After nearly a year of living here, I have quickly learned that France is a place of many contradictions. It’s a land where stunning beauty nearly knocks your socks off at every corner, but also where dog poo threatens at every turn. Where one can fathomably subsist on cheese, pastries and wine and still not gain a pound. Where people will not hesitate for one second to mount a fierce strike or protest against even the smallest infringement, but only if it doesn’t interfere with les vacances.
But I’ve found these contradictions in national character to be no more prominent than in the grocery store aisles. Where else in the world can you find more than 200 kinds of cheese and 20 varieties of cream, but not one single can of beans? No beans, people! Not dried, not canned, not anywhere to be found. Only lentils. Man do these people love their lentils. But any other bean? N’existe pas.
Now, I can fully understand when I go in search of Worcestershire sauce or instant oatmeal or canned pumpkin and come up empty handed. Those are weird American things. But beans? Aren’t they an international magical fruit? It’s ludicrous. And it just further confirms my love/hate relationship with the supermarché.
You see, I try to shop at the open air markets as much as possible. They’re wonderful. Spectacular. A regular cornucopia of fresh goods. But it also means you have to speak French to lots of different people, explaining what you want, when you want to eat it, how you were thinking of cooking it. And you have to plan really well, because the markets are only open certain days, for certain hours.
No matter how lovely they are, sometimes the open air markets just aren’t practical. Sometimes you yearn for the old isolating American shopping experience, where you don’t have to interact with anyone and you can go at whatever time you want. Other times you just really need toilet paper and Diet Coke.
So off you trek to a modern grocery store, all of which I’ve encountered give off a very communist Russia vibe. They smell bad. They’re not particularly well stocked. The isles are cramped and full of old ladies who won’t hesitate to run over your toes to get the last jug of milk. They haven’t yet caught on to the idea that if you make the food look nicer, people will want to buy more of it. And in mine, if you want to buy toilet paper, you have to go up three floors from the food level, where it’s stashed in between children’s toys and office supplies.
Many an afternoon I stumble across the most perfect sounding recipe ever, only to find out that my local MonoPrix is out of flour and cannellini beans are considered an exotic legume. Plenty of leeks, though. God forbid they run out of leeks. It’s the only thing that you’re gauranteed to find a bounty of, other than butter.
It may sound charming from where you’re sitting, but from my kitchen table it’s super frustrating, and further supports my theory that the French government is secretly giving everyone crappy ovens and supporting smelly grocery stores to bolster the local restaurant industry. Which, now that I think of it, is pretty brilliant. And totally fine by me.
JENNIFER WILLSON is an American in Paris.