Eating well is one of my greatest pleasures. Ironically, it also became much more of an effort once I started culinary school. Some days have been so busy, it is almost a bother. I ended up reconciling this by purchasing much more ready-made cuisine whilst in Paris. It’s not my top preference, but I was often short on time and was trying to manage my expenses by not eating in restaurants too often. But the irony of the situation was undeniable: Whilst I would be spending up to 3 hours making beautiful cakes during class, for meal times I did not really have the time or kitchen space at Isabelle’s flat to do more than microwaving or quick cooking on the stove top.
The marvelous thing about France is the enormous choice of products available in the supermarket. You can pretty much find any type of dish in a heat & eat format. Many of these are endorsed by chefs such as Paul Bocuse or with recipes adapted from well-regarded restaurants. Every ethnic dish can be found and of course all the old standbys of French cuisine are all available. And some of it gets quite inventive…snacks such as tangy Roquefort cheese wrapped in crispy crepes; or ready to eat individual polenta portions, done in an array of flavors and colors (yeah, try finding that either of those in a Geneva Migros!)
That first week of classes, I was food shopping in the Monoprix on rue Lecourbe, admiring the range of choice not to mention the alluring packaging. Of course, I ended up buying more than I expected, including different ready to eat exotic vegetable purees, multigrain crisp breads, fresh egg pastas and my beloved ravioles dauphinoises, steamed asian dumplings, wonderful looking soups and some delightful pots de crème for dessert. For just over 25 euros, I had a range of stuff to keep my tastebuds entertained for the rest of the week I was there. So much of the supermarket experience caters for the time poor, single person who lives in Paris with virtually no kitchen (and quite often no oven at all – shock and horror!). Packages are small but no effort is spared on providing an excellent array of variety and tempting choices.
As I stood there in the check-out queue, I happened to notice the man in front of me. He wasn’t especially distinctive in appearance, but compared to me and many others in the queue, his purchase was so small, not even requiring use of a shopping basket - a small can of bean cassoulet and a box of chocolate biscuits. I recall that he looked a bit agitated, as if he was really eager to get out of the queue and be on his way. But it was 9.30pm so even that wouldn’t be considered unusual I suppose – everyone in that queue (including me) was feeling that way. But for whatever reason, I noticed him. He reached the front of the queue and his purchases were rung up. The total was something small, like 2.55 euros. It was then that I noticed him carefully counting out the exact amount in euro pennies and pieces jaunes, a rather pained look on his face when he handed the clerk the last 5 cents in his palm. The clerk heaved a large sigh, counting all his coppery change as if it were a large chore. Then man quietly bagged his purchases, said thank you and left.
I completed my purchase and stepped out of the store, and spotted the same man again. Sitting quietly on the pavement with his knapsack, a plastic cup and the purchase he’d just made, it was now clear to me that he was homeless. Having watched what he purchased and all the small coins he’d used to buy those two humble items, I suddenly felt overwhelming sadness. I usually pass by these people without giving anything, often wondering what difference 5 cents could ever make …or just assuming that my donation will be used to pay for drugs or alcohol. But having seen what I’d just seen at the checkout, I’m guessing it probably took him most of the day to collect the small amount he’d just spent on beans and cookies. Meanwhile, I’d had the luxury of choice and abundance and was on my way to a comfortable place in which to enjoy it. I walked over to him, smiled and gave him all my change. “Merci beaucoup, madame” was all he said, his eyes meeting mine sincerely for only a moment then glancing down to his hands which were holding the cup of coins. There is definitely more I could do on this front, the first step being for me to gain a lot more sensitivity to the issue, but I felt I’d gained a valuable insight.