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How To Feel Culture Shock While Standing in Line at a French Grocer

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Ruminations of an American spending a year abroad in France.

Since my wife was busy with end of the semester grading, I volunteered to do a little shopping. I made the mistake of going to Auchan on a Saturday afternoon. This is a store very similar to a super Wal-mart, it’s got everything. It was absolutely packed. People everywhere looking for food, drinks, magazines, car parts, and everything else imaginable.

Shopping in France is always interesting for me, even on a good day. You try reading the ingredients on the back of a package when you don’t understand the language it’s written in, and see where you get. Luckily, today I had a small list and most of the items were pretty obvious. Although I spent 20 minutes looking at vacuum bags before giving up and moving on. Unlike most Wal-marts I have ever been in, Auchan actually had all of their check out aisles open. But there were still a million people in each aisle with shopping carts loaded full. I took my place in a relatively short line full of people with only 10 or 11 items versus the 50 or 60 items per person in the other aisles.

Quickly another lady joins my line behind me. She puts her bags down behind my basket on the floor and says something. I have learned to basically ignore everyone here versus being pulled into a conversations I can’t possibly understand, or respond to with any sense. Normally this procedure works because I can briskly walk away from whomever, and be on my way without any embarrassment or misunderstanding.

But this time I was stuck in a slow moving line and had to attempt comprehension. All I could understand from her smiling lips was “vert,” the French word for green. I quickly ran through a list of questions that could possibly contain the word green. I came up with none. Sensing I didn’t understand, the lady asked me again, this time kneeling towards her bags on the floor and pointing at my basket. Was she asking me if she could use my basket? What kind of nut ball question is that? And besides my basket is most definitely red and the French word for red (rouge) sounds nothing like green.

Finally after failing to understand this poor woman’s question three times, I explained in my best French, that I didn’t understand what she was asking and spoke very little French. She smiled and proceeded to walk up to the cashier. After a quick conversation that I couldn’t hear, the lady leaned under the cashier’s counter and picked up a green basket. She smiled to the customer nearest the counter as she lifted the green basket up for him to see. As this was the answer they had all been looking for.

There are generally empty baskets laying under the counters in French markets. You pick a basket up when you walk in, fill it with your goods, and then empty the basket when you check out. Why in the world was this crazy woman asking me about the green basket? Am I the keeper of the baskets? Why does she need a basket now? We’re at the checkout counter. Surely she could keep track of her bags for a few more minutes. Presumably, she has lugged them across the store basketless, so why get one now when she’s ready to check out? The remainder of the time I waited in line, this woman continued to wander to nearby checkout aisles and browse their goods. She could not stand still. One minute she was on my left looking at candy. The next she was on the right checking out a mirror.

As I finally reached the check out counter I lifted my red basket off the ground so that I could begin placing my items on the conveyer belt. No sooner than I had grabbed my bag of corn chips did I realize there was a snag in my plan. There was a small boy lying half his body across the conveyer belt. One can only assume his mother had been dragging him all day from store to store, while she shopped for goods, and he became exhausted. I thought I would give him a hint and began piling my chips next to his head.

Any normal, self-conscience lad, I thought, would understand my need to empty the red basket, and move off the belt designed for groceries, and not little boy’s heads. But no, the boys head stayed. Now the mother of conveyer belt-boy begins leaning over the boy, and my corn chips, to check out some phone cards. Why she could not have perused these cards during the 10 minutes she was standing directly in front of them, nobody knows. But now that I am holding my increasingly heavy, red basket, her son is laying his head on the belt, and my chips are resting gently nearby, she has decided that phone cards could definitely be a purchase. Several minutes pass like this until she has decided to actually move around me and give those phone cards a good look-over.

By this point I’m seeing red and don’t notice if the lady actually purchases the cards or not. What I do see is the line moving forward. Boy lifts his head off the conveyer belt and I am able to lay my goods down. Suddenly boy becomes frightened. There are several of the divider sticks laying near the cashier. These sticks are designed to maintain dividing points between each customer’s groceries, lest the cashier get confused and charge my corn chips to someone else. There are several of these sticks laying near the cashier, but they are too far up the line to be grabbed by the boy. Boy is so frightened that my goods and his mother’s may mix that he sticks his full right arm in between them.

Excitedly, girlishly, he chatters to his mother about this problem. She seems to understand but is helpless to solve the matter. Meanwhile crazy lady behind me begins stacking her groceries right on top of mine. I push my goods closer to the boy’s arm, but crazy lady keeps piling them right up on me. Feeling the boy’s pain I point my stare of hatred towards the cashier who is hoarding all the dividing sticks. “Why don’t you push those down here?” my mind asks. Can’t you see the problems your causing?

Finally, my turn arrives. “Bonjour,” I say as I sack and pay for my goods before leaving with a final “Au revoir.” Relieved that it is all over, I pack my sacks into my back pack and head for the tram.

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About Mat Brewster

  • Perhaps in French, “vert” has more than one connotation (as “green” does in English). Thanks for the look at cross-cultural connections, Mat!

  • As I recall “vert” is also used for “fresh” or “raw” in some contexts, but there are a number of French words which sound a lot like it such as “vers” (about/towards) and “ver” (worm). At least she didn’t tell you to “allez vers la ver vert”.

    That said, it sounds like the French were up to their usual fine behavior. The checkout line sounds exactly as organized as their defense of Paris in WWII.


  • alienboy

    Shock Horror! English speaker suffers cultural confusion in non-English speaking country despite not equipping themselves appropriately.

    Well, I’m really sorry that your idea of living in a foreign country has proved to be so, well, foreign.


  • Mat

    Going to green worms indeed! On the contrary alienboy, I am having, quite possibly, the time of my life here. Did I equip myself properly, no, but knowingly so. Although I did bring my French speaking wife with me (or rather she brought me).

    There are, of course, many peculiarities in French culture, and I have often experienced culture shock. But such is life living in any different culture, equipped or not.

    Grocery stores, in particular, have caused me much aggrivation. Cashiers prefer to turn around and chat with each other rather than tend to the long line of customers standing in line. There isn’t such a thing as a ‘bagger.’ You must bag your own groceries, causing the line to move even more slowly. And to actually get enough bags to sack your groceries is acting for a miracle from God.

    But I highly recommend taking a year off and spending it abroad. Come to Strasbourg, I’ll show you around.

  • Tristan

    I lived in Paris in 1963—
    was a horrible year; the french are the most obnoxiously rude people I’ve ever encountered:

    they would make fun of us when we attempted to speak French; they would intentionally misdirect us when we asked directions………….

    this was in the city of Paris~~~
    outside in the countryside the French were much nicer …………

  • Mat

    I live in Strasbourg which is a much smaller and more international (it is the sight of the European Union’s parliment and thus sees many nationalities) city than Paris. I have found the people, while not overly friendly, nice enough.

    Though I did spend a week in Paris and also found it perfectly pleasant. Of course, this was the week between Christmas and New Years so the city was full of tourists and not Parisians, but sitll…You can read about my Paris experience here. Or read about my Strasbourg experiences throughout my blog.

  • Oh, isn’t it obnoxiously rude to complain about the behavior of people because you can’t understand the language of the land? And more than likely the customs of the land as well. My, it seems that the French were truly patient with you and you verged on being an ugly American.

    I spent a few week-long vacations in France and outside of obnoxious drunk French men trying to kiss me (but I think that happens a lot with drunk men of any nationality in general) I found the French to be very helpful. When I was cycling around Paris, French men would stop and give me directions (in French).

    As long as I tried to speak French (and didn’t mind their corrections since otherwise how will I learn to speak properly), things went well.

    My worst experience was a French sales person kept telling me I was shopping in the wrong section (children’s) but that also happens in the States because even as an adult, I still wear children’s clothing.

    Besides Paris, I cycled from Nice to Marseille. I spent a week on a farm outside of Versaille.

    I saw other Americans who were pushy and demanding and didn’t try to speak French at all. Very arrogant.

    My French isn’t fluent. But I try to learn some of the language when I travel anywhere including Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

    Hopefully, you will remember your frustration and anger when you come back to the states and deal with non-native speakers of English?

  • alienboy’s comment reminds me of a fellow I once worked with. He was a non-French-literate tasked with entering text into page-setter software for a French translation of a technical manual. (He didn’t do the translation, but he had to do all the ASCII code entries for the accents to appear.)

    This guy used to say at least once every day, in a pompous and aggrieved tone, “These French – they have to have a different word for everything!

    (Eventually he got so frustrated with the pesky French and their unwillingness to make his job easier by just Writing! In! English! Durnit! that he abandoned the manual. As his editor, I ended up having to finish it.)

  • Mat

    I wasn’t trying to be obnoxius or rude, just tell a story about one of my experiences in France. I admit this one story doesn’t give an accurate view of my life here. To have a better understanding of me, before you judge, please go to my blog and read my numerous postings about the culture here.

    I posted this particular article here because I felt it was well enough written, and it transcribed itself better as a single post than much of what I write in my blog. Why is it rude to post about having a rough time in France? Are all my experiences here suppose to be rose tinted? Am I only supposed to post about obnoxious people in America? How long do I have to live here before I can complain? You’ll notice I make no sweeping generalizations about the French in the post, but only make sarcastic (hopefully funny) jabs at a few people.

    With the one exception of the lady talking to me, the action has nothing to do with culture. I’ve experienced similar obnoxiousness in the States. Surely, you don’t suppose little boys sitting on checkout converyer belts is cultural? Or that ladies leaning over groceries to look at phone cards is a point of French pride?

    As far as my actions were concerned I think I ventured no where near being an ‘ugly american.’ When the lady spoke to me I did my best to comprehend what she was asking and spoke to her politely explaining I didn’t understand. The rest of the time, though annoyed, I merely stood quitely in line.

    I rather love it here in Strasbourg. Far from being rude, I have found most French folks to be rather nice, and at times, even helpful. On the other side, I have always been helpful to non English speakers in America. I used to work in a call center and would always scold my employees when they made derogatory comments about a non English speakers living in America (usually spanish speakers).

  • Ayu

    I can understand you, Mat. I’m living in Hungary now with my husband (who is Hungarian) and have similar problems with you during shopping (There’s also Auchan though I haven’t tried one).
    Perhaps the problem lays on my incapability to speak the native language, but it’s not as easy as some people think to learn a new language, is it? I can speak well in Indonesian, Javanese, and English and can understand a little in Japanese, Dutch, Arabic, and Hungarian; but what can stop people from experiencing cultural shock when they are away from their homeland?

  • Mat

    Exactly. It is a much different thing to visit a foreign land for a week or two and to actually try to live there. Since being here I have had a French tutor and try my best to learn the language. I understand a good deal now, and speak as much as I can, but there are difficulties.

    I don’t begrudge the French anything for being French. Again, I do my best to understand the differences in culture, but try as I might, I still experience a great deal of culture shock. Even my wife, who is nearly finnished with her PhD in French linguistics, has lived a good deal in Montreal, and studied French culture, experiences culture shock.

  • Ayu

    Yes, I learned Cross Cultural Understanding back in college and found it was nothing like the real life. We can only learn by doing, I suppose.

  • Mat

    Indeed. I read the French or Foe book that I listed, but have found that most of it is pretty useless to me. Especially since it is geared more towards upper class Parisian culture. I have found, though, that people are the same wherever you go. Some and nice and helpful, some are pretty rude. Cultures differ, but people, deep down, are more or less the same.

  • alienboy

    Dr Pat: I think/hope you have me confused with the post author, either that or you misunderstand me. I am semi-competent in about 6 languages and trying to get a bit more. Vive la difference!

  • Well Mat, I don’t understand why you bothered posting about waiting in line then – as a French experience – if what you were saying is not somehow indicative of your views of France.

    Should we all post about waiting in line at the grocery store? I’m in Arizona and there are a lot of people speaking Mexican around me when I wait in line (That I deliberately go into the Food City’s and other stores set up to cater more to Hispanics – Mary, Jesus statutes, larger and longer aisles for ingredients – is their fault). And damn if they don’t get on my nerves because most are short, see and I’m 6-5 and when they talk in Spanish I get really really upset.

    Well, actually no I don’t.

    You said you were going to be posting about your experience in France and it came across as arrogant. Dave said it would be “interesting” but we all knew he’d jump at the first chance to say something stupid about the French.

    Though it was, Mat a well-told and well-written story.

  • Also >>Although I did bring my French speaking wife with me (or rather she brought me).

    At the beginning of your post you say she was busy grading papers and wasn’t with you.

  • Mat

    Dang bean, this is starting to get personal. To answer your questions, Temple Shark, I told my story as an experience in France, because, it in fact, happened to me while living in France. Thus it is part of my French experience.

    But being part of my experience here, doesn’t mean it is indicitive of my views of France. It is a story, nothing more nothing less. I admit, again, that this single story doesn’t give blogcritic readers a good overall view of my life here, nor my opinion of the French. You can fault my laziness for that one. I copied and pasted from my blog the easiest, most available story. Again, please read my blog if you care to get a better picture. I do plan on adding some posts about my experiences in France to blogcritics, and perhaps that will appease you a bit.

    Should you post something about waiting in line at the grocery store? Sure, if you have a story to tell. The category I posted to is CULTURE. That’s a pretty broad category. It’s pretty dang all encompassing I’d say. I thought a story about waiting in line was pretty universal, even if I did locate it specifically.

    How did I come across as arrogant? Seriously. It was sarcastic, and consisted of a lot of internal dialogue, that admittedly is usually pretty obnoxious. But that’s just my own bent. I don’t write stories about how nice and pleasant people are. Though there are plenty of nice, pleasant French folk, that story is too dull for my hand. It needs a better writer than I to tell it.

    And to clear the last point up, my wife brought me to France, but was not there with me at the grocer.

  • Mat

    Ok, I think I see where you are coming from. I reread my post and think I understand your grievence. The only character that comes across as not obnoxious and rude is me (and you could probably successfully argue that I wind up in that category too.) That’s the way I tell most of my stories. I tend to take irritating circumstances and try to make them into funny stories. Waiting in any line anywhere usually drives me crazy. But, that’s what makes the story. There isn’t much to say if I had a perfectly pleasant time.

    But I can see how, as a single post, it could come across as a broad, general complaint about the French. This was not my intent. As stated earlier, it was the easiest of my French writings to transform to blogcritics. Hopefully I can write some other things to make the perspective more balanced.

    Or should I not post basic stories like this here anymore? Is it only appropriate to discuss differences in culture? The category seemed pretty wide open to me. In looking at other posts, Culture, seems to be a catch all category for anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere.

    This is written in all seriousness. Sorry if I came off rather rude in any of the comments. I thought it was a legitimate post, that some readers might relate to. Reading it now, I still think its a good post, but can see where some more background information may have been appropriate.

  • SFC Ski

    Keep it up Mat, some people just like to gripe.

    I have been able to live in Germany about 11 of the last 17 years, and I love it every time I am there. I learned German in night chool, though, and that made a big difference in my enjoyment. Even grocery shopping can be a novel experience when you have to do it all in a language other than English.

  • Jeez, why doesn’t everyone just calm down. It was a funny story. It was. And most French people are quite rude if you don’t speak their language fluently. However, Strasbourg is a nice town and it comes across well in the blog.

    So go read it and stop your moaning. It’s very entertaining.

    All this language difficulty reminds me of when I was in Venezuela and didn’t speak much Spanish and went for a coffee in Ciudad Bolivar one day.

    Ended up being talked at nineteen to the dozen by some bloke and couldn’t understand why I was getting none of it, until he produced a filthy plastic bag full of drawings which led me to the conclusion that he was the local ‘loco’.

    Which was confirmed for me when I looked around and everyone else in the cafe was doing the universal ‘finger twirling at the temple’ gesture for insanity.

    But hey, he was enjoying the social interaction and I sure as hell wasn’t being affronted, seeing as I didn’t understand a word he was saying.

    He made me sign all his drawings too. I’d love to know why.

  • I was just trying to explain how it might come across to many, including me and to perhaps give you an opportunity to explain, which you did quite adroitly.

    BTW No one has to appease me. I’m just one critic. And I did say it was well written and well-told.

    S T A R K – though you’re not the only one to do this.

  • Tristan

    During the year I lived in Paris I had hundreds of similar experiences that Mat described!

    He was not being “arrogant” in the least!
    That’s like saying after you tell your secretary to “go get you a cup of coffee” and she sulks off with a sour look on her face—that “she’s a bitch” ~~~!

    If people around you are rude and totally disregard their infringing on your personal space and/ or tota;;y refuse to keep thei children from being obnoxious and assholes to other humans standing nearby—
    it is not “arrogant” to be assertive and stand up for your rights as a human being!

    And I promise you: the Parisians I encountered thought very highly of themselves whenever they could make an american suffer of have a problem—they hated every one of us over there……..

    As I said before–this was not the case out in the provinces–not AS bad anyway–the Parisians made an ART out of antagonizing americans—at the same time period; if we went to Austria, germany, Spain, or elsewhere in Europe—they were as nice as could be!!!!

    The Parisians have hated the americans ever since we had to step in in both World Wars and save their inept asses—they can never forgive this blow to their pride—thus they antagonize us at every chance!

  • Mat

    Tnanks gang. I was begining to think no one “got” the story, and everyone was going to think I was one of those jerks who hates the French because they don’t bown down to all Americans.

    Temple, no hard feelings. It took me a couple of tries, but I finally understood where you were coming from.

    So, should I post another story or not?

  • Yes, post more!

  • yes.

  • geo

    I’ve never been to France, but I have been to Montreal and Martinique, both were nice experiences in which I found the locals to be inquisitive and interested in expanding their english vocabulary. The French women in Martinique had strong body odor… but were VERY natural and extremely accomodating. Fond memories all the way around.

  • SFC Ski

    I have noticed that if I speak to a snotty Parisian in Fench and say,”I notice you are speaking French, not German or Russian, you’re welcome.” They deflate themselves a little bit.
    Seriously, I have had a good time visiting Paris, and have never been treated any more poorly than they treat each other.

  • bhw

    This guy used to say at least once every day, in a pompous and aggrieved tone, “These French – they have to have a different word for everything!”

    That’s also from an old Steve Martin bit, from the “Wild and Crazy Guy” shows.

    After he said line, he talked about how funny it would be to teach children the wrong words for everything.

    Is it only appropriate to discuss differences in culture? The category seemed pretty wide open to me. In looking at other posts, Culture, seems to be a catch all category for anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere.

    That’s a good description. This post fits perfectly in our Culture section.

    Also, my brother has been living in Paris for about 7 years now. He went over there speaking very little French and is now pretty damn fluent. And he has had very good experiences with the French people he has encountered. Many of them have been extremely generous and helpful to him, and without some of their generosity, he probably would have had to return to the US before he really wanted to. He’s still there and doesn’t seem to have any plans to come back in the near future.

  • Mat

    My wife lived in Montreal on a couple of different occasions, totalling about a years time. She both loved it and hated it. People were kind, and the city is nice, but it was tough on her in the culture shock sense.

    I’ve found that most French people accept you much quicker if you attempt their language. A great deal of them actually speak a little English, but their pride keeps them from speaking in public. But if you attempt a little French on them they are generally forgiving. Although, French personalities do tend to be a little more harsh. They seem to enjoy sarcasm and making digs at everyone, not just foreigners. So for say, an Alabama native who is used to everyone being super gentile and kind, I can see how the French personality would come off as rude.

    Of course their habit of kissing everybody would seem way to friendly to the average American!

  • sydney

    Just want to add my two cents:

    Firstly, I want to steer people away from the notion that the Quebecois-French living in Canada are the same as the Parisian French.

    French Canadians speak a language that is quite different. For instance, French Canadians would get along far better in France than an English speaking person, however, the Parisians have a difficult time understanding them speak. (apparently , it sounds like the French Canadians are mentally challenged people who just can’t talk proper – I used to live in Quebec so I heard this analogy before)

    In any case, in most other aspects, it is said that the Quebecois retained more of the original French culture than France did. It follows then that their behaviors, and the language of the Quebecois are more French, than that of the Parisians. That’s a sort of a backwards way of looking at it I realize.

    Tourism: A tourist in Montreal will easily get by on speaking English. However, outside the city he will encounter many people who do not speak a word of English, and/or who are too embarrassed to try. In this case, most French Canadians appreciate your trying to speak a few words of French as a nice gesture. They are very seldom rude, or at least, not any more often than an English speaking north American.

    In France, it is a different situation all together. The Parisians are very cynical about all the tourists that tramps around their country each year. Of course, they need the tourism for a healthy economy. But I think they view tourists as a parasite. They especially hate Americans because Americans appear very comfortable, sometimes arrogant, in foreign settings. Most of the citizens of most countries, in particular the French, hate Americans. (My buddy was spit on simply because the French kid thought he was an American. haha.. In fact he was Canadian.)

    I have to say, that most Americans are really embarrassing when abroad. They really do carry themselves in an arrogant manner, laughing at all the differences, being loud, voicing their opinions for others to hear, not trying to seem impressed or interested in the hostess’s culture. It’s like “look out people, and point me to the booze and the broads. I’m on vacation!” or in it’s more subtle forms, where by the seemingly non-ignorant American steers all conversation back to America “Oh yes, I believe the Americans liberated these people by funding a coup in 1945. I don’t expect they’d appreciate it, but it’s interesting to note.” or “Why don’t they have the internet here? It would make things so much easier”

    A little note to end this: I have traveled with fellow Americans abroad and met some really nice cool people. I’m not saying all Americans are complete fools, but I do think that as the superpower of the world and the center of pop-culture, Americans are in a unique position to be completely ignorant and arrogant wherever we go. It follows that many of us are, and we have to suffer the consequences. Or actually, what’s more important, that so long as people of the world don’t like our government’s invasive foreign policies, we will be hated as well. The future for American tourists in France doesn’t look good.

  • bhw

    We’re number ONE, baybeeeee!

  • Eric Olsen

    I will finally take the plunge here. I liked the story, understood the tone to be one of observational humor, and still want to know what the hell is up with the single “t.”

    But beyond that, I have found in my somewhat extensive travels in foreign lands (the home of Fez) that as long as I am interested in the people and view their approach to life respectfully, they are far more often friendly and helpful than not. Even in Paris.

    I do not speak any other lagnuage well, although I have had some Spanish and Japanese (long ago for both), but find that making the gesture of trying to speak a little while achknowledging that the language problem is MINE and not theirs, typically leads to empathy rather than antipathy.

    I am also rather outgoing and animated and am able to convey my ideas through nonverbal or semiverbal means and that is helpful too. I am not overly of afraid of appearing foolish, in fact rather enjoy it, and this seems to break down barriers too.

  • I think a good point was made by SFC Ski who wrote: “I have had a good time visiting Paris, and have never been treated any more poorly than they treat each other.”

    A transplanted New Yorker just this week said he didn’t respect anyone unless they offended him. I think of the Parisian French that way.

    I’ve been to Paris and Montreal as well as Quebec City. It helps to attempt to speak the language and have a good sense of humor.

    And yes, I did most of the shopping and was always traveling shoe string budget.

    Of course, I have the added advantage of being considered one of those “damned foreigners” even when I’m in my native country, the US. I guess that alone trains you for being an actual foreigner in a foreign land.

  • Mat

    As I beleive I stated earlier, my wife has spent some time in Montreal, and yes, Quebecois French is a much different beast than French French. In fact when she returned from Montreal, she started her graduate work in French Linguistics. She says it took her several days to be able to understand what any of her, Parisian French speaking instructors, said.

    I believe that people are pretty much the same no matter where you go. Customs are different, and outward dispositions might change from one land to another, but if you get any face time with a person, they are generally pretty kind.

    Living here has made me think twice about the general perception that Americans are loud and obnoxious while the French are much quieter. I have found the French to be just as loud and obnoxious as any American. Walking down the street, on the trams, and especially outside my window at 3 am I hear them talking to the point of a yell and obnoxiously laughing it up. There are irritating people no matter where you go 🙂

    But yeah, respect is the key. Treating people as if their culture/language/life is equal to your own is the way to travel. The French were once a superpower too. Americans won’t always be where we are today.