Why supporting traditional French shopping is in your own best interest

The traditional French store is a little mom-and-pop operation.  A French neighborhood will have a boulangerie, where you get your bread; a patisserie, where you buy your pastries; a fromagerie, for cheese; a fruit and vegetable stand; a wine shop; a butcher…you get the idea.  Parisian kitchens are pretty small, without much storage space, so you go grocery-shopping pretty frequently, and make lots of small purchases at the local shops.

As in most places, the supermarket appeared quite a while ago in France.  In Paris, it’s most often a Monoprix.  You can find pretty much everything you need there, and not just food, but clothes, school supplies, on and on.  I go to the Monoprix once or twice a week, as there are a few things that I don’t know where else to buy–the giant 0.78 kilo jars of Nutella, for instance, or giant jars of cassoulet.  It’s convenient in terms of having everything under one roof, but: it is a miserable experience.  Shopping in a Parisian supermarket is a blood sport: you stand in line at the deli counter (if that’s the right word for the part of the store where you buy deli meats, but also grilled cuttlefish, duck Spam, blood sausages…and let’s agree to forget the time that I almost found myself in the middle of a fight in the deli line, when I suddenly realized that the British tourist for whom I was mindlessly translating was deliberately egging on a pissed-off French family man), you shuffle with hordes of other people through the coffee aisle, and finally…endless, endless lines for the cash register.  I now know why Parisians always look so glum–they’re exhausted from standing in line at the Monoprix.

There’s a way out of the hell of supermarket checkout lines: shop at the little mom-and-pop specialty stores that dot your neighborhood.  Go to my little fruit and vegetable stand across the street, where the seller will ask you when you’re going to eat his produce and then give you an assortment of more- and less-ripe things meant to last until you come visit her again.  (Sorry for the gender confusion–they’re a couple, and I’m too scatter-brained from sleep deprivation to fix this.)  Walk to the next subway stop to go to the cheese shop, where you can ask for a recommendation of a seasonal cheese and be offered a taste of something in season from a guy who actually does know what cheeses are in season.  Go to the little bakery on the corner, where the lady at the counter will very kindly correct your pronunciation of champêtre at no extra charge.  As soon as I figure out where else to buy giant things of Nutella and cassoulet-in-a-jar, I’ll be done with Monoprix for good.

Some words that came up in the course of buying my very in-season beaufort:

jadis: formerly; in olden days; long ago.  Fabriqué en Savoie et en Haute-Savoie, le beaufort est un fromage de garde, dont l’origine historique est liée aux grandes difficultés de communication qui caractérisaient jadis les régions montagneuses durant l’hiver.  (Note that no one has ever been able to tell me what a fromage de garde is.)

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