The return from Summer holidays is never easy. Being thrown back into work and daily life and the mundane rituals contained within is a difficult transition to make, only complicated when the place you're coming returning to has lost some if its luster compared to the place you are coming from.
This was the case when I arrived in Paris a week ago, after spending a month with friends and family on the best coast, the West coast, the Sunny side of the U.S.A. After visiting with old college friends living in current college towns, my 18th arrondissement Parisian neighborhood seemed shockingly old, not just architecturally, but also population wise. Given it's history as a “worker's” neighborhood and its low rents and proximity to the unsavory Pigalle/Clichy neighborhood, my homecoming felt more like checking into a shared geriatric/drunk tank ward at the local hospital.
This aversion was further aggravated when I went to Carrefour, the mega marché next door, to do some shopping. Here I found myself dragging my feet in line with a mass of miserable zombies plodding along and dodging slow-moving traffic and unsupervised carts. I grabbed some kitty litter and a tube of toothpaste, then begrudgingly made my way over to the vegetable aisle.
Greeted by the recorded bird chirps that the establishment so kindly offers in an attempt to enhance your shopping experience, I was dismayed to find myself staring at a scene that almost rivaled the expressions of sorrow on my fellow shoppers faces; bins and bins of vegetables that seemed to have lost all will to live. Unripe and shipped from around the world in who knows what kind of conditions, I searched among the piles for something local and seasonal (not too much to ask in August).
Picking up an eggplant, a legume which is rarely a let-down in France, was a heartbreaking experience. Oddly heavy and hard as a rock, this poor product of nature didn't seem to have been given a chance to live up to fulfill its extraordinary potential. I surreptitiously slipped it into my basket, vowing to at least salvage one thing from this awful environment.
I thought about my experience in the States, where I talked to avowed “locavores” who were committed to buying and eating locally. These friends in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle were pumped when a local butcher, coffee brewer, or bakery opened in the neighborhood. They shopped at the farmer's market and at co-ops, and they thought about “20 minute neighborhoods” where you could find everything from food to a doctor's office within a 20 minute walk from your home.
What was interesting to me was that their passion and vision of an ideal world was so similar to what we take for granted in France. Six floors down from my apartment I have three vegetable markets, two fromageries, two fishmongers, three butchers, and a really great bakery. And yes, a doctor that I can visit whenever I want. So what was I do in the fluorescent-lit torture chamber that is Carrefour?
I started unloading my basket at the “10 Items or Less” aisle and couldn't help but overhear an altercation taking place in the auto-check out aisle next to me. An angry customer yelled at a disgruntled worker over something stupid. More underpaid, overworked, unhappy Carrefour employees came to their colleagues side as I turned up the volume on my headphones and my fellow shoppers sunk deeper into the depression of their shopping experience. “Get us out of here” seemed to be the general mantra going through our collective consciousness. In that moment, I resolved never to return. “It doesn't have to be like this” I told myself, as I bagged up my purchases and bid the cashier good day for the very last time.
This is not a call to arms against just Carrefour. For some, Carrefour may be Monoprix or Franprix or any Grand Magasin that makes you feel queasy. Across the Atlantic your Carrefour may be a Safeway, an Albertson's, a QFC. Whatever it is and wherever you are- you can do better and you deserve better. I, for one, am extracting this unsettling abuse of food and their consumers from my life in hopes of discovering new outlets for food as well as food for thought- things that are not at Carrefour.