My secondary school French teacher could barely contain his excitement when we got to the section in our textbook devoted to French hypermarkets. He hopped from one foot to the other and gesticulated enthusiastically as he extolled their virtues. They were vast! You could buy a TV along with your weekly grocery shop! They constituted a shopping revolution! All of his sentences ended with exclamation marks!
Well, I moved to France ten years ago and I must confess that thus far, I haven’t manage to work out just what it was that my teacher was getting himself worked up about. I think that the most sensible explanation for this – the one not involving my teacher being in need of sedation – is that in the meantime, Tesco and Sainsbury’s superstores in the UK caught up with French hypermarchés, overtook them, and raced on ahead, turning only to make a triumphant bras d’honneur in the direction of the rapidly receding Auchans and Leclercs.
I can’t claim to have frequented many proper hypermarkets, as living in central Paris and not owning a car, I have always been more likely to shop in the Franprix/Leader Price that seem to be located every 500m or so throughout the city. The choice of products is relatively limited, but they do sell all the basics we need, and the prices are somewhat more reasonable than slightly more upmarket Monoprix. But when we visit the Evil In-Laws (as we did this weekend), and it rains (as it always seems to, making the promises we have made to Tapole about being able to play in the garden/on the slide/in the paddling pool/on her bike null and void) I can usually find a reason to visit Géant Casino at Chateaufarine for some much needed respite from the Evils.
Chateaufarine is one of those soulless industrial estates which exist the world over, populated with sweaty sports shops and ‘bargain’ clothes stores, housed in vast hangars, interconnected by a labyrinth of roads and a roundabout every 20 paces. Invented intially as a traffic jam free alternative to town centre shopping, these trading estates are now a victim of their own success: the enormous carparks are always full, the access roads are choked with stationary traffic. I curse myself every single time for forgetting just how depressing the Chateaufarine experience is.
Just because Géant Casino is located in a gigantic hangar, doesn’t, in this case, mean that I stand a better chance of finding just what it is I’m looking for. Vast does mean that the yoghurt aisle is ten times longer than the one in Franprix. But all this really means is that the same flavours are repeated over and over for again for the length of an Olympic sized swimming pool, the only difference being that they have different brand names on. Shopping becomes exercise. As far as I can see, there doesn’t seem to be any more real choice than in Franprix. On this occasion, there was no Thai green curry paste to be had for love nor money.
It also proved to be nigh on impossible to buy a regular-sized pack of nappies for Tadpole’s use at the In Laws’ house. The optimist in me shied away from buying a 92-pack of huggies, just in case we are successful in potty training her before the end of 2005. But the only packs on sale were of the “mega multi family value bulk buy” variety. If this principle is applied to the rest of the merchandise on offer, these places must be every singleton’s nightmare.
And last of all, I could not help but compare the in-house store fidelité cards, a relatively recent phenomenon in France, with their equivalent in the UK. My parents, through astute use of their Tesco credit card, recently managed to wangle themselves a week away in the Channel Islands, all flights and accommodation courtesy of Tesco Plc. When I consult the balance of my s’miles points (Monoprix, Galéries Lafayette and Géant Casino), they serve only as a grim reminder of the indecent amount of money I must have spent shopping there to get them, only to be rewarded with a free cinema ticket for every 1,000 points accummulated. If that is all my fidelity is worth, I shall be sleeping around from now on.
The only upside to visiting the souless trading estate is that I immediately felt like a fashion goddess, conspicuous in my understated, but oh so terribly chic, Parisian clothes. Now far be it for me to say that country folk have inferior dress sense, but if my options were limited to the best that Kiabi, Pimkie and La Halle aux Vêtements had to offer… [sentence best left unfinished so as not to cause offence to rural readers]
Anyway, I would like to point out at this juncture that I wasn’t the one muttering “pramface!” and “chav!” at fellow shoppers. I didn’t know whether to chastise Mr Frog for making the risky assumption that no-one in Chateaufarine speaks fluent English and regularly reads popbitch, or to be proud of his impressive knowledge of English vernacular.
Perhaps Mr Frog should be awarded honorary British nationality?