Supermarché 101

CLINK! I stare at the carts at the supermarché, or French supermarket, reusable bag in hand perplexed as to why the cart I’m grabbing won’t move. It’s only when a French man sidesteps me and grabs a rolling cart that I see the coin slot to unlock the American-sized chariot I’m used to. Following his lead, I take a rolling cart and marvel at the rows ahead, as I ready myself to experience the cultural feast.

While I can only speak to the French experience, I am sure that grocery shopping is the fastest way to find the art de vivre, or art of life, of your study abroad host city. For my first week, I went to our supermarché almost every day, each time learning more about the local customs and finding new tips I wish I would have had to start off. So, here are some cultural differences and tips for surviving the French supermarket.

“Everyone I have met so far has had the same experience of a frustrated cashier pointing to the back of the store and speaking in rapid French that c’est pas possible d’acheter!”

As I mentioned, rolling carts are the norm here, so don’t plan on buying five months of groceries in one trip. I’ve observed that most French people only buy 5-15 items at a time, most likely only enough to cook for a couple of days. Also, only buy what you can carry, as often you’ll have to walk back to your apartment.

For all my trips, I’ve gone in with a list which has both the English word and the French translation. I’ve found it helpful in case I have to ask the employees where items are located. Plus, it helps me learn new words.

Once in the store, take notice of the arrondisments. My store has a section labeled “bio,” which is where you will find the organics. I have found, like the United States, this section is a little more expensive but has more of the specialty items I buy back home, like soy milk and gluten free options. A cultural difference I noticed is that, as you can see in the left corner, the milk and eggs are unrefrigerated.

Next, you will find the boulangerie/patisserie section which carries breads and pastries. I would recommend skipping this section and buying these items at a specialty shop usually found on any street corner to get a more authentic and better tasting experience for around the same price.

Continuing in the maze, the fromagerie and the charcuterie (cheese and meat sections) are filled with many options. France is known for its cheeses but I’m far from an expert. So, I have been tasting and trying the ones that catch my eye. Cheeses that are too expensive in the states are around two euros here, so expand your palette and take risks!

Next to this, is usually the vegetable and fruit aisle. The French have their markets en plein air which are outdoor markets where fresh produce is sold, so a lot of supermarchés have a smaller selection of produce. I would recommend visiting the outdoor market for better tasting veggies, but if you do purchase at the supermarket do not forget to weigh your unpackaged items before you get to the check-out counter. Everyone I have met so far has had the same experience of a frustrated cashier pointing to the back of the store and speaking in rapid French that c’est pas possible d’acheter! (it is not possible to buy!) without the price sticker.

There are plenty more sections in the store, including the frozen food aisle, two full aisles of yogurt, and of course a lot of wine, but this adventure is something you can discover yourself.

At first, the store can seem a daunting chore, but if approached as a cultural excursion it can easily become the best part of your week, like it has for me.

Sarah Karver is a comparative international studies sophomore with a minor in French. She is studying spring semester in Reims, France.

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