Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Hour of Baguettes

Apparently, it is a holiday in France. We are too new here to know what holiday it is, but I could tell it was a holiday because while I was in the middle of doing my shopping at 1:00 in the afternoon, the nice supermarket people started closing the big metal doors at the front of the shop and made some sort of announcement. They said something about closing in 15 (or 5, or perhaps 2) minutes. Alert and therefore anxious as ever, I had noticed as the store had emptied of customers, although there were still some calmish English people leisurely deciding which of several lettuces to purchase. I took courage from them until the unintelligible announcement, then I panicked and headed for the checkout counter. Without garlic. Without onions. Without sunscreen. Without baguettes, for god’s sake. (all the bread was completely cleared out by noon, bien sur.)

At the counter, I was quite pleased by my successes: fruited yogurt for the kids, as requested, several different kinds of meat, and cheeses that would make them drool back at the Park Slope Food Coop. A strawberry tart that would wow them at dinnertime, made of about 6 ingredients (unlike the tarts made of 28 back at home.) So what that I couldn’t find the garlic and onions, or even the sunscreen. I had driven to a strange town and found a supermarket (with the help of several large and nicely placed signs, of course.) I had used a weird kind of shopping cart that required me to insert a Euro. I hadn’t managed to shop the truly French way (in the morning, in tiny little amounts, at a true outdoor market) but I had done my American best at providing for my hungry and deserving little family.

But then the nice lady said something disapproving about my vegetables. She held up then started in on the zucchini with a bizarre collection of syllables. I just raised my arms up, smiled foolishly and shrugged my shoulders as cutely as I could. She immediately understood my idiocy, but then repeated the same unintelligible phrases about the lemon, and the lettuce.

At first I thought perhaps I was supposed to have bagged them. “Un sac?” I asked, again cutely, but I got a strange look in return. Maybe I had used the masculine instead of the feminine, said something like “Mr. Bagglesworth” rather than “Ms. Bagley.” Maybe “sac” was a dirty word. She called over another nice lady who started to take them all away; since it was clearly after the 15 or 5 or 2 minutes I had already squandered, I was now on borrowed time, and I could accept the removal of my unbagged vegetables.

She punished me by refusing to produce any shopping bags whatsoever, presumably because of my fatal error with the vegetables. I had been through the humiliation of shopping without bags once before, and thought I would be OK because I had brought along two bags and a backpack in which to pack my groceries. But when I ran out of space and started just throwing things back in my cart, she took no pity on me. (I will add, at this moment of my sad tale, that the tall thin brunette at the next aisle was receiving not one, but two shopping bags from her checkout ladies, and she had hardly any groceries whatsoever.)

However, then I looked up to see that my vegetables were being returned to me, with the genuine smile of someone who has done a good deed for someone pathetic. I realized suddenly that the nice lady was going to go weigh the vegetables for me. The nice lady that she called over had not stolen the vegetables, but rather weighed and labeled them for me. It was not “le sac,” but “le scale,” that I had missed, and I said “le scale” in a grateful way and mimed a little bit of weighing, knowing full well that adding “le” to an English word rarely works.

This suddenly very nice lady brought over zucchini, which now were “courgettes,” with the proper weight affixed. Same with the lettuce, and even the cabbage. Apparently the poor girl’s counter was without the automatic scale that even the stupidest American grocery installs in every checkout lane. I was the slothful shopper who had not done my prep work. I was then duly and doubly sorry, having realized my mistake, but again did nothing but shrug cutely. “Je suis desolee,” I tried then, quoting the only phrase that Grace seemed to have learned during two weeks of expensive French camp. I was, in fact, sorry, but not so much sorry that I had not weighed my vegetables, but sorry to be me with my very sorry skills.

I paid (MasterCard speaks French) and left the store. My cart had the wonkiest wheel ever. (Some things translate directly, like shopping carts with stupid wheels.) My feet kept slipping liquidly in my extremely sweaty shoes. As I stood beside my car transferring not bags of groceries, but individual items, (carrots with their tops, a glass jar of cornichons, Dijon mustard, an avocado) the store closed for real and for good, perhaps glad to be done with the likes of me so early in the day. Happy Stupid French Holiday to you, too.

As I was about to give up hope on my failed self, the tall brunette who had been on the receiving end of all those free shopping bags came up quietly behind my Renault. “Excuse me,” she said gently, in lovely accented English, “But I believe you forgot your lemon.” The lemon, huge and sunshine yellow, had been affixed with a pink sticker naming it “citron.” For a moment I could not believe my luck, or even believe that I had even paid for le citron. But someone had weighed it, someone kind had decided I could have it, and someone had even delivered it to me, even though I had not had the presence of mind to get it out of the store myself.

We learned months ago during the visa process that France is not free. It is not a gift granted you on the basis of your own desire to be there. It is no Caribbean vacation, despite the boiling hot temperature or the size of the women’s bikinis. There are rules upon regulations upon laws that are nothing like guidelines, and you really were supposed to have known them already. In a homogeneous and rightfully self-satisfied society, everyone who is worth anything knows the rules, and there is no need to repeat them.

But today, I saw the flip side of all that I had to earn. The French self-satisfaction is not a castle built on the sand, but a medieval fortification of well-placed and carefully carved stone upon stone upon stone. Although I simply could not possibly deserve their beneficence, and bounty, the French people grew me some peaches, bottled me white and red wine, made me a strawberry tart, weighed my vegetables despite my failure to do it myself, and gave me a sunshine of a lemon. I had been weighed and judged and found wanting, a good Samaritan of vegetables had taught me my lessons of scales and bags. On my honor I certainly would not make that error again, and would not sleep through the hour of baguettes ever again. Le citron was all I could have asked for, and certainly more than I needed.

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