Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Learning to shop à la française

Courtesy A elalaily, Wikimedia commons
In the U.S., nine times out of ten, “shopping” means driving to a mall and rushing from store to store with dozens, if not hundreds, of other people. You push through racks and shelves and cases of stuff – less than one percent of which you may actually need – under the disinterested gaze of bored salespeople whose most helpful act may be to bring you another size if you find a pair of shoes or piece of clothing that you actually want to try on. You fight your way back out to the parking lot only to have that moment of where-in-the-world-did-I-park-the-car panic, then drive home having spent several hours of free time stressed out and rushed.

Needless to say, I am not a shopper.

In Europe, however, shopping is a completely different experience. On my second day of class in France, when I was terrified that I was going to get lost in the maze of medieval Aix-en-Provence's streets and end up rushing in late, I discovered that the route to school my host mom had advised I take also happened to lead me through most of Aix's Tuesday/Thursday market, which is scattered throughout the city. Ten minutes into my walk, I stumbled into a square that had been empty the afternoon before but was now filled with market stalls. Saucissons, olives fraîches, fruit, cheese, olive oil, pasta...combined with the smell of fresh bread from the boulangerie on the corner, it was enough to make my mouth water. Well, I thought, I have to eat lunch, don't I?

I browsed the fruit stalls, staying cautiously toward the middle of the aisle so as not to be too obvious in my perusal. Drawn in by some beautiful pears, I drifted closer to one stall and jumped when the vendor bid me good morning. I answered in kind and timidly asked if I might have three pears. The vendor weighed and bagged them in a flash. "Deux euros, mademoiselle," he said. I pointed out that the scale said €2,12 and offered him the exact change; he took the two euro and waved off the rest with a wink and a smile.

Along the banks of the Seine, Spring 2006.
The pears were all I was brave enough to buy that first day, but in the months that followed I came to love the markets that sprawled through Aix most days of the week. One of my favorite things about Saturday mornings was seeing the flower vendors setting up their stalls as I passed through the market square on my run, the blooms a bright wash of color against the cobblestones as "Bonjour !" was tossed back and forth across the square.

My routine during the week, every second or third day, was to leave early for school, so I could wander through town on the way. I stopped for a baguette, usually still warm, at the boulangerie up the street from the square where the fresh food vendors set up, then ambled through the market aisles, buying produce for lunch and sometimes watching my friends decide which saucissons to try (after seeing one that listed "donkey" as an ingredient, I couldn't bring myself to eat them). Between classes, I headed to the courthouse parking lot or down to the Cours Mirabeau, Aix's one wide boulevard, to browse the goods for sale there. I bargained with a leather merchant for a good price on a small, cross-shoulder purse that I could wear more comfortably than the one I'd brought; I bought countless blocks of scented savon de Marseille for my family and friends; I spoke at length with a Moroccan merchant about his scarves from North Africa and ended up buying three throughout the year, for my mom, my grandmother and myself; I browsed for a fall jacket and bought one for €50 that I still get compliments on every time I wear it, five years later.

By November, I'd worn holes in one of my two pairs of jeans and desperately needed new ones. My experiences in the open-air markets had given me the confidence to try shopping in some actual stores, so I ducked into a boutique that always had cute window displays. Rather than mutter "Bonjour" to the saleswoman and try to make myself invisible, I smiled as I said hello and asked for her help. She gave me several pairs of jeans to try (and somehow assigned me the right size from the three the store offered after barely a glance - it's one thing the French are great at, even the men, that I've never been able to figure out), then gave me her opinion on which looked best. I agreed with her, so I bought that pair and wore it constantly for the next two years.

The one shopping experience that really unnerved me, initially, was when I needed new lingerie and wandered into a boutique in the town center. I received the kind of assistance I'd come to expect from one of the saleswomen when it came to size and I was grateful for her help, since thinking in centimeters is not one of my strengths. When I'd been in the dressing room for about three minutes, the curtain suddenly opened and the saleswoman stepped in. "Ah oui, ça vous va très bien, mademoiselle !" At the moment, I didn't care whether or not the bra I was trying on suited me; my American brain, which any Frenchwoman would have called pudique - prudish - couldn't get past the fact that a complete stranger was standing in a dressing room with me while I tried on underwear. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I wasn't in the States, then asked if she thought it was the right size. She adjusted the straps, looked appraisingly at my reflection and nodded, "Parfait." Perfect. Well, okay then.

I left the boutique feeling a little dazed, but during the next few months adopted the same "When in Rome" mentality that I had been applying to everything else in France. By the time spring rolled around, I was comfortable enough with shopping à la française to go swimsuit shopping in a tiny boutique where the saleswoman vetoed two of my choices before agreeing with me on the fit of the third.

Since returning to the U.S., I've come to actively miss not only the delicious scents and beautiful colors of France's open-air markets but even the French saleswomen for whom the American idea of "personal space" is a completely ridiculous concept. I usually shop alone and having someone tell me, with absolute honesty, whether or not a piece of clothing flattered me was a great experience that I often wish I could replicate in the States. As nerve-wracking as those first experiences with unfamiliar shopping customs were for me, they were also some of the best lessons I received on assimilation: dive in headfirst to local customs and you'll almost always come away with an appreciation for the way the locals do things - you may even decide you prefer them to the way the same things are done at home.


Eve Bodeux said...

Ah, I love Aix! I lived there as a student abroad in undergrad. Have been back to visit several times over the (lots of!) years since. This past summer in July, we stopped by on our way back from "camping" French style (that merits its own blog post!) so I could show my (French) husband and my kids where I went to school. I went to IAU. It was the weekend, so the school was closed, but the family loved seeing the tiny streets and the cathedral where a wedding was taking place (and stopping at a toy store to get some cool knights!).

I forgot how hot it gets there in summer and it reminded me how diverse France is - very different from the north where my husband is from.

And, yes, European shopping (and for lingerie!) is quite the experience!


Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks, Eve - great to hear from another temporary Aixoise! French "camping" does indeed merit its own blog post - maybe along with French hiking. Thinking about how different so many things are in France, like shopping (even for lingerie!), really makes me miss it.

How wonderful that you were able to go back with your family, I haven't been since the end of my year there in 2006 - I was at AUCP (la Maison des Palmiers), right across the street from les Arts et Métiers (ENSAM). I walked past the cathedral and IAU every day and loved sitting at one of the cafés near the mairie to watch the wedding parties go by on the weekends.

It really is amazing how driving just a couple of hours in France can bring you to an area that's completely different. I haven't spent much time in the north, but I have friends who have lived in Bretagne and I really want to spend time there at some point.

Thanks again for the great comment!


Mary R said...

I could relate well to your post of being intimidated by shopping in France! I also spent some time there as a student, and I remember those same feelings.

Though we might not like the intrusion of the salesperson, isn't it great to get an honest assessment rather than someone just trying to sell us something not right for us?

Love the description of the fruits!

Jessalyn Pinneo said...


An honest opinion is definitely a wonderful thing - I've tried asking salespeople in U.S. clothing stores what they think from time to time, but there's only been one helpful response so far. I'll keep trying; maybe we'll start a trend someday. :-)


Yeojin said...

Oh, nostalgia! Jess, you're making me REALLY homesick for France. It's bad enough that I've got the anticipation of seeing a couple of my French friends this summer, and now this! Of course, I'm not blaming you. Not exactly :) I'm so happy that we (and most people I know) had such amazing experiences in France. Honestly, I don't remember anything negative about the people, the places, anything (yes, even the manifs and grèves!). And, while that probably has to do with memory being selective and not exactly photographic, I still look so very fondly back on my time(s) in France. If only I could accurately describe it to people who don't know it or who have had bad experiences. I'm pretty sure that most of the time, these "bad experiences" come from the person's own lack of willingness to do things "When in Rome"-style.

And, oh, the marchés...

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Sorry Yeojin! :)

I read a great comment yesterday about how important it is to at least treat people the way you would want to be treated at home by tourists - and you really should learn some cultural basics for interacting with people before you visit a place. (Like saying "Bonjour" when you enter a store in France.) Americans would flip out if someone approached them speaking another language in the U.S. - why would we expect people in other countries to react differently if we approach them speaking English?

And yeah, there's a lot to be said for observing how things are done elsewhere and trying to do the same. As you know, you get a much better, more authentic experience when you do!

If it makes you feel any better, I drove myself crazy missing Aix/France while writing and re-reading this one. ;)

Yeojin said...

I may need to squeeze another trip to France very soon! :)