A Funny Thing Happened at the Grocery Store

29 Jul A Funny Thing Happened at the Grocery Store

Ah, international travel! New people to meet. New places to see. New opportunities to make a complete ass of myself.

grocery store
© Anna Bizoń

While overseas, I feel it’s my patriotic duty to behave in a way that will reflect well on my fellow Americans. I work hard at it too. I mentally rehearse insightful political opinions. I lower my voice. I don’t wear a butt pack.

But sometimes things go wrong. Usually in grocery stores.

Like the time I said “¿Tienes huevos?” to a teenaged clerk in a market in Mexico City. I was unaware that this meant Do you have testicles? The two dozen people who overheard me were not.

Or the time I escorted my laugh-out-loud funny friend John on a week-long driving tour through the Cotswolds in England, and was forced to endure his sophomoric hunt for Spotted Dick (a traditional English dessert) in grocery stores from London to Oxford. Ha ha ha.

These experiences were deeply embarrassing of course, but they were nothing compared to the great garlic fiasco of Normandy, France.

For those of you who are not up to speed on buying fruit and vegetables in France, here are the 8 essential steps to a successful transaction:

1. Select fruit.
2. Place fruit in bag.
3. Determine fruit’s four-digit code.
4. Place fruit on scale.
5. Enter four-digit code on keypad.
6. Take fruit price sticker.
7. Attach fruit price sticker to fruit.
8. Proceed to cashier.

I think we can all agree that this is a ridiculously complex and frankly xenophobic way to sell produce, but that’s just the way they roll in France.

We were in Normandy for Christmas break, and had stopped at a Carrefour Hypermarket to stock up on groceries. The kids were asleep in the backseat, so my husband stayed with them in the car. I went in alone, filled a cart with provisions, and proceeded to the cash register.

“Bonjour,” said the clerk unsmilingly.

“Bonjour,” I replied, smiling enough for both of us. I reflexively expect French people to loathe me on sight, and have been known to occasionally overcompensate.

The clerk must have missed my friendly Franco-American overture because she ignored me and got busy ringing up my purchases. Suddenly she stopped short, and sort of hissed.

“Où est le blah blah de blah blah?” she inquired, holding up my bananas.
“Comment?” I said.

“Il faut prendre blah blah et blah blah le blah blah,” she lectured. She plucked a head of garlic off the conveyor belt as well, and pushed the offending items at me.

By this point I had pretty much exhausted my French repertoire, but I’m pretty fluent in subtext. It dawned on me then that I was expected to weigh and price these things myself. Adrenaline blooming unpleasantly in my chest, I grabbed the bananas and garlic, and—grinning like a madwoman at the people behind me in line—made a run for the produce department.

The French word for bananas is bananes, so I was able to find the code and generate a price sticker without too much drama. Buoyed by my success, I moved on to garlic. First I checked garlique, but no. Then le garlique, just in case. Then I tried process of elimination, but there were just too many unfamiliar words. Then I panicked.

Twenty feet away, a chic woman stood perusing the potatoes. She was obviously on her way home from the office, and was dressed the way I would if I were, say, going to a black-tie wedding. I charged over, smiling maniacally to signal that I meant her no harm.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” I begged, brandishing the garlic. What is it?

No doubt assuming I had mistaken her for a vampire, the woman hesitated.
Next I tried, “C’est QUOI?” It is WHAT?

And then, waving the garlic desperately and pointing to the scale “Comment t’appelle-tu?” What is your name?

Despite mounting evidence that I was a dangerous lunatic, the elegant woman smiled warmly and patted my arm. Then she walked me over to the scale, weighed my garlic, and made me a sticker. It was all I could do not to kiss her.

Chagrined but wiser, I thanked the woman, completed my purchases, and fled the store.

Since that day, I have been France’s most loyal defender. Some people say the French are rude to Americans. Others say that they are arrogant. Still others say they are cold. I say non. In my eyes, they will never be anything less than absolutely perfect.

Their grocery stores, however, are another matter entirely.

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Jamie Pearson
Jamie Pearson is a freelance writer, a mother of two, and the publisher of the independent family travel blog Travel Savvy Mom. She regularly writes about family travel for Vail Resorts and Homewood Suites, and her dispatches have also appeared on National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel Blog and on Fodors.com.
Jamie Pearson

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