When we first came to France in 1989 we were staggered at what poor stock there was in the supermarket. There were no cereals at all. There was no fresh milk. There was no sliced bread. There were just one or two brands of shampoo and a sad stock of tinned and frozen foods. Anything fresh was fine if it was local produce, but almost nothing out-of-season was to be had. I remember buying chicken, and it was like trying to eat old rope. The only wine and cheese to be had was French, of course.
Mark you, we landed in the centre of France, a backward back-water (though the residents didn’t think so), and we had come from the south-east of England, a well-heeled area.
I have spent many years in third-world countries and am accustomed to making-do with whatever is available, but I was amazed at how mediocre things were in France, the very country that claims (note use of the word claims!) to have the best food. (This is a myth and always has been, but that is for a different blog).
However, not only did France swing in to action and catch up with Britain, but in some ways it – arguably – overtook Britain. The huge migration of the British in to the French countryside was a part of the reason, and that is undeniable. The British certainly triggered the meteoric rise of the DIY shops. The first time we set out, in 1989, to find paint (terribly expensive to this day – bring it from England!), planks, plaster-board, nails and the rest of it we had a truly hard job finding the appropriate shops. And, having found them, we had a truly hard time locating anything worth buying. Ready-insulated plasterboard didn’t exist, wood panelling didn’t exist, and half of everything else. But as demand for the derelict country cottages and fermettes increased, so the demaind of quality building materials increased. From pathetic little stores these places transformed, within a couple of years, in to wonderful havens of everything-for-the-home. There is a huge selection, even in a dull little town like Marennes.
There are a few things I miss from the UK. Boots the chemist is a great shop. You can get quality make-up at reasonable prices, and a wonderful assortment of anything and everything for body and face, inside and out. Chemists in France really just deal in medical matters; you can now buy things like make-up and shampoo but it is invariably very expensive.
Shops like Marks & Sparks are few and far between. We have quite a lot of them in the UK – British Home, C & A and so on. Clothes in France seem to be utter rubbish from the supermarket or quite expensive stuff from individual boutiques. There are nowadays several in-between boutiques popping up, but very little in the way of big places where you can buy all your clothing items (and more) in one hit.
Still, on the whole, shopping in France is excellent these days and stores have long since branched out in to other countries; you can even get South African wine now – lovely! . The one thing they still get utterly wrong is customer service – woe betide you if you take something back because it is faulty. You will be treated like a criminal. The cashiers and shop assistants are on the whole very rude and unwelcoming. They seem to be automatically on the defensive and most certainly do not wish to do anything other than the bare minumum. A supermarket cashier will prefer to stare at the ceiling rather than help load the bags. I recently took a faulty suitcase back to a shop (it split in half on the first trip) and was treated so sooo badly – in fact the young assistant launched in to a lecture about how aeroplanes treat suitcases. Mademoiselle, I told her, I was hopping on and off aeroplanes before you were even born!
You can’t get double cream here. Their creme fraiche is our version of soured cream. My husband, who suffers from Meniere’s disease, cannot get decaffeinated tea or even Red Bush tea. But on the whole it is great these days.
(Picture of the town of Avignon). Catherine Broughton is a novelist and an artist. More about her on http://turquoisemoon.co.uk