There is an anxiety that comes on when one considers the unfamiliar, and therefore the possibility of failure. Seldom in my life have I felt anxious about grocery shopping, but during those first days in Paris even the most insignificant acts felt monumental. The highs and lows of daily rituals were exaggerated by their novelty.
Alex, our property manager, had told me that there was a fine market called “Monoprix” just around the corner on Rue de Four.
“They have everything you will need,” he assured me; he smiled through his words, happy with his sound answer.
I was glad to think we had a good market nearby. I had thought of visiting the small specialty shops to buy our food and drink: the fromagerie, the boulangerie, the fishmonger, the gardener, and the wine shop with racks of inexpensive bottles; these constituted the culinary dreams of many who visit Paris. But the apartment needed basic supplies, as did we, and Monoprix seemed a good solution. The individual vendors would have to wait.
Paris was very cold, and we had to bundle ourselves with scarves and thick coats to protect against the frigid winds that rushed through the urban canyons of white stone and iron. Water from last night’s rain collected into pools in the low swells of the antique sidewalks, and we were careful not to step in the deep pools while we looked into the windows of the beautiful shops. Most everyone in Paris was clothed in dark coats of black, grey, or brown, and from above – a pigeon’s eye view – the rues looked like the exposed tunnels of an ant colony; but unlike an ant colony, the city felt lonely. On the boulevard you would customarily walk very close to many people, and you would look at them and try to understand them, and appreciate their dress and gait, but rarely was a glance returned. Looking straight ahead is a test of one’s own disinterest, but I am poor at pretending.
Large stores in Paris are heated warmly in the winter, and when you enter from the cold street the change in temperature is uncomfortable. The heat turns the comfort of a warm coat into a layer of lunacy. No Parisian has been able to explain to me why large stores do this. It is a custom that is silently questioned by residents, and tolerated.
The main floor of Monorpix is reminiscent of a condensed Target, pared down to the clothing, home goods, and grocery departments. The groceries are in the back of the store, and we pass through aisles filled with people picking through sweaters and handbags. The lights are harsh, and the smell circulates in an unbroken current to become an odiferous amalgamation of the store’s departments: skinned rabbit mixed with citrons, laundry detergent, new plastic, and the characteristic swampy musk that appears in unrelated places throughout Paris. It is not an unpleasant smell, but a memorable one.
“I’m going over there to look for some onions…and some…I’m going to be over there…” Morgan says, and she walks, almost reluctantly, over to the skinny aisle of fruits and vegetables, carefully stepping around the many shoppers and their carts and baskets.
Grocery shopping abroad is a curious thing: the motions are the same, and yet the experience is unfamiliar. The narrow aisles are packed with shoppers and stockers who place their pallets of product in the middle of the aisle. Alex was right to call this a fine store. Many of the departments look good, but jetlag mixed with culture shock is a wicked cocktail. I navigate our tiny cart – the one with the sticky handle and the wheel that refuses to rotate – towards the seafood.
There is an old blind woman shouting orders at her young servant girl. Her voice cackles like a newborn crow. The young servant removes a tall jar of haricot verts from the top shelf and places it in her metal basket with an audible “clink” so that the old woman knows her order has been followed. Another cackle, and a jar of green olives is added.
In the seafood department are large beds of crushed ice that display fish, crab, and shrimp from nearby bodies of water. I enjoy looking at caught fish. They are both food and specimen. The red mullets are arranged into a mock-school on top of the ice. Their red scales are fading in death, but their eyes remain a deep red. The eyes of dead fish never seem truly dead, but instantly stunned, displaying the bright and hollow shock of life without the grace of water. Caught fish suffer disorientation before they suffer death.
“I’ve been standing in front of the laundry soap for twelve minutes,” Morgan says. She’s flushed in her heavy coat, and her jovial character has receded deep within her, and now only words come out – not her voice. “I can’t decide…I don’t know. I can barely understand any of this…” she says, gesturing to the colorful French words stretched across the bottles of soap. “I thought my French would be better. It’s been so long since I studied, and I…”
“Let’s just grab one and get out of here,” I say, “we’ll find another store soon enough.”
Alex was right: Monoprix did have everything we needed. But it wasn’t what we wanted.
The checkout line is like any American one with gum and tabloid scandal giving you something to chew on both ways while you wait. We place our items onto the conveyer belt: a pre-packaged bag of onions, a pre-packaged bag of potatoes, 6 clementines, a carton of eggs, and a small bottle of unknown laundry soap, all punctuated by a little plastic partition.
We approach the cashier and exchange "bonjour." She is a middle-aged, heavyset woman of Chinese heritage, who rings up our items quickly, but pauses when she sees the clementines, then smiles and says something very pleasantly in French.
We’re silent, and do not know what she’s asked or how to answer.
She asks again, her smile uncurls a little.
“Je ne parle…” I say, a little red in the cheeks like the dead mullets, “um, I’m sorry I don’t speak French…I”
“Weight!” a hoarse voice shouts from behind us, “you need a label for the weight!” An old man, dressed in a faded tartan suit and long tweed overcoat, looks at us imploringly with kind eyes while acting out with his wrinkled hands the heavy but buoyant weight of the air.
“Ah, thank you…Merci.” I say, and turn back to the cashier, “we don’t need them. It’s O.K.”
“No?” she asks, “you can…” – pointing to the weighing counter.
The line behind us is impatient, and Morgan is fidgeting though her face is very still. It is a poor feeling to be unprepared, and at the mercy of an unknown language.
“No,” I say, “It’s O.K.,” cutting the air horizontally with my palm.
The cashier is disappointed, and drops the ripe clementines into a basket on the floor with other discarded fruits.
We pay, and exit Monoprix onto the cold and lively rue. Paris is very loud, but seemed mute. Morgan walks straight ahead with her chin nestled deep into the collar of her coat, and I can tell she is only looking inward.
“I didn’t want those oranges anyway.” I say, trying to make a joke.
“…What is it, Mogo?” I ask, knowing full well what it is, but talking helps.
Morgan shakes her head, and doesn’t speak to keep from crying. We walk back to our apartment silently in the cold wind, not noticing anymore the shops, or the cafes, or our reflections in the deep pools. Paris seemed out of reach then, and nothing was very romantic.
In the morning I was up before the sun, and bundled myself in a thick coat, and walked down the six flights of dark stairs to the street that was not yet awake. The stores were dark, except for a select few that had been illuminated by the window-washers to better see the dirty marks on the glass. Their squeegees sounded like substitutes for the morning birds who were still asleep in the cold dawn. I navigated towards Rue du Four, passing La Place Michel-Debré and the impressive La Centaure monument before turning left down Rue du Cherche-Midi. The outlines of the white stone buildings began to form against the rising dark blue twilight. I passed by a young woman in black tights and a thick fox-fur coat who was walking her newborn basset-hound. She and the puppy walked quickly to combat the cold, and turned the corner onto the brighter Rue de Sevrés.
The light from Poilane’s large windows flooded onto the street. The brick and wood façade appeared warm amongst the white stone, and in the windows were pastries and breads arranged on metal racks. I walked in and the smell was very good: warm dough, with apples and hazelnuts, and the singe of wood-fired crust. Two lovely women in baker’s coats greeted me, and we spoke in French: deux croissant, deux pain-au-chocolat, et deux tart aux pommes, S’il vous plait. I paid and wrapped the pastries in a small cloth bag, and bid the bakers au revoir. Outside in the cold morning I tucked the bag underneath my coat and against my chest to keep the pastries warm. I could smell them as I walked home along the brightening rues of Paris.
“It was such a victory!” I said to Morgan back at the apartment, “I spoke only in French, however crude, and they were lovely bakers, and that shop is beautiful. I felt, for a moment, like a Parisian.”
That morning, Morgan and I ate the pastries and watched the sun rise over the frosted roofs of Paris, and we were happy.
A few nights ago, we were walking home from grocery shopping, and I thought about how much had changed since that first morning at Monorpix. We had been to La Grande Epicerie de Paris, a beautiful supermarché close by, and we purchased many good things: wine, cheese, whole milk, butter, mushrooms, greens, and clementines – with the good sense to weigh them first. Morgan checked us out, and spoke only in French. I could see her confidence growing in her French and in herself. We walked home in the falling wet snow. There were many people on the rue, but now we knew the rhythm of the sidewalk, and walked freely without worry of cold nor custom. The bottles of wine clinked in Morgan’s backpack as she walked. Her gait was so that she was almost dancing. I had the cloth bags full of good food over my arm, and I thought about Paris in the falling snow, and how we were a part of it all, and it was very romantic to think so.