to do. After I learned my way around the hypermarket, I started to appreciate the differences between grocery shopping at home and grocery shopping in France. I learned that you need to weigh your produce and print out a sticker for it before heading to checkout.
At first, I saw this as an extra step that was rather annoying, but it turned out to be very helpful. I was able to gauge how much produce I should get based on the price. And on that subject, I also enjoyed weighing my produce because every time the price ticket would print out, I was always shocked at how affordable it was! Other than avocados and some other exotic fruits and veggies that I learned to live without, most of the produce at the hypermarket was sourced from the closest locations possible and the price reflected that. I learned to eat produce that was in season because, if something wasn’t in season, it was either not available at the hypermarket or more expensive because it was sourced from somewhere farther away. Meanwhile, in America, produce that is not in season all year round is generally still available all year round at commercial grocery stores and usually far more expensive because it is sourced from wherever it is available.
Not only was the produce cheaper than at home, but pretty much everything was cheaper. I was like a kid in a candy shop every time I went to the grocery store. My roommate and I were regularly able to buy a week’s worth of groceries for the two of us for around 30 euros. And we weren’t buying ramen and frozen pizzas; we were buying fresh produce and meat and amazing cheeses and freshly baked bread! The hypermarket even had a sushi chef that made fresh sushi rolls every day. I was in heaven. Also, I loved the shopping carts. I don’t have an explanation for my affinity for these amazing things. But just check out the photo and tell me that’s not the coolest thing ever. I want these in America.
Some other aspects about grocery shopping in France were things that I had to learn to love. For example, about 9 times out of 10, the line at the hypermarket was 20+ customers long. Coming from the states, where everyone’s a hurry, no one has time to wait, and everyone demands prompt perfect service, my natural reaction to the long lines was severe frustration. Over time, however, I learned to only go to the grocery store when I had ample time. Then, standing in line wasn’t bad. It was a time to people watch, scan the items in your basket to make sure you aren’t forgetting anything, and, when shopping with a friend, it was time to chat! It is actually very hard to anger someone in the checkout line in France, and I can’t say the same for America. On my first trip, I waited in line for about 15 minutes only to be told I had to go weigh my produce while everyone behind me waited. This immediately made me anxious as I feared wasting the time of everyone in behind me. However, to my surprise, not a single person expressed frustration. No one was in a hurry, and everyone could tell it was my first time in a French grocery store thus they were very understanding.
Now, I find myself nervous to go back to a grocery store in America. “Le Hypermarché” is one of my hardest goodbyes as I leave France.