Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Summer Vacation

I’ve recently returned from my first vacation in several years – a week in Paris. This trip was a present to my niece, H (not her real name…), as a slightly belated reward for her graduation from med school in May. My first clue that this would not be my typical vacation should have been the difference in our choice of travel books. I chose The Eyewitness Guide to Paris; she chose another well-regarded book, The Riches of Paris, subtitled “a shopping and touring guide.”

I knew that shopping was one of her priorities, and that seemed perfectly reasonable. However, as a single man, apparently I had somehow managed to live my entire life without ever really understanding shopping. My uninformed view of the shopping process was: you need shoes, you go to a shoe store, you buy shoes, you go home. I understand now that is not “shopping.” At last count, we had visited 366,259 stores. I spent more time shopping in one week than I had in the previous 10 years combined.

When we weren’t out shopping for clothes, we were… shopping – for food. You can learn lot about a people by how they shop. Parisians’ love for food is reflected in their seemingly endless array of specialty food stores: boulangeries (bakeries), poissonneries (fish), fromageries (cheese), patisseries (pastry), boucheries (meat), chocolateries, and others whose French names I forget, such as fruit stands. (I know we have many of those as well, but not five of each within a five minute walk.)

My most memorable incident occurred while food shopping. Each morning my niece and I would shop for the morning’s supply of bread, cheese and fruit. We stuck to our favorite breads, but bought two or three new, to us anyway, cheeses each day -- and could have continued to do so for at least another month. The fruit that first caught our attention was figs – partly because there were so many, partly because there were so many varieties, and partly because I don’t remember ever seeing a fig in a store before. We tried a couple of different versions of figs right off the bat; they were nothing special. Another curiosity was a melon of some kind that was nearly as ubiquitous as the figs. On Friday, we decided the time had come to try one. When I asked to buy one (full disclosure: there was some pointing involved) the vendor’s response was “Pour aujourd’hui ou demain?” -- “For today or tomorrow?” ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I can think of nothing that is as representative of the difference between French and American attitudes toward food as that fruit vendor’s simple question.

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