French supermarkets: a microcosm of national stereotypes

Alice King 26 October 2017

What links blue tac, bacon and baked beans, aside from a speculative attempt at alliteration on the part of the writer? Traipse around a French supermarket and you may just hit upon the answer. Or not, since it is their very absence that forms the basis for this particularly petulant diatribe. For across the Channel, these inherently practical items are, well, practically impossible to commandeer. As the old saying goes, one man's cultural nuance is another man's bloody nuisance.

We will start with the most readily obvious of these infractions, namely the glaring omission of certain foodstuffs on the part of our nearest neighbours. And, to the aforementioned culinary gaps, we could just as easily add sliced bread, peanut butter and most condiments. Whilst even the most iconoclastic food critic would be hard pressed to find fault with Gallic gastronomy, the dominance of artisanal bakery is difficult to reconcile with the very British predilection for having toast at least two meals a day. As for peanut butter, I appreciate the protectionist measure against American imperialism, but I await the development of a spread so naturally suited to both savoury and sweet accoutrements.

On this note, where is the cream cheese? Apparently, there are over 400 types of cheese produced in France — to my knowledge, cheddar represents the sole British contribution — yet clearly this has not translated into the spreadable domain. And, despite such bovine ubiquity, it remains impossible to buy fresh milk. I am no veterinary surgeon, but surely any dairy product with a lifespan longer than the cow itself cannot be good for you. Faced with bread that will go stale approximately seven minutes after buying it, and an overwhelming choice by way of fruit preserves — I would steer well clear of the prune jam — a first visit to the supermarket is undoubtedly a daunting experience for the uninitiated.

However, this alimentary inconvenience is only just the beginning. Try, for instance, to procure some blue-tac. Once shaken of its Cambridge-specific cultural baggage, you realise just how useful this inoffensive adhesive can prove to be, not least as a facile means of procrastination. Any student worth their salt will have at their disposal an abundant selection of amusing photos and pseudo-edgy music posters that need fixing to some new breeze-block walls, but rest assured this is a thankless task when equipped with little more than post-it notes and a pritt stick.

With my first lecture imminent, I trudge further down the stationery aisle in search of some lined-paper. By this stage, any concerns about GSM quality have gone right out the window, and it is just as well as the only pad I can find is thin and dusty, probably the result of several years' sojourn on the back shelf. And, surveying my fellow students the following morning in art history, I notice why this might be the case. As it turns out, everyone in France uses that weird squared paper that was last seen in the maths classroom in year 11. I know Descartes is a popular man across the Channel, but that is no reason to carve up innocent parchment into thousands of tiny cubes.

However, the most unforgivable affront to common sense, the veritable pinnacle of administrative illogicality, must be reserved for French publishers. As well as insisting on size three font, most choose to place the contents page at the back of the book. How can this ever be helpful?! Quentin Tarantino may have reached critical acclaim by choosing to start most of his films at the dénouement, but he is an experimental artist, not a student with an impending deadline.

Always one to remain magnanimous in my cultural condescension, however, I feel compelled to point out that French have actually had some pretty cunning ideas of their own. For example, in my local Super-U — roughly equivalent to Morrison's in the poshness stakes — there is a special escalator system purely designed to transport your trolley upstairs. Great! When does this hit our shores?! There is just one slight snag: the one that takes it down again has been broken for the last three weeks. Actually, if someone could rescue me from the poultry aisle on the top floor, I would be most grateful.