The day I arrived in Orlando to start my stint as the writer-in-residence at the Kerouac House, the project’s director drove me to the supermarket as soon as I dropped off my bags. Even if Central Florida felt a world away from France, I was glad one thing remained the same: food is a top priority! (That, and t.p. – not one roll left in the house!)
Pulling into the Publix parking lot, however, I realized, Toto, we’re not in Paris anymore.
It’s not until I stepped into the gigantic grocery story that it hit me just how French my customs have become. Sure, Monoprix is mammoth and I visit my share of chains. But I’m so used to shopping for just a few days at a time, stopping off at several shops along the way. (Boulangeries for bread and sweet treats, outdoor markets for fresh fruits and veggies, Biocoop for organic fussy fare…).
Here, this was load up your SUV for at least a week.
Instead of a bag here or there (and reusable ones, at that) I walked out that first night in a daze clutching dozens of plastic bags and piled them into the back of a Mountaineer. Oh yeah. Everything in America is so….big. And there’s just….so much.
A meltdown threatened to overtake me on the milk aisle. I was grateful for all the choices – my recent acceptance that I’m probably lactose intolerant has me searching for alternatives (though, duh, I still opt for discomfort over nixing cheese and ice cream) – but I was feeling a little overwhelmed.
“Excuse me,” a white-haired man sidled up to me. “Do you know if there’s any non-pasteurized milk here?”
“Um, I don’t know,” I replied, staring at the rows of cartons before us. My mind had already been spinning between almond, soy, organic, lactose-free, fat-free, and ok, chocolate milk, too. Pasteurization hadn’t been on my list of considerations.
“I’ve been reading up on it,” he said. “I mean, it kills all the healthy stuff, but I think that’s all they sell in the States.”
“Sorry,” I said, throwing my hands up in the air, “I’ve just arrived from 7 years in France.”
“I just moved back after 24 years in the Phillipines,” he replied.
We looked at each other for a moment, then back at the daunting milk aisle.
I think we both appreciated we were each going through our own private reverse culture shock.
But back to the supermarket, I’ve quickly remembered its delights – and that of the Dollar Store. Orlando isn’t exactly the easiest place to navigate without a car, so I’ve become friendly with what’s within walking distance. And boy, do I know how to amuse myself in the Dollar Store. Cheapskate’s heaven!
I’ve been thinking lately of how much I missed in not recording my first few years in France. Everything was so new and strange and funny. And hard and exciting. And…well, you get the point. My whole life had changed!
When I started this blog, I had already been living in Paris 3 years. And while I still made plenty of faux pas, it’s hard to remember all the small moments that struck me in the beginning. I don’t think it was the milk aisle where I had my first strange encounters. (It might have been at le primeur where I was yelled at for touching the fruit. Or when I went to the butcher’s shop only to be asked whether I knew they only sold horse meat (oh! That’s why there’s that horse head sculpture there!) Right next to that was Picard, which gave me the willies the first time I walked by. What are those people doing in that eerie store empty save tons and tons of bizarre containers?)
Besides all the strange places and that pesky detail of trying to learn French, I of course succumbed to the many joys, too. It’s no exaggeration to say I ate at least one pain au chocolat a day for a year. (I mean, come on! How can you possibly not?!)
Here’s a photo from my first year (taken on my crappy camera at the time). It does seem to capture something from that early period: Things were a bit of a blur; I’m stuffing my face with a crepe.
Today is Chandeleur (or Candlemas in English). That’s another thing I learned – holidays I had never heard of before were part of the schedule in France. (Assumption? Ascension?) Being a secular soul I especially appreciated their bonus aspects aside from the religious ones. We eat crepes on Chandeleur? GREAT!
The city of Paris gives out the official authorizations for vendors of crepes on the streets. There’s a handy little map of locations if you’re searching for special ones for Chandeleur. To give you a taste (but not really, you can’t eat the screen!) here’s a short video (in French) of a vendeur on the Champs Elysees. Cute vintage car transformed into a crepe stand!
This time here is fun and revealing. Approaching my country again like a stranger. And when I return to Paris, maybe I’ll have my eyes open wider again, too!
Have you experienced culture shock? And…if you could choose a food item to link to a holiday, what would it be? (Feel free to invent a new holiday, too)