France has got to be one of the most romanticized countries on the planet. Foreigners picture men wearing berets kissing kids in knee-high socks as they cycle together to the bakery with a live accordion stationed outside. It’s open markets abounding in unblemished, local fruit picked by the lovely brown-eyed Amélie – fruit grown, using only the best sun and the finest organic compost. You imagine locals going to the market daily to purchase their fruit from Amélie and then returning home with live ducks for lunch and rare oysters for dinner, all from Jean-Pierre’s neighboring stall.
Many French people certainly know lots about cheeses and about meat cuts you might never have heard of. It’s probably fair to say most people enjoy eating. Many love to eat well. But for lack of time and energy, today, plenty people are not pouring over stoves and scrutinizing food labels or mixing rare spices in their kitchens like their grandparents perhaps were. The average French consumer our age does the bulk of their shopping in grocery stores. Some even drive in, using online ordered services. *Gasp!* Families here are, like the rest of the world, quite simply busy. Like them, we try to make it to an open market for some novelty food on a very good day. But mostly, we race into stores called Casino, Super-U, Intermarché or Géant to stock up for the week on food.
We did these grocery runs each time we visited France over the past years living abroad, and it was always fun to return to the States with novelty products: licorice sticks (in the bark), crazy scented shower gel, fleur de sel, and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate! Of course, we never forget the chocolate. Always on our bucket list was: “go to the grocery store”.
Today, we walk the same aisles we did when we were on vacay, with more skepticism. Returning to France for good in June, we noticed that in fact, mainstream grocery stores also have so many processed foods, so much packaging, so many sugary yogurts and bright colored candy, it’s dizzying.
A most unlikely thing happened to us in America of all places, known worldwide for obesity and poor eating. That is that we grew so much in awareness about the food we put on our tables. After six years of learning about food sources, we had pinned down the most reasonable places to shop for each item to obtain the highest quality food. We’d have a rotation of stores to source our groceries from, and we would end up making things we couldn’t justify paying for: quiche dough, cinnamon rolls and even fresh pasta or croissants on the rare occasion. Being in the US and having a child with gut issues, grew our love of cooking and taught us a lot about nutrition.
Blindly, I assumed that coming to France would imply that our grocery bill would be drastically reduced because we could trust food products more. After all there are no GMOs allowed in Western Europe, right? I hate to write it, but it’s sadly the same bottom line that motivates the French food industry to conceal pesticides, nitrates to make ham look pink or to stock Vietnamese frozen shrimp injected with CMC to make them look bigger.
And yet, in our experience, there isn’t that much general awareness about the health cost of the shortcuts made by putting minute-dinners on a table. I look over and shopping carts are loaded with all the things that make life convenient. We get it. Families don’t have as much time as they used to. They are busy and many are thankful for the convenience. So are we!
In all honesty, after an hour of shopping, my cart is no better off. It is screeching along, nearly empty, as we try to make sense of labels and prices in a new place. And our trust and morale is at an all-time low. We keep trying little organic shops, grossly overpriced in exchange for flavorless Birchermuesli and bruised apples. These stores look as if they are sustained by a few wealthy grannies shopping there. They smell like vitamin supplements and stale buckwheat. We leave depressed, trying to scour the big box retailers once more, for cheaper clean options.
Here is where the story ends on the high note, the Prince Charming marrying Cinderella as it were. We had heard rumors of a large organic store a bit out of our way, with massive selection of gorgeous, fresh, local ingredients.
One evening we made it a family outing (spot two mistakes there) to check it out. Oh my. It was possibly the coolest store we have ever seen. It was not ridiculously overpriced, and offered such a wide range of quality products. And, to celebrate its first anniversary, everything – everything was 20% off. Guys, that doesn’t happen often in this part of the world.
It was getting late as we checked out. We raised eyebrows at how low the final bill was. We giggled all the way to the car until we noticed the massive yellow -20% sign out front. Whaaaat!? We gave each other the all-knowing look as we were unpacking things into the car. We fed crying kids some cheese and a freshly purchased apple and we went back to stock up on non perishables. We felt like we had just won the jackpot and smiled all the way home, with the knowledge that yes, even here, there are really neat places to shop for quality food. You just have to keep digging. This also means that somewhere, there must be a movement of consumers demanding to know more about the food they eat, too.
This post was part of the #Write31Days challenge, on the topic: Our family in global transition.
You can read the other posts written this month, by clicking on the links below!
1 – French Preschool
2 – Making friends in a new land
3 – ‘Yes’ people in a ‘No’ culture
4 – How language affects transition
5 – Not all French people are foodies
6 – The apple juice party
7 – I’m the third-born
8 – French-Mex ridiculous
9 – Busted by the Swiss police
10 – Educational field trip
11 – Visitors: the good and the bad
12 – Christmas in October
13 – A good place to get sick
14 – C’est les vacances!
15 – Playdate anguish
16 – The five year plan
17 – The Q&A edition!
18 – Holidays are for world-schooling
19 – The Granny I want to be.