Home > Everyday Life > How Painful It Is to Shop . . .

How Painful It Is to Shop . . .

Being a newbie to this land of Gauls, naturally I am asked frequently what is the hardest thing that I am adjusting to?  Quickly the French/Europeans answer their own question by saying space.  They believe every American lives on a ranch in Montana, drive on 6 lane highways and has to drive in their SUV to go their next door neighbor. (exaggeration)  Consequently I am suppose to have this psychological trauma to space here.  Everything is tight, small and often uncomfortable in the Old World.   I quickly retort back saying I am from Philadelphia, things are crowded there too.  (Their eyebrow rises.)  Actually I would have to say shopping is the most difficult.  (Then there is a true pause.)

I come to this topic in reflection of the past Holiday and consequently being surrounded by winter sales.  You can’t have the Holidays unless there is shopping, both before and after.  So much of our economies rely on this human occupation, or rather addiction.  I do find the French habit very different on many levels and my own American conscience has had to adjust – for the better.  First there are the very visible habits.  You go to any mall in this country and dogs are very welcome.  If the store has a food section there are always signs politely asking that our friends animaux remain outside the food area.  Most stores will charge you for a shopping bag with an obvious environmental motivation.  So I have quickly adjusted to leaving a few plastic bags in my car to take with me so that I don’t need to buy more (reuse, recycle).  Then there is the timing of when to do shopping.  With the strong union presence for workers, stores are only open till 7 or 8 in the evening plus closed on Sundays.  So I always have to plan ahead if there is something that I need.  I either pick up something immediately after work or on a Saturday.  Sometimes I can’t get to a particular store for another week due to timing.  Go down the famous Avenue de Jean Medicin, the shopping district in the middle of Nice, on a Sunday and nothing is open except the Virgin Megastore.

No Credit Cards?  No Sunday Shopping?

No Credit Cards? No Sunday Shopping?

Yes, one may grit their teeth at the thought of such a restrictive environment but I have come to appreciate it as a breath of fresh air.  I am letting go of instant gratification of the American consumer addiction.  Having shops open 7 days a week or even 24 hours allows us to feel in the moment we think we need something that we can instantly obtain it.   I have already experienced wanting something but by the fact I had to wait a while to buy it at next available time slot, I lost interest in that thing and chose not to buy it after all.  I am now sitting down and thinking what is most important now for me to buy?  Clearly I may only have a few hours on a Saturday to do my shopping.  I am now prioritizing my purchases instead of just getting it all at once.

The French have a knack for being passionately in love and in hate at the same time.   The government has blocked Wal-Mart from making a presence in the French market.  Ikea has tried several times to open a store here in the Côte d’Azur but the residents of each village it selects literally go to the streets in protest.  Yet global consumerism continues to creep into French society.  Wal-Mart simply bought shares in Carrefour, the French look-alike.  Carrefour is always open Sundays and Holidays till at least 9 at night.  Of course, that place is packed every day with French people enticed by the supposedly lower pricing.  (The Carrefour by my work in Antibes holds the honor of the most expensive one in all of France.)

Even when it comes to grocery shopping, I find that the French do more frequent, smaller excursions; not massive Sam’s Club stock-ups.  There are open markets all over Nice which is a true delight.  You still have vendors bringing fresh fruit, vegetables, spices and flowers to the city and everyone eager to buy.   One article that I read stated that three reasons keep these marchés alive, 1) the French instinct to desire fresh food when cooking, 2) small kitchens so they don’t have the space to stock up and 3) the social element to shop and interact.  I do say that I found a little corner market for my fruits and vegetables.  The guy is a little more expensive but worth it for the size and ripeness of his products.  Plus there is pleasure in keeping the small business afloat.  Again, the time schedule comes into play with as he is never open on a Sunday and he is entitled to take a vacation here and there.

On the other end of perspective is the frozen foods of Picard Surgelés.  This store found all over France and a few other European countries specializing in the sale of everything that can be frozen.   When you enter the store, is a vast array of freezers and literally nothing else.  You will find every food group frozen including both raw and prepared foods.  Being single, I enjoy this store to stock up a little on the essentials in my freezer.  I also happen to watch a documentary on Picard one evening on television.  I was impressed that there is still a focus on freshness.  For example Picard built one of their factories right by the port so that when the fishermen come in with their fish and scallops, they immediately freeze the harvest.  Then they have developed a solid infrastructure to keep the food frozen all throughout the transport process.  The business goal is to get the food frozen immediately after harvest and never let it thaw until it gets into the hands of the consumer.  Again, this store is not open Sundays and still shuts down for lunch during the week.

But I do have a couple convenient shopping place where I live.  I have a boulangerie (bakery) and a small Carrefour Market grocery store literally right across the street from my apartment.  Both of these guys are open 7 days a week. 🙂

Of course the physical act of shopping is one thing; the other is what is going on in your wallet.  You can’t really have a full conversation on this topic unless we do a little economics.  What is your purchasing power here in France?  That is an interesting question and I am still figuring out how to answer it.  Yet here are some interesting discoveries.

First the French are truly savers; it is in their culture.  One study showed that the credit card penetration rate in France is 1/5 of that in the United States.  So it is not uncommon that the average joe Frenchman doesn’t even have a credit card.  If he does, he is only going to have one and not several.  I have witnessed in simple conversations with colleagues and new friends.  They way they talk about purchasing is in the manner of saving money and then making the purchase.   If they need to make a big purchase or in a tight financial situation, I find the culture is still to go to your local bank and take a small loan – not run out and find a credit card.  My American mind was so unsettled by not having a French credit card (in lieu of my American ones that always charge me international fees for purchases in Euros) that I immediately applied for one that found through Air France.  I was immediately rejected obviously because I was too new in the country as a resident.  I plan to explore that option again later in 2011 now that I have proof I am a permanent resident with a permanent job.  Consequently I have adjusted to this debit card dominate market.  Each paycheck I allow myself one major expenditure and that’s it.  If I want something else, I have to wait for the next month for the next paycheck cycle.  This month I debated between quality cotton bed linens or a bedroom lamp; the sheets won out.

Categories: Everyday Life
  1. Laurie
    31 January 2011 at 6:57 am

    I almsot hate for you to dream in French b/c I love reading @ your experiences!

  1. 9 October 2011 at 7:45 pm

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