Adventures at the Monoprix
Some expats describe Monoprix as the French version of Target, but that’s like saying that the saddest CVS Pharmacy you have ever set foot in is the American version of…well…Target.
At any rate, Monoprix is still your best option if you have to buy things in different categories and don’t feel like going to a dozen different stores. Let’s say you need shampoo, apples, batteries, washcloths, and wrapping paper, but you don’t want to go to the pharmacy, the market, the battery store, the home goods store, and the paperie — then you go to Monoprix. Like Target, only different, because Monoprix is way more expensive and way less cool, and it looks like it was organised by a toddler. Not a gifted toddler, but a regular one, who doesn’t know where anything goes and whose hands are always covered in Capri Sun, so everything is both misplaced and sticky. Also, there is no French version of Isaac Mizrahi designing leather jackets for Monoprix, and no French version of Jonathan Adler designing lamps and pillows for Monoprix. Don’t even think about Chip and Joanna.
Anyway, a few days ago, I went to the nearest big Monoprix to buy socks and wrapping paper. After hunting down the socks (victory!), I found the wrapping paper jammed in among the anti-calcium cleaning fluid and individually wrapped face masks. I was pleasantly surprised to find a good selection of wrapping paper, in a variety of patterns and colors. The sign on the wrapping paper display said 2+1. That’s all it said. No further explanation given. I thought, Yay! That means buy two, get one free. Or maybe it means two for the price of one. Either way, I figured, that’s a good deal. As long as I buy three, either the third one will be free, or the second one will be free. Or something.
Then I noticed all of the wrapping papers had different codes. There were about 20 codes in all, beginning with K1 and ending with KN. It was unclear why the K was sometimes followed by a number and sometimes by a letter, but who cares. I figured I just needed to find three wrapping papers with the same code. This only took about half an hour, which is an eternity in Target time but a mere blink of an eye in Monoprix time. Parisian stores go by an entirely different temporal philosophy than American stores. At Target, for example, the more time I spend, the more I buy. At Monoprix, the more time I spend, the less I find, the more I scratch my head in bafflement, and the less I walk out with. At Target, I put things in my giant cart and they stay there. At Monoprix, I put things in my tiny basket and take them out a dozen times before I get to the checkout. At Target, everything in my basket looks beautiful and necessary at least until I get it to my car. At Monoprix, I start having buyer’s remorse long before I buy anything.
At any rate, after half an hour of trying to find three rolls of paper with matching codes (I went with KL, on account of the penguins), I realized I should look up the codes to see how much my KL wrapping paper cost. This involved finding a separate wrapping paper display elsewhere in the store, on another floor, past dim stairwells filled with chocolate covered cherries and baby clothes printed with American words like “Fun Times!” and much cuter French words like le petit loup. When at last I found the price list for the codes, I saw that items marked KL were 3.99 euros each. Which meant that, if this was a two-for one deal or a buy two get one free deal, it should be about 8 euros for three rolls of wrapping paper, which seemed pretty good.
I did the rest of my shopping, which took another hour and a half, then went in search of the livraison counter to have my order delivered. For free! I’d never done delivery before but I had heard it was possible. All you have to do is spend 50 euros. My rolling basket was full, and I did not want to part with the six-pack of Badoit (one of the secret glories of France). I could either face the awkwardness of trying to figure out delivery right now, or face the awkwardness of carrying my bags a mile and a half through the smoke and rain and traffic while trying to navigate on my phone. Livraison it was. Wishing myself bon courage, I headed past the meat counter, through the maze of empty boxes scattered about the aisles and tottering in tall stacks at every intersection.
I was about to give up on delivery and set down the Badoit, when I saw a tiny sign for livraison hanging above the cheese lady. After a few wrong turns and several apologetic pardons I eventually found the counter, where the clerk seemed surprised to see me. Roughly 79% of the people in charge of taking your money in Paris will begin by looking surprised to see you. Their expression will make you wonder if you have arrived at a very dull party to which you are not invited, rather than a checkout counter, and for several moments they will seem to be telepathically communicating to you the idea that if you do for some bizarre reason expect a transaction to take place, you cannot possibly expect them to get involved in it. Maybe this has to do with France’s lingering discomfort with capitalism, or maybe they think if they keep looking surprised, you’ll eventually go away. For better or worse, I almost always stand my ground.
There was some confusion at first, followed by pity when the checkout guy realized I don’t know my numbers in French. Pity is the surest way to a French checkout person’s heart. He made me come around the counter to fill out my address and other vitals on the computer — I’ve gotten really good at filling things out on other people’s computers. Two people appeared from nowhere to start frantically bagging my goods, which was a pleasant surprise. Everywhere you go in Paris, you have to bag your own groceries. Now it was my turn to be surprised. I’d just discovered a secret portal that led to the land of Other-People-Bagging. It was magic, and I hoped I could find the portal again.
“Merci!” I exclaimed.
“De rien!” said the bagging couple in unison. (De rien, which means it’s nothing, is how you say you’re welcome. Rien is pronounced sort of like rayon, but faster, easy on the n.)
After that, everything went pretty smoothly, except the part with the chicken. The bagging couple informed me — ensemble, with hand gestures — that I would have to carry the poulet myself, and also the wrapping paper. As the wrapping paper was the biggest and most awkward item I’d purchased, and also the most likely to be ruined by the rain, and the poulet was the messiest, I instantly regretted having opted for delivery, but by that point it was too late. The surprised man and I had entered into a contract, and if there’s one thing you don’t break in Paris, it’s a contract. Also, I had gone around to his side of the counter and touched his computer. It felt too intimate to back out now.
My bill for three rolls of wrapping paper, a bit of ribbon, Special K, a little cheese, a carton of strawberry-banana smoothie, four rolls of toilet paper, the poulet, des radis, three bananas, a box of cookies, a bag of lettuce, a tiny pouch of baby carrots (I buy pre-packaged produce to avoid weighing and tagging my produce at some mythical weighing and tagging station I’ve never been able to find), and a pair of socks came to 199 euros. Oh, and a pair of tights. I didn’t remember the tights, but whatever; they looked like the right size, and I needed tights.
199 euros seemed like a lot, but by that point I was too exhausted to ask, and the guy didn’t offer me a receipt, and anyway, I wanted to get out of there, because the guy who rang me up and the delivery couple were talking to each other about how I didn’t speak French. I didn’t bother to say, Je peux vous entendre! Je comprends! because it didn’t matter that I understood them in that moment. I certainly didn’t understand Monoprix, or shopping, or 2+1, or euros, or kilos, or anything else about France, and anyway, I had to race home to be there when the delivery arrived. When Monoprix says fast delivery, they mean fast delivery. I wanted to ask if there was an option for slow delivery, but that request was well beyond my skill set. Ostensibly, you are having your order delivered because it’s too heavy to carry home and you don’t dare drive in Paris, because you don’t have a death wish. The fact that you don’t drive in Paris means you did not drive to Monoprix, which means you have to walk home, which really means you have to run home, because they aren’t joking when they say they’ll have it to you within the hour.
I got lost on my way home, as I usually do, which is not Paris’s fault, obviously. I could get lost in a corn maze if the corn maze had only, you know, one ear of corn. I got home, wet wrapping paper and all, just in time to open the door to the Monoprix man. As he set the two bags inside my door, I thought, “I probably could have carried that.” He handed me a receipt.
“Merci beaucoup!” I said.
“De rien,” he replied, backing into the elevator as if he didn’t quite trust me. Ordinary American people like myself often feel mistrusted in Paris, but that is a whole ‘nother histoire.
After he left, I did something I never do (maybe I’m becoming a little bit French): I found a pen and went over the receipt item by item, because I was certain I’d been charged for someone else’s groceries. How could these two bags add up to 199 euros? As it turned out, I had actually received every item I purchased. The disconnect involved the cheese (because I haven’t quite wrapped my head around price-per-kilo, which is so mind-blowingly metric), and wrapping paper, which was not, as it turned out, 2 — for-one. Even though the price codes at the store had said 3.99 euros each, the wrapping paper was actually 7.99 euros each. I wasn’t sure how this was possible. Either the guy entered the codes wrong (unlikely), or there was a charge for not buying 2+1 (whatever 2+1 means in French), so that instead of paying 3.99 each, you pay 7.99 each for the crime of being an imbecile.
I call it the imbecile tax, or, when I am feeling the inclination for self-kindness, the foreigners’ tax. I pay this tax quite often in Paris. I consider it my own personal contribution to France’s uneasy experiment with capitalism. De rien.
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels and two story collections. Her most recent novel, The Marriage Pact, has been published in 30 languages. Subscribe to The Reluctant Parisian to receive new posts from Paris in your inbox.
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