Culture Shock, Early Paris Days, and Crepes for Chandeleur

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.

Publix Market - "Where shopping is a pleasure."

Publix Market – “Where shopping is a pleasure.”

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.

Choices, choices, choices.

Choices, choices, choices.

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.

This is a tall-ass bird, y'all!

City girl meets…heron? (Hard to tell the scale in this pic, but that bird’s 4 feet tall, y’all!)

...and Snow White.

City girl meets Snow White.

Disney is of course it's own culture. (And to be fair, lives far away from the real Orlando I've been experiencing. If my 4-year old niece hadn't been visiting, I wouldn't have even gone. That's my story and I'm sticking to it).

Disney is of course its own culture. (And to be fair, the Magic Kingdom lives far away from the real city I’ve been experiencing. If my 4-year old niece hadn’t been visiting, I wouldn’t have even gone. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it).

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!

At the Musee de la Vie Romantique. Oh la la! And am I wearing a tank top? Paris was warmer back then, too!

At the Musee de la Vie Romantique. Oh la la! And am I wearing a tank top? Paris was warmer back then, too!

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?!)Sion at Marche au Crepes

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)


15 Responses to “Culture Shock, Early Paris Days, and Crepes for Chandeleur”

  1. 1 Bonnie February 2, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    Came back to Boston Friday from 8 days in Paris. Experiencing reverse culture shock (or is it mourning?), after only 8 days! Can only imagine how extreme your experience is after 7 years Sion! 😉

    I am sitting at home with a cup of tea pondering whether to share my last candied clementine from Une Dimanche à Paris with my husband.

    I think there should be a holiday celebrating citrus desserts: a Pierre Herme baba citron for breakfast, a Bouillion Racine deconstructed tarte citron for lunch, candied clementines for dinner, and tea, and before bedtime! Ahhh…if only it were possible!

    Enjoy the warmth and sun in Florida. Paris is pretty bleak right now. But, then again, there is nowhere I would rather be!


    • 2 paris (im)perfect February 2, 2014 at 9:29 pm

      Hey Bonnie. Thanks so much for comment! I’m all for a citrus holiday – yum! (I’m in a good state for that right now, too!)

      I’m glad you enjoyed your trip to Paris, bleak weather and all. It’s one of those magical tricks the city plays – even the bleak is chic!

      I will say I am definitely enjoying the culture shock of warmth and sun here. What a HAPPY shock!

      You have me hungering for a clementine now. Might mosey to go get one. Oh, and sharing is great but I can understand keeping the treat for yourself. Decisions, decisions!


  2. 3 Vanessa Blakeslee February 2, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    Fantastic. Loved the humor in the exchange w/the man just back from the Philippines and the horse-head-meat store. Our supermarkets never fail to overwhelm me here. Actually, all the big chain stores do. I aim to hurry in and out with a list of exactly what I need running through my mind. Otherwise I, too, am staring at shelves, doomed.


    • 4 paris (im)perfect February 2, 2014 at 9:59 pm

      Vanessa, I thought it was PERFECT that my first interaction was with someone else who had just arrived from abroad. Hilarious! I am still overwhelmed, but it’s fun. Grocery shopping is like my exciting outing now 🙂


  3. 5 PreteMoiParis February 2, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    LOL! It too me fe years too to figure out Picard!


  4. 7 Lee Isbell February 3, 2014 at 9:33 am

    I had a supermarket faux pas in Nice, where I rented an apartment completely by myself for a week. First time in the market I scooped up bags and bags of fruit (and spent 15 minutes looking at a multitude of vacuum-packed cubes trying to identlfy coffee) and put my acquisitions on the conveyor belt and waited in a long line with lots of men getting off from work and picking up a thing or two.

    At that point, the checker tried to explain to me with my lack of supermarket French that I had to weigh and tag all the bags. It seemed like a lifetime passed as I went back to the fruit department, found the scale and figured out how to weigh and tag. When I got back, all the men who’d been behind me in line were still waiting. Next horror was that I’d missed tagging one bag. Unbelievably they were all so patient and nice to me.


  5. 12 I Say Oui February 5, 2014 at 1:24 am

    I think reverse culture shock can be more difficult than culture shock because it can be less expected. That was my experience the first time, anyway.

    Your early days in Paris sound a lot like mine in that we stuffed our faces with crepes.

    The U.S. is definitely the land of choices! It can be wonderful but overwhelming too.


    • 13 paris (im)perfect February 5, 2014 at 2:03 am

      Yeah, I think studies have even shown that reverse culture shock is felt more acutely! Happily I’ve felt in between for so long that it’s no longer unpleasant – just interesting to notice what I’m experiencing in each place 🙂


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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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