Friday, November 14, 2008

At the caisse

One of my proudest accomplishments as a resident of France is my competence in the check-out line at the grocery store. (It's the little things.) In America, of course, you unload your groceries onto the conveyor belt and then, if you're me, you stand there and eavesdrop on the conversation behind you, or watch the woman wrangling with her two year old in the aisle, or work out what time the sitter's coming and if you should get movie tickets in advance. Meanwhile, someone bags your groceries and puts the bags back in your grocery cart.

Not here. One of the most stressful things about visiting France before we moved here was the trip to the grocery store for picnic supplies, or chocolate and biscuits to take home. I would unload my cart onto the belt. The checker would run each item over the scanner and slide it down the ramp, where it would join its fellows in a jumble. I would take out my grocery bag--at least I knew I was supposed to bring my own--and frantically try to load everything up without putting the eggs and the bananas under the jar of Nutella. Meanwhile, the checker would finish, call out the amount in thick impenetrable syrupy French, and wait, no doubt tapping her foot impatiently under the counter. I would toggle between loading the groceries and digging out my wallet, all the while trying to remain calm as the line lengthened behind me. One time, I remember, I bought a leaky bottle of Badoit, and the cashier sent me back to the Water Aisle to replace it. My French held up for that exchange, but that I remember it at all suggests that it was the event of the day.

The first months that we were here the grocery check out continued to be stressful. I would unload, walk through the scanner that was making sure I hadn't pocketed a tin of foie gras or a magnum of Lafitte-Rothschild, open up my grocery sacks and begin hurriedly bagging. Invariably the lettuce and the brioche loaf would come down the belt first and the canned goods last, which meant that I had to choose between putting the lettuce and the brioche at the bottom of a bag, where they would be crushed by the heavy cans of tomatoes, or putting the light, fragile items in their own bag and the heavy things in a separate bag. Neither solution was satisfying: either I'd end up with bruised vegetables or a bag I couldn't lift.

Then one day I noticed that the woman in front of me in the check out line did not have any grocery bags. La pauvre, I thought. Is she going to carry all those groceries to her car? How awful to be new to a country and not know how things work. She unloaded onto the belt and then--and then--she reloaded the groceries into her chariot. (Aside: how plebian is a cart, how regal is a chariot, even if its wheels all roll in different directions.) I was intrigued. Then I fell behind in my own unloading procedure and forgot about it.

When I got to the parking lot, though, I saw the woman again. She was standing by the open trunk of her car. The trunk was full of grocery bags. She was calmly bagging her groceries, putting the heavy things in the bottom of the bags, the fragile things on top, distributing the weight evenly, sorting and ordering her groceries.

It was a revelation. I went right home and called C at the office. He was only moderately impressed, since he is the sort of person who is not overly concerned about the time it takes to bag groceries and doesn't notice the weight of a bag full of nothing but orange juice cartons and bags of flour. But the next time I went to the store, I left my bags in the car. I put my groceries on the belt, pushed my chariot through the detector, and put my groceries back in the basket. Instead of looking out for the lettuce, I just put everything in the basket as it came through and then, leisurely, took out my wallet and paid. I pushed the cart back out to the car and slowly, carefully, methodically sorted the groceries into their bags--cold things together; fragile things on top--while standing at the open trunk.

It's what happens, I guess, when you put a mind that is used to identifying problems, researching them, categorizing them, into the life of a French ménagère. I approach the Problem of the Grocery Check Out in the same way that I used to approach the Issue of Servant Life in America Between the Wars, or the always-delicate Debate About What Porcelain to Exhibit for Christmas. Identify the problem--stress at the caisse. Research solutions--open the bags in the cart? use boxes instead of bags? aha! bag at the car. Now I'm to the refining stage, making my system ever more elegant. I put the heavy items together in one part of the cart and keep the light, small or fragile items in another section. When I unload, I unload like with like. The caissière sends like with like, then, down the ramp, and like stay together in the reloaded chariot. And then I load at the car, and have bags that I can easily carry, with things that belong together in each.

It is, I know, a small thing, but like so many small things about living in a foreign county, mastery of it makes a difference. I'm not waiting anymore for the cans of tomatoes to come through before I bag. I can relax and watch the woman in the next aisle with the toddler, and speculate on the nationality of the older man with the chariot full of gin behind me (probably English). I can even eavesdrop a little and, maybe, if the cashier's feeling friendly, engage in a little small talk. It's one more step toward feeling at home.

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