By Abigail Lin
When I exit my 18th arrondissement apartment, I can walk three minutes in any direction and find: a fish market, an artisan butcher, a bakery whose line snakes out the door on Sundays, a wine cave, a tantalizing cheese monger, an exclusively frozen prepared-foods supermarket (!), various fruit and vegetable stands and my choice of a few big-brand traditional supermarkets.
When I first was surprised by the lack of fresh options at the supermarket, I asked my host mom where to find the best fruit. She practically scoffed as she responded that “No, I would never go to Marche Franprix (the big-brand supermarket).” Instead she directed me towards the fruit stand directly across from the apartment, citing their excellent, but expensive fruit.
The movement towards local food currently in the United States takes on a completely different meaning in France – the French skip big-brand supermarkets for the most part, and instead frequent specialized locally run stores to obtain the best product. An important part of each community and neighborhood, the venders who run these small stores are depended on to provide expertise in their field of food. Food shopping is a multi-stop excursion, rather than a single trip.
The unfortunate part of this, for me, is that there are infinitely more people I need to speak to, in French, while trying to forage supplies for dinner.
The fromagerie (cheese store) was the first place I dared to enter. Despite my fear of being laughed at, I couldn’t stay away from the tempting mounds of yellowed cheeses stacked upon each other in the window. I left the fromagerie triumphantly, with my block of compte in its delicate white wrapping, and cradled it all the way home.
On my second trip to the fromagerie, I inquired about whether or not they took credit cards – and was met with a concrete “Yes, but only above 15 dollars.” On to the butcher I went. It being my first trip, I stared dumbfounded at all the different cuts of meats without any labels, but thankfully I knew the word for chicken breast. As I repeated the same question I asked the fromager, I was met with a quizzically cocked head. Slower, I repeated, “Prenez-vous des cartes de credit?” The butcher waved over one of his comrades, who gazed confusedly at me as I stated the same question, this time holding up my credit card.
As he gazed confusedly at me, I finally reverted to English, and stated even louder “Credit cards?” And the butcher vigorously nodded, increasing the volume as well, surely responded, “MUTTON CHOPS?” In horror, I made a frantic motion with my hands, while saying “Non, non!” Finally, the lady next to me repeated the exact question I had originally asked, and they burst into laughter – “Oh! Oh! No I can’t sell you credit cards,” they shouted while bursting into boisterous laughter. “Yes, we take credit cards for purchases over 15 dollars, they cried, while still laughing. As I mumbled a “merci,” I heard their laughter linger on my way home.
It took me two whole weeks to go back, but with a wad full of cash, it went off without a hitch.
By Abigail Lin
Abbie is a junior advertising major at Boston University and former photo editor of the Daily Free Press. She is spending the semester abroad in Paris while participating in the BU Paris internship program. She will be writing a series of weekly posts in which she explains her efforts to understand and adapt to the culture– which may not always be successful, but will undoubtedly be entertaining.
Grasping at the precipice between the cab and Paris, ravenously breathing in the gritty, damp air, one could imagine my excitement at having arrived in a new country to be called home for a whole semester. We passed by multiple people walking with oblong baguettes in tow, script-laden signs of corner cafes and brasseries, a huge open-air market teeming with Parisians and fresh fish in the north of the city.
Imagine my surprise when at the end of my ride, the cab driver turned around and said, “Cent euros, s’il vous plait.” Not sure if I had misheard or if my French knowledge of basic French numbers was even worse than I had anticipated, I asked him to repeat it. “Cent euros, madame,” he stated matter of factly, awaiting my payment. Feeling helpless in a new country, I handed over my 100 euro bill without a protest.
As I buzzed the apartment of my host mom, rapid-fire French was spit out of the intercom, and I somehow was able to manage blabbering out my name. After appearing, and introducing herself, she gauged from my wide-eyed response that I was having trouble and she asked if I understood French. Pleased that I understood, I uttered, “un peu” (a little). And by “un peu” I meant I had studied French on and off for eight years. Smiling sympathetically, she took me up to what was to be my home for the next four months.
Settling in, I ventured out of my bedroom to to go the bathroom. When I got there, I saw a washing machine, a tub with no curtain or mounted shower head, I was bewildered to say the least. Embarrassingly, I asked my host mom where the toilet was. She led to the next door over, and pushed it in for me. A tiny closet, it contained the toilet and nothing else. “Bof,” I thought (Bof= sound of exasperation uttered by French people on the daily).
Adjusting to the cultural norms of this country, not to mention navigating the nuances of the language have been at times frustrating, embarrassing, and downright tiring. Since then, I’ve been working on maneuvering the tricky balance between adjusting to French cultural norms, and coming to terms with my place in this crazy city.
It’s been two and a half months, and among the most notable things I’ve mastered include: looking stoic and/or angry on the metro so as to not attract attention to myself, avoiding the inevitable mounds of dog poop on the sidewalk, and having unnaturally low expectations of my prospect of viewing the sun on any given day.
Things I still haven’t mastered: the art of the French washing machines, as evidenced by the baby green cardigan I’m sporting today, how to get behind working until seven every day (the norm in France), and getting used to men holding Longchamp bags.
Follow me on my volatile relationship with the City of Lights through the end of April, and stay tuned for musings on croissants, full time internships in French, and my personal humiliation.
If you’ve ever visited the sketchy Freep office, no doubt that I’ll be sitting in my torn up chair in the photo corner, under the tic-inducing flickering light. But today, I did a little more than my usual photo editing and crying myself to sleep due to hunger to present you all with a playlist I use to calm me down when everything else in the newsroom (hi news) is getting chaotic.
P.S. Justin Bieber 4ever.
-Abbie Lin, Photo Editor Fall 2012