When I first started going to Paris grocery shopping was an especial learning challenge.
The problems weren’t particularly related to my lack of French language skills.
I could always linguistically lurch through each new encounter and get where I needed to be from a speaking viewpoint.
The problems were cultural.
One example of this was the checkout procedure.
French checkers sit down as they scan stuff into a pile on the counter side toward the exit.
It took me a couple of times – one to realize, and one to remember the realization, that it was my job to bag my stuff.
“OK” I said. I can do that. (The fact that I had worked for a brief time when quite young at the neighborhood grocery reinforced that belief.)
And of course I could. Any goon can put things in a bag. And I was certainly any goon.
That probably seems to be a minor cultural difference, easily perceived, and easily accommodated.
And it was.
But there was a more subtle cultural trait imbedded in the obvious one.
And it was one whose effect was manifested immediately, but which took some thought and practice to accommodate.
That trait was that once a customer’s stuff (mine in the example at hand) had been scanned and piled on the counter’s exit side, the process began immediately on the stuff of the next customer in line.
If one was not fast with one’s bagging, one was quickly engulfed in another customers stuff.
And if, as was the case with me, a killer combination of forgetfulness and hysteria engulfed one it was easy to start bagging stuff that didn’t belong to one.
And that generated other cultural traits.
And those traits required language skills.
And I lacked those skills.
And I had several interesting experiences.
And I got damn good at being damn fast damn quick at bagging.
In the early stages of my getting good I set a goal each time while waiting in line to be scanned foe what amount of time – in seconds - I was going to allow myself from the point of first scan to the point of last scan before I was out the exit.
I got so good that there were times when I was drumming my fingers on the counter as a sign of annoyance that the last item was still in process while the last item was in process.
As time has gone on either I have become consistently expert at avoiding customer amalgamation, or the scanners have become less aggressively fast, or I have just gotten more used to dealing with my fellow Frenchmen.
God knows I have gotten quite good at being able to speak, especially when I feel threatened.
No matter what has caused the disappearance of the problem, I have never forgotten those early days in the checkout line at Marché Champion.
Recently I spent some time in Italy for the first time.
It was in Florence.
We had a nice apartment with a nice kitchen.
So we were planning to cook some of our meals rather than eating out.
Which meant going to a super market for supplies.
Which re-opened all kinds of neuroses and fears.
Was I up to the task of learning a whole new set of methods and cultural processes, with my ability to cope exacerbated by a complete lack of any Italian language skills?
I found the closest supermarket the evening of our third day in Florence.
As is usually the case in old European cities, the size of a place can’t be divined from the size of its entrance.
The entry to this market was almost not to be seen from the street.
Just like in Paris.
When I got inside I was in the produce department.
It was so copious that it would have been called a “Farmers’ Market” in the United States.
Just like in Paris.
The produce department, it turned out, was just a minor pseudopod of a massive labyrinth that shuttled hither and yon off in various directions.
The place was huge.
Just like in Paris.
Before leaving the produce department (la marché de la crudité, peut être) I took stock of how one would check out the produce one had chosen.
I was overwhelmingly relieved: there was a scale with pictures of what it was that one wanted to buy.
Just like in Paris.
So, I thought, I was ready.
But it would be for another day.
I didn’t need anything just then; we were eating on the town that night.
That day came two days later.
I had noticed that the store’s hours were 0830 to 2030.
I always like to get things done early.
So I was there at the door to the produce department about 0845.
As I entered I encountered two women handing out something – sacks – it looked to be.
Just like in Paris: at this time of the year volunteers go to the supermarkets and get people to buy stuff for the local food bank.
I took a sack as if I knew what I was doing and was going to do something about it.
I should have made note of the fact that on the day – several years before – in Paris, I had taken a sack from similar people as I had entered Champion, only to be hurled a few minutes later into a catastrophe involving a roller market sack and a vast quantity of glass jars of brown goo.
But I didn’t notice: just like in Paris.
The food bank ladies were just inside the door of the place.
Immediately inside their station began the various displays of various forms of various types of produce.
For example, the two ladies were immediately in front of the banana display.
And immediately to the left of that display was the orange display. That was where the clementines were.
And there were, stationed above the bananas and clementines, rolls of sacks.
The sacks were sort of pink.
“Italy” I guessed to myself, as I reached up to snatch with the confident produce shoppers downward rip, of the roll, and got a rather large pink sack.
Bananas, I said to myself.
And then I tried to put a bunch in my sack.
And they didn’t fit.
The sack seemed much bigger than necessary to contain the bananas but they barely went in a little way into what seemed to be a quite long sack.
I grasped both ends of my sack and shook it to drive the bananas down in.
They fell on the floor.
“Shit” I said.
The ladies looked at me.
I picked up the bananas, put them back in the sack – as far as they would fit, which was not much – and returned hem to the banana pile.
I looked over at the rest of the fruit and saw a nice display of clementines.
Clementines were on my list.
I snapped off another sack and put a clementine in.
Then I put a second, and then a third.
The third fell out the bottom and hit the floor and rolled up to the feet of one of the ladies.
I didn't say anything.
She just looked at me.
I stooped over and picked up the stray clementine.
I put the sack with two clementines in it and the third clementine back with the rest of them.
I was ready to give up.
And I would have if it hadn’t been for the fact that, as I replaced the fruit I looked at the roll of sacks just above it.
And I noticed something.
Those sacks had the outline of a human hand on them.
And they had fingers.
And they weren’t very large – certainly not as large as the one that I had tried to put the bananas in.
It began to dawn on me: “These things are for picking out fruit – sort of fruit picking gloves. And their size and shape make them totally unfit for carrying fruit home.”
And a secondary realization began to dawn: “There must be a roll of (and as these words passed my brain I saw the roll of real produce bags)…”
With amazing speed I bagged some bananas, some clementines, weighed and tagged them at the scale with the pictures of what it is you are trying to buy and withdrew into the inner recesses of the store to buy the rest of what I had come for.
I have been checking YouTube for the in-store video ever since.