I am incredibly proud that I ventured out to do food shopping as soon as I arrived in Paris. I refuse to let the potential humiliation of speaking French badly — or speaking bad French — stop me.
This is not false modesty. Particularly under stress —on a check-out line or anywhere in public for that matter — I barely remember nouns and never their gender. Verbs and their myriad tenses intimidate me. Some days, I get by; others I can’t string a sentence together. I know just enough to ask a question and then struggle to comprehend the answer.
To wit, I visit to “our” épicerie, a small supermarket nearby. I offer the customary “Bon jour,” quickly switching to “Bon soir,” because it’s past 17:00, (5 pm). The manager says something and looks at me. I smile, because that’s what Americans do when they’re anxious. I begin to comprehend when I hear “le caddy.” He points to a corner near the cash registers.
I dutifully wheel my blue canvas cart next to a black faux-patent-leather model, relieved that there is no dog tied up next to it. In principle, I love that shoppers have a spot inside for their dogs while they shop. But this is my last stop before home, and my cart is filled with delicacies from rue Cler.
It takes me ten minutes to find the items I came for, return to the register, and begin to unload. I don’t need to say anything — thankfully. Then, I begin to retrieve my groceries from the counter.
The moment I reach for my cart, I know from tugging on the handle that it’s not mine. It looks like my cart, but it’s too heavy. Panicked and hoping that I’m wrong, I open the flap and reach inside to discover an ocean of frozen food. This is definitely not my cart.
“Ce ne pas mon caddy!” As the words come out, I’m aware that the sentence is missing a verb. I only hope I’ve gotten my point across.
In response to her blank stare, I add what I believe is further “proof” that someone has taken my cart. “Je ne vais pas en Picard! Regardez!” I say, forcing her to look into le caddy. Picard, a market a few doors away, sells only frozen foods.
The cashier, observing my increasingly agitated state, continues to eye me suspiciously. I imagine — but don’t have the language to verify — that she doesn’t believe me and thinks I’m just trying to get out of paying.
It is clear to the young clerk standing nearby — and to other shoppers — that something is wrong. He speaks English “a little” and tries to help. I keep saying the same thing in French and English, as if repetition will somehow make them understand: This is not my cart. Someone must have taken my cart. Je sais que c’était une erreur. I’m not accusing anyone, but this is not my cart.
Both the cashier and the young man point to the shiny black cart. Could that be mine? No, I try to explain; mine didn’t look like that. That is not my cart either.
The manager joins our tableau. More discussion but I’m sure he doesn’t believe me either. Having no solution, the manager simply walks away. He looks fed up and mutters something about l’americaine.
“I understood that,” I lie. He doesn’t seem to mind insulting me to my face.
I then do what any desperate person would do: reach for my phone. I will call Françoise, my intrepid Parisian friend. She will rescue me, and this will be a story we’ll laugh about for years to come. I madly search my pockets and can’t my phone. I must have left it home. Or, did I absently put it in the cart?
Now, I’m in trouble. A chic sixty-something enters the store in high-heeled boots and perfectly hemmed wide-legged slacks. She is probably French or perhaps an urbane American who’s been here for decades. She glances my way for a second. Do I detect an air of condescension? Or is that compassion; she understands that I need help? She keeps walking.
Finally, the young man who speaks English offers to show me the store’s video feed. I’m told I have to wait. (I’m not sure for what, but I have no where to go and nothing to eat for dinner.)
“Oui, j’attends.” I cringe at the thought of watching video footage with the manager, replaying — what — customers at the register? I’m supposed to spot my cart and identify the culprit? And all this in French?
Luckily, my hero appears out of nowhere: the husband of the woman who accidentally grabbed mon caddy. He spews apologies, and I thank him profusely. I can only imagine his wife’s horror when she returned home, ready to stock her freezer for the next month, only to find an assortment of small plastic containers, endives, a leek, a few lemons, and herbs.
Relieved and already writing this piece in my head, I go home, eager to share this story with my partner, who would rather juggle several fifty-pound bags than use a grocery cart.
“I had an adventure at our little épicerie today — and it involved the cart.”
“Oh, no! What?” she asks, already horrified. Did they accuse you of stealing?”
“Seriously, that’s your first guess?” I am not sure whether her response is a reflection of her opinion of me or of the French. “No. It was worse….Someone stole my cart and no one believed me.”