Tuesday, 30 September 2008

A slice of life in France - shopping on a Sunday

In case you're wondering you can't - shop on a Sunday. Not normally that is. Many of the big stores are closed, apart from some "home improvement" places, gardening centres and a chain of supermarkets (but only in the morning). For the most part, retail therapy is contained to popping along to the local market where there's a range of fresh produce on sale.

Oh yes, there's the run-up to Christmas of course when the exception proves the rule and everyone is shoulder-to-shoulder in the last minute rush hunting for "that" present.

Today was different though, as the nearby hypermarket threw open its doors for a Sunday shopping special. Hooray!

When looking for a house a couple of years ago in this part of France, just 50 kilometres south of Paris, we were told by the estate agent that the place we were going to look at (and would eventually buy) was just minutes away from the largest Carrefour in the country.

I did something of a double take as my literal mind translated back into English

"Carrefour (meaning "crossroads" in English) - You mean as in a motorway intersection?" I asked innocently.

"That's hardly a unique selling point. We were rather looking to escape the daily grind of the city for a bit of piece and quiet in the countryside, but still be within commuting distance of Paris," I continued, digging myself further into a hole.

"The idea of being right next to a major road junction doesn't seem very appealing."

There then followed a moment of complete blankness from the agent and she took a deep breath, obviously wondering which planet I had just arrived from. She then went on to explain that she meant the chain of hypermarkets - the largest in France, and pretty well-known around the world and NOT a crossroads.


Since then I've been an infrequent visitor to the place. Sure it has everything you could wish for under one roof; all manner of electrical appliances, DIY-til-you-die equipment, its own garden department, clothes, and a food hall that offers just about everything, including a whole range of organic produce and a section "produits du monde" which contains usually unobtainable goodies from back home that I've missed in my years living abroad.

But it's all just a little too large for my liking, and whenever I've been dragged there in the past, I've usually come away with far more than I had initially intended buying, a maxed-out credit card and a foul temper. I'm not the world's most patient shopper.

So when the store started posting leaflets through our door, advertising its "special" Sunday opening and low prices on a range of products for one day only, I wasn't too enthusiastic. And besides there were a whole host of better ways I could think of spending my free time rather than doing battle with the hoards of bargain hunters.

That was until I was reminded that there would also be a Foire aux vins, the time every year when there's a rush to fill up the wine cellar with some of the best this country keeps for itself - at reduced prices.

Plus Carrefour had helpfully pushed all the right buttons as far as I was concerned by providing us with a voucher for the princely reduction of €10 if we bought wine totalling more than a certain amount on this special opening day.

Remain restrained and focused - just wine

We've all been encouraged here in France over the past year to tighten our belts and watch our spending, especially as prices have been rising and there basically seems to be less money all round.

My mind did a quick bit of maths and it didn't take long for it to dawn on me that if I remained very focused and only bought what I needed, I could be on to a good thing.

That's when the alarm bells should have started sounding. Special offers and loss leaders, I knew were a ruse to get us all happily spending our hard-earned centimes. I mean it's not as though any hypermarket - let alone this one - had suddenly "seen the light" and decided to become a charity. They were hoping of course that once inside the cash registers would start kerchinging (or whatever it is they do in these electronic days) merrily.

Plus, I thought, there were probably plenty of others out there who had exactly the same idea as me. There again a bargain is a bargain, so why not go along and take a look? It couldn't do any harm and there might be some surprises. All that was called for was restraint.

Of course I wasn't far off the mark about the number of people who had come up with the same brilliant idea.

We pitched up at 11 o'clock, and already the car park was heaving. Once we had found a space and grabbed a trolley (how interesting that they call them "chariots" here - it almost describes how the French behave when put behind one) we made our way into the store where....the world and its mother seemed to have had exactly the same notion of the ideal way of NOT spending a relaxing Sunday morning.

Still I had only one thought in mind, wine - as I pushed my way past the music section.

"Ooh the latest by Carla. Yes. Why not?"
Well there were plenty of reasons but.

On through books. "Another on Sarkozy, Go on then, I'll add it to the other dozen or so that I've bought and not finished reading over the past year."

The automobile section. "There's that emergency triangle that became compulsory in all cars in July, but which I haven't been able to find yet. Oh it's good we came."

Household. "Are those GENUINE Laguiole knives? Wow. They're good value."

Then my nose paused in front of the bakery. " Ah the smell. Wonderful. Fresh bread and those gateaux. That'll be a treat for tea this afternoon."

A quick glance at the produits du monde. "Branston pickle. Yes. Oh and salt and vinegar crisps". In fact we hadn't even made it anywhere near to the wine section and le chariot was already half full. I had better get away from the food hall quick.

So I took a left at the next aisle.

And there it was.

Shelf after shelf.....

..... of computers, including that beautiful creature, the MacBook Air. I had been drooling over its photo for weeks in magazines. I had read every review. But I had never seen one up close. Breathtaking. Sexy. Gorgeous. The pictures didn't nearly do it justice. And now I was well and truly and lustfully in love. Cue romantic music and misty lens.

Except suddenly I had a blinding light, a revelation and an elbow shoved into my reverie.

"We are here to buy wine." I was informed from the one who knows better. "Not buy more equipment that you'll never be able to work out how to use properly."

That jolted me back to reality. And sheepishly I had to agree. So with a long last look over my shoulder at what was never meant to be, I bade a fond farewell to my dreams and soldiered forth to the wine.

Now I have to admit that we did in fact manage to pick up quite a few good bottles - er......enough to last us until Christmas (2009) and beyond probably. And it was by no means plonk.

But as we stood for what seemed like hours in a queue at the checkout with our heavily laden chariot and then paid (crikey where had that focus and restraint gone?) I couldn't help thinking back to that lovely little aluminium-clad number which obviously had my name written all over it.

Alas though not for now. In fact probably not for a long time.

And there's be no return to Crossroads in the near future as temptation might jut prove too strong.

But at least come next Sunday - when it won't be open - I'll be able to dream of what might have been as I crack open the first in a long line of bottles to drown my sorrows.

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