Post Parisian Blues

I’ve been melancholy before, of course.  I never experienced anything like post-partum depression.  The years immediately followng Katey and Megan’s births were the happiest in my life, it was more like post-partum euphoria.  Just thinking about how much fun it was getting to know those two as infants makes me start crying – today.  Usually, I can think about it without crying, but from the moment we landed at LAX, things started making me cry.

Of course, I was exhausted and jet lagged, but after sleeping normally, it was the grocery store trip that forced some of the painful realizations.  Of course, I’m getting older and therefore, one might say, more prone to mood swings.  There were some interesting changes in the grocery store, in just one month, changes that had begun before I went to France:  less variation in items on the shelves.  No fresh pomegranite juice in any brand, no fresh blueberry juice.  Were we the only consumers of it?  Was our month long boycott enough to make the store – a rather large Von’s – stop stocking it?   No croissants (they usually have them).  Remarkably less diversity in fruits.  Is this because diesel is so expensive?  That was going on before we left.  The produce department looked way more like it did when I was a kid.

In Paris, of course, it’s a whole different system.  Every neighborhood has its produce markets and the produce comes in fresh from local sources.  When you fly into Charles DeGaulle or Orly, you can see miles of beautiful farmlands, and when you drive through the countryside, it’s like driving through miles of salad.  The carrots in France are amazing.  I loved raw carrots as a kid, rarely can stand them now in the U.S. – they don’t taste like carrots.  French carrots, on the other hand, are like those of my childhood.  I hate cooked carrots, but cooked carrots in France became one of my favorite foods.  Of course they cook them in wine and onions.   Even our onions, which are still edible, completely lack the variety in taste that Parisian onions do – oh, how the Parisians must take for granted their amazing produce, and I wonder what they think about our food, when they’re here.  How do they stand it?  Especially if they’re on a road trip in the U.S., how do they tolerate the typical roadhouse salads we serve?   In France, it’s not just wine-tasting that improves the taste buds, nearly every food does.

Anyway, the kinds of food we have in our stores, the hugeness of the stores, the expense of the lighting, the vast waste of energy on frozen food (all of it sucks, let’s face it), the enormous amount of bread – each one nearly identical in terribleness to the next one (same with the yogurt, same with the jelly, same with the honey, same with the milk), all of this using so much energy to stock and store, while I overhear store employees talking about their working conditions.

In Paris, I’ve now had the opportunity to go to the regular grocery stores many times and, well, the people who work there don’t spend any time in conversation with each other at all.  I had to think about my mom and the complaint she raised (my dad agreed) in the last decade of her life:  that nowadays, grocery store clerks talk too much – especially to each other.  Now, Mom had gone blind and so she noticed their gabbing way more than others, perhaps.  But I had started to notice it too.  Back from Paris, it’s like a stone in my shoe.  Two guys are talking about how dirty one of the dairy cases are, and how understaffed the store is and how they’re working overtime, but can’t ever get everything clean, much less stock things on time.  There are things on the shelves that are beyond expiration date, they say, but they can’t take care of that because during the night a delivery man dumped cases and cases of butter on the back dock without waiting for anyone to receive them, and when the fog finally burns off, the butter will have to be brought into the big refrigerator cases – that, said one, had to to be the one guy’s priority.  The more talkative guy said he was just putting out enough milk and butter at a time to try and satisfy the existing customers, that things had been in the big cooler for days without getting out to the shelves and he had no idea how the produce department was coping with the fact that not enough workers were on the floor.

By the way, my French is now good enough that if any store employees had been talking, I would have gotten the jist of their conversation.  Even in small shops, like the  wondrous Diwali Scarf Shop, the two shop girls are focused on the customers.  They stand a decent way away from you while you’re browsing, but if they see you liking some particular scarf, they tell you if it comes in more sizes and that they have new ones in stock and what other colors it comes in, things like that.  They judge your degree of interest, you look at them, you have a conversation and you get a great scarf – unhandled by anyone.  Then they want to know how you want your scarves wrapped – if they’re for different people, each person’s things go in one nicely stapled bag and this is all done quickly and so sweetly.  If there’s some special way a particular scarf can be worn, while they’re folding and packing, they quickly demonstrate, they do not talk to each other about paper towels.   If a scarf comes in two closely related colors and they think you might have missed that fact, they quickly show you, to make sure that red is exactly the red you want.  And you really should see how many reds they have.  And corals.  And blues.

Back at Von’s, the two guys in the dairy section were still talking.  Apparently, a lot of people are on vacation.  The manager should not expect total cleanliness or efficient stocking of shelves.  But, then again, neither worker was working throughout this conversation.  Maybe this happens in Paris too, but I just didn’t see it.  Maybe it was their break time.  Everyone in France seems to take their work  seriously enough that more than a minimum of competency is achieved.  Customers, too,  are expected to be competent and ready at the check out counter, have their money out, help to pack their groceries (or just pack them).  Nearly everyone has reusable bags, everyone puts their things on the belt efficiently.  Clerks are few and they all are seen to be working (and since many times we were mistaken for French people, it wasn’t just because they were pretending to work while Americans were there).

Again, back at Von’s, one person – a store worker – is purchasing two melons, a couple of pineapples and two packages of grapes. She used the entire check out belt for these five items.  They stretched from the very beginning of the belt to the end.  She did not put the little bar down that signifies the next order – she couldn’t have, her melon was in the way.  So me, with my big bag of groceries, could not get started putting things on the belt.  I thought about my spine and all the items in the cart.  How I longed to get started and do my own job of putting things on the belt the way I wanted to, without feeling too rushed.  The checker, the store employee/fruit buyer and the bagger began a conversation.  First it involved someone being late to work, then it involved someone not coming back from vacation on time, then it involved the fact that only one regular lane was open, while there were two express lanes.  The person behind me looked a bit more exasperated than I did, but I was too tired to show any exasperation.  I thought about simply collapsing on the floor or bursting into tears.  The belt did not move.  A fourth worker joined the conversation to ask if she had the right paper towels to go into the store restroom.  They were different than the usual ones, but, she said, they were the only ones on the stock shelves way at the back of the store.  Could someone go and look and see if they were the right ones?  The checker assured her they were the right ones.  “The old kind are too expensive, we’re using this kind now.”  “But they’re terrible!” said the fourth worker.  “Look at this!”  She demonstrated out when one tried to pull on the paper towel roll, it shredded like thin tissue paper.  “And it’s rougher than the other one!”

No fruit had moved.  No one had though to move the food closer together.  I’m still thinking about how many times I’ll have to bend into the grocery cart to collect all the catfood and wishing that instead of always asking me if I want help out to the car and instead ask if I want help taking things out of the cart (God Bless Trader Joe’s).

In the middle of the paper towel issue, while I am still standing patiently, in a reverie about various things, the clerk suddenly shouts to someone two checkout stands over about the paper towels.  I had grown unaccustomed to shouting in Paris, Parisians are generally very quiet.  The person could have gotten the message to the fellow employee without such shouting – and there was, after all, a person sanding holding paper towels who could have walked 10 feet to ask the question.   As it was, the shout took place about 48 inches from my ear drums and I could feel my pulse rate accelerate.  When you’ve been traveling, and people shout only in true emergencies (rare), shouting is alarming.  It was a really loud shout.  But we noticed in Europe that Americans (and English) do this a lot.  Shout.  For no good reason.  In gift stores, restaurants, other places, like museums and chateaux.  This is apparently a way of avoiding the exercise of walking a few feet to communicate.  It certainly is attention-getting and thought-interrupting.

Finally, the paper towel issue is resolved and the fruit is checked through and I can begin organizing my stuff on the belt.  The checker gives me a grimacey smile (she isn’t happy to switch gears and deal with a customer).  I’m trying to be nice.  “How are you doing today?, did you find everything?”  This greeting is obligatory – that bothers me a little.  I say I’m good and that I found everything (even though there was absolutely no Charmin toilet paper in the store).  I feel resentful that I have to tell the clerk how I feel.  French store clerks ask no one how they are doing, unless they appear to be known customers.  Perhaps this is why the French are perceived as rude by Americans?  No meaningless niceties?    There were several other things I can usually find at their store that weren’t there, but I learned last month that I will simply be told they don’t have it – they will not do as they used to do and write out on a slip of paper that goes to the manager to do special orders.  I already got the “we don’t do special orders any more” speech two months ago.  That’s fine – no one in Paris would hold up a check-out line to describe in detail some special item so unusual that they were the only one who wanted it – they’d go to a specialty store for that.  At least, no one I saw in Paris ever did any such thing and by now I’ve seen a few Parisian check-out lines.

When my stuff is halfway checked through, the checker starts up a conversation with the next customer about a gossip magazine.  The customer immediately puts the magazine back in its slot.  “Oh, you don’t have to put it away, I didn’t mean you should put it away,” says the clerk.  “It’s fine if you do your reading in line.”

By now, my stuff is nearly checked through and the magazine-reader could be putting her stuff on the belt, which is what she is now doing.  “I need to put my stuff on, anyway,” she says.  “I feel guilty even reading those magazines.  I never buy them.  I don’t support them any more.”

“Oh, neither do I,” said the clerk.  “But I read them, they can be very interesting.”

“Yes, but they are so mean!” said the magazine-reader.  “But I love to read them.”

Meanwhile, the clerk has finished swiping all my food but has also stopped helping the bagger, a late middle-aged Asian man with a pronounced accent, in order to talk about the gossip magazine.  They mention a celebrity I’ve never heard of.   I finish paying, the clerk whips the receipt and useless obligatory advertising “coupon” off their rollers and because she is leaning around to look for some specific magazine headline, she sort of tosses the receipts at me and misses my outstretched hand by quite a bit and the receipts fall under some already bagged goods.  I retrieve them, she apologizes, and then sees that the bagger guy maybe could use help.  But he’s almost done.  Single-bags the wine, puts dog food can in with wine, bag rips immediately, but he puts it in the cart anyway.  She starts asking him if he’s sure he got all my stuff.  He says he’s sure.  I start feeling that old feeling – the one every American must have at the supermarket (Did they give me all my stuff?  Which thing will be missing?  Will it be an important thing?)

“How are you, today?”  asks the bagger guy.  I truly am thinking about a lot of stuff in my head, private stuff, some news I’ve gotten that I’m emotional about, private life stuff, but I say, “I’m fine, thank you.”  I can’t bring myself to ask how he is, because when I speak, my voice is so low and quiet and unusual that I can tell I’m about to cry.  At the grocery store.  It’s true I have some other things on my mind, but I wish the man would make eye contact instead of asking a question, that I could say, “Bonjour, monsieur,” quietly and nod, and he would say only, “Bonjour, madame.”  And then he’d say “Merci, auvoir” and I would say the same.  Of course, there would be no one to ask me if I needed help to the car, but I swear I’ll manage that aspect of life until I’m ready to be euthanized if only other things could be different.  If you’re going to ask someone how they are doing today, at least look at them and smile or try and perceive how they might be doing and change your tone accordingly.  If they’re smiling brightly, maybe smile back.  If they’re somber, maybe be quiet or something.  I know that’s way too much to ask.  It’s much more important to discuss gossip magazines and paper towels.

Truthfully, I would have liked help out to the car, my back is as bad as it gets, the last leg of the trip was very hard.  But there’s no way I want to deal with this man for one more minute.  I wish the store was closer to my house.  I wished I could just walk down a flight of stairs and go a block and pick up wine, cheese and fruit and go home again and not have to walk past so many aisles that I never go down and see so much stock that people simply don’t need.  50,000 types of cake mix.  I mean, come on, really – learn to make some effing cake, America!  Buy some apples and cinnamon and bake them or something.  Drizzle some Framboise liqueur on top – quit buying those teensy plastic things of apple sauce that end up in land fills – NO ONE LIKES THEM.  Your kids don’t eat them – they throw them away at school!  Produce some apples that taste like apples, for god’s sake!

When I get home, the Indefatigable Man of the house unloads everything immediately, so I still don’t know if I got everything and probably never will.  At least we have toilet paper and paper towels.  I have a new brand of paper towel (store brand) because there was virtually nothing else to buy and the difference in price between the named brands and the store brand was enormous.  French paper towels are not anything to write home about – they are like store paper towels.  There is usually just one brand and it all costs the same.  There’s no standing in the aisle for minutes comparing price per piece of towel going on, which so many Americans (mostly women, is my observation) endure.

There was a bright moment.  A new, idealistic burrito store has opened up in town, near the grocery store.  They had a local rock station doing one of those load public relationships gigs with giveaways and music blaring and DJ talking, out in the parking lot, in the virga  No one was going into the burrito store, it was still too early, but I certainly became aware of Freebird Burritos, which seems to be advertising that it uses fair trade produce and local ingredients in their food.  Something socially conscious, anyway.  The music – all contemporary rock and roll, so of course I’ve never heard it, was making things a little worse at first, being in a sad mood, I didn’t want upbeat rock and roll – but you know what?  It was that upbeat rock and roll (or the attempt at it, since it sort of fell short of good rock and roll) that made me feel my feelings about America even more fully.  And although the rock and roll was not the Best of the Sixties – there was a lot of crap in the 60’s and 70’s too, and this wasn’t too bad.  By the time I’d finished unloading the car, I’d heard one song that I thought had promise.

In the end, I will not be deterred from finding the right Bourdeaux to make as good a Beef Bourguignon as I can, and I will learn to make that chicken fricasee Provençale style that we had off Rue Mouffetard, near Rue Descartes, because red meat is only for special occasions.  I will continue to make our own dog food, and somehow, there has to be a way to get cats to eat homemade cat food (seriously, there are not a bunch of little cat food tins in French stores – what do French cats eat?  Sure – there are some cat foods on sale, but not entire acres of them like here).  If anyone knows recipes for cat food that spoiled cats will actually eat (ours won’t eat people tuna or boiled chicken), please put them in the comments!

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