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.