The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Friday, February 08, 2008

Tina Goes to the Supermarket!*


You have probably heard people speak lovingly about how food shopping is done in France: You go to the boulangerie for your bread, to the boucherie for your meat, to the marché for your produce, to the fromagerie for your cheese, and so forth. This all sounds very lovely and charming and Norman Rockwell (if Norman Rockwell had been French), and this example of French art de vivre continues even in the large urban agglomerations of the 21st century.

It’s also a big pain in the ass.

Which is why France has supermarkets, too. I’ve mentioned them before—supermarkets have become part of the French landscape, and in fact several of the world’s largest hypermarket chains (e.g. Carrefour) are French. When you don’t have time to go to five different stores to buy ingredients to make dinner, you hit your local Casino, Marché U or Monoprix. Me, I never have time to go buy my groceries one item at a time, so I often visit our neighbourhood Monoprix a couple of times a week. Here’s a typical trip to the store, with pictures.

Once I've got my list made out, I load up my bags: Having no car (and no means to park it right in front of our place anyway) means I've got to carry everything on my person, so I take an empty backpack to the store (V. prefers a pousette de marché, a large sturdy bag on wheels, but I can't stand the rattling noise it makes...plus it's a pain to take it up steps). I also bring along my own plastic grocery bags to reuse. Many French supermarkets charge a few cents a bag for plastic grocery bags, or only offer larger, heavier-duty reusable bags that cost a euro or two. Our neighborhood Monoprix does give away as many bags as you want for free, but here's the genius bit: they also have a "caisse vert" (green checkout) that distributes no bags--and this line is always by far the shortest and quickest, kind of a grocery HOV lane. Give people attractive options, let the invisible hand sort things out... that's good policy right there.

So I'm out the door and down the elevator, where this li'l' scamp [photo] lets me know about the wet paint on the elevator doors. (All photos on this post were taken before our Spain trip, hence the Christmas lights and Fete des Lumieres decorations.)

I pass where the painter making the trompe l'oeil scene in our lobby has stopped for the day, and snap a picture. (Photo; The painting has since finished, and it actually looks pretty good. I had had my doubts about it.) The artist has brought in an actual tree branch as a visual aid.

Most of the boutiques on Rue de la Republique close at either 7:30 or 8PM, so the street clears fairly quickly except for people wandering to restaurants or movie theaters. There are red Velo'V bikes cruising along, and the occasional scooter whining up the middle of the street.

In Place de la Republique the fountain has been temporarily drained, and in its dry bed is a giant Newton's Cradle, specially assembled for the Fete des Lumieres. A couple of guys string power cables to it from a nearby sound booth, testing it for its debut on Thursday at the Fete. An enormous Doberman wearing a muzzle watches from the back seat of a parked Peugeot 206. An old guy smoking a pipe sits on a bench staring as if the fountain is still there.

I pass in front of Printemps, the high-end department store; its show windows are full of Christmas displays featuring plush little reindeer skating on frozen ponds, tucking into Christmas dinners and so forth. What's impressive about these is that these are animated displays much like you'd see at a US mall, but that they are not electronic; all of them are marionettes strung on loops of clear monofilament that run on a motorized camshaft across the inside top of the window. Imagine the forethought it takes to make a reindeer convincingly paddle a canoe by this method, then multiply that by about 30 reindeer figures, then that by about 5 show-windows (I could have sworn I shot video of this, but I don't seem to be able to lay my hands on it)(UPDATE: Here's a link to someone else's video from the Printemps in Paris...Bears instead of reindeer but you get the idea).

"Our" Monoprix is in a brand-new building that occupies the former site of the Grand Bazaar, an indoor market that became structurally unsound and had to be pulled down. When a historic building is destroyed like that, the building that replaces it does not have to even attempt to blend in with its neighbors, so the new Grand Bazaar building is a modern glass construction [photo] that during the day nicely reflects the Bourse building across the street [at left]. The new building also connects directly to the Cordeliers Metro station [foreground], so one could go from the Monoprix checkout line to the platform in a few steps, which seems like a handy feature--except that shoplifters found it handy as well and could time a very short dash to the closing Metro doors and be halfway to Vaise before security could even respond. The "Sortie: Acces Metro" doors are now locked and seem to be set to stay that way.

The security guy gives me a look, too, as I come in, but doesn't ask to look in my bag. This Monoprix is on four levels: The ground floor has women's clothes and makeup, there is a cafe/boulangerie one flight up, and the 3rd floor has shampoo, diapers, light bulbs and the like. Groceries are downstairs in the basement, so I take the escalator down. Some bell peppers, lardons, a block of morbier, yogurt, coffee, Evian, a sixer of Stella, paper towels, and I'm ready. The cashier scans my Monoprix carte de fidelité and watches impassively as I pack my groceries into the backpack. No such thing as bagboys in France; you're on your own (however every supermarket offers delivery, sometimes free if your purchases are over €75 or so).

Back on the street, the counter guys at American Sandwich (where you can get an Al Capone, a Las Vegas, or an Elvis --which is sadly not fried peanut-butter-and-banana) fold down their awning for the night. A skateboarder cruises by, wheels roaring on the pavers, and half-heartedly rail-grinds on a low planter. Bright orange paper litters the street like fallen leaves where a cell phone company had been passing out coupons earlier in the day.

Back at Place de la Republique, the florist's stand and the newspaper kiosk are buttoned up tight for the night. The electricians have found the right cords and the balls of the Newton's Cradle are lit up with a light that goes from purple to blue then white. They're not moving, even though I wait a minute or two to be sure. I can't watch too long; still dinner to make.



*"I'll take obscure 80's NC college ska-pop bands for $1000, Alex."

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