"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Shopping in Paris – expectations and things you should know

I consider myself an expert shopper, since I’ve done a “bit” in my life, OK, I've done ALOT! But I can safely say, with the 1-step program, moving to France, I am no longer a shopaholic, I’ve been cured.  In my previous blog about toilets, I made mention that America is the land of conveniences. Not only is it a land of conveniences, it is also a land of consumerism and with that comes a myriad of choices.  The American economy depends a lot on how much we spend, and is usually a gauge of economic strength. With that said, let’s move onto Paris.

Paris is not a country of consumerism, primarily because space is very limited, nor is it a city of buying frivolities, but of needs, unless of course you’re talking about food, which is a totally different story.  Paris has some incredible shops, boutiques and department stores, that is if you can #1 afford the prices, #2 you’re into “luxury” shopping rather than shopping for every day needs. Whenever, I walk by the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs Elysee, I always see a line of people trying to get in. And, surprisingly, many come out with bags. But than again, these are the nouvelle riche from China and Russia, who are enamored with anything “designer or name-brand.” French typically buy few items, and yes designer labels as well, but very good quality items. I have a friend who was so proud about his recent purchase of designer jeans. They normally cost 500€, but he got them for a bargain deal for 250€ the equivalent of almost $330. So, we spent half an hour praising him on his great find, imagine that?

Now for the day-to-day living in Paris, these are good tips to know if you decide you want to try and live here for an extended period of time. My first year was horrendous, I didn’t understand how anything worked. So, basically it was a year of trial and error shopping.  One-stop shopping in Paris does not exist, and only when you are out in the suburbs will you find mega-stores, but there are still certain things even a mega-store cannot sell, e.g., over the counter pharmaceutical, which I’ll discuss later. That is why when you have a dinner party, it may take a couple of days to prepare for it.

Here’s a few things you should know about shopping day-to-day in Paris:

GROCERY STORES.  You will find small grocery stores throughout Paris, such as ED, Franprix, G20, Huit8, Casino and Lidl to name a few. These are usually larger than a Ma and Pa store that we’re used to seeing in the US, and smaller than our supermarkets. There will also be larger grocery stores such as Carrefour and Monoprix more like our large supermarkets, with some Carrefours and Monoprixs selling clothing, toiletries, and household items like pots and pans in Paris. In most cases, with the exception of Monoprix, you will probably not find items like wrapping paper or greeting cards. You can find wrapping paper and greeting cards at some biblioteques (bookstores), or shops specializing in such items called “papiers". Remember, the paradigm changes when you're in the suburbs so Carrefours or Auchan department stores located in the suburbs are typically mega stores, that's probably because there's more space.

The grocery stores in Paris are fabulous. You can find patés, rich butters, confits, wonderful sausages, the freshest eggs and French food items that are common here and sometimes difficult to find in the US. For example their cheese aisle is amazing, you have many, many choices, and yes, cheddar or processed cheeses will be hard to find.  Now for the produce, surprisingly, grocery store produce is not of very good quality, with the exception of maybe Monoprix or Bon Marché.  This is pretty well known among local Parisians, and hence, they tend to buy their produce at their markets. This link is a helpful link to find what markets are open throughout Paris, Paris market map. Although it's in French, it does provide a wonderful map.

I recommend you buy a shopping cart, prices start at about 15€ ($18) it's not like your grandma's shopping cart, they come in different sizes, prints, and designer brands as well, with the German brands being the most sought after, but extremely expensive 50-85€ ($60-$100).  They are extremely useful for carrying heavy items and some as pictured left, can climb stairs. You see them all over Paris, and it is my prized purchase and possession.

In the Left Bank, you'll find Bon Marché very close to the Sevrés Babylon Metro. Pictured right is the fabulous produce at Bon Marché. Bon Marché means good or inexpensive store, on the contrary, Bon Marché is probably one of the most expensive department stores and grocery stores in Paris, but the quality of their food is excellent. Most Americans like shopping there, because of the convenience and the variety. And, you can find American style cream cheese. The French seem to be enamored with "le cheesecake."

At some grocery stores, unless the produce is prepacked and sold as an item, you will need to weigh your produce.  At the Produce section you will find a weight scale with pictures of various produce. Simply, place your produce on the scale, press the picture of your produce, e.g., tomatoes, and it will give you a price label that you merely stick on your bag. In some cases, there will be a clerk you can hand your produce to and they will weight it and put a little price label on it.

Grocery store scales

Once you've done your shopping you get in line and pay. It's no different than in the US; however, I believe the sales clerks have to take lessons from Nurse Ratchet before they can work at any grocery stores. They tend to be very cold, dour and not friendly. You will need to bag your own groceries, and in many grocery stores except Monoprix and Bon Marché they charge for plastic bags, typically 3 centimes. So, bring reusable bags, it's not only cheaper, but greener. Prices are somewhat comparable to the US, with the exception of meat, fish and chicken, they tend to be pricier when compared to the US.  Surprisingly, wine, cheese, patés, and smoked salmon (lox) are extremely inexpensive.  Note, grocery stores are typically not open on Sundays and usually open at 9 am and close around 9 pm. A few are starting to open Sundays, but they're not well advertised.

As I mentioned, because you don't have one-stop shopping, having a dinner party can be a challenge and a feat. But I sort of enjoy it. I will sometimes go to Chinatown for Asian vegetables, than off to the Butcher for certain meats, than to a cheese shop at our market, then to the pastry shop for some nice gateaux (cakes), a wine store (Nicolas) etc., gone are the days of going to e.g., Safeway, once to get all you need for a dinner party.

I strongly recommend if you live in a neighborhood, shop locally. Get to know your grocer, baker etc., you'll be surprised by just staying "bonjour, ça va?"(hello, how are you?) opens up a whole new world. And, if they see you enough, they know you're not a tourist, but are "local" and will treat you a little special. Jack has such a great relationship with his cheese vendor, they actually will save his favorite cheese, brebis (sheep cheese), for him if they're running low.

SPECIALITY FOOD MARKETS. if you require kosher or halal foods, kosher markets can easily be found in the Rue de Rossier (Old Jewish quarters) and parts of the 19eme, and Halal  can easily be found throughout Paris. There will be signs indicating "kosher" or "halal". There are also plenty of Asian markets which you can find in Chinatown, the 13eme being the largest Chinatown, and an up and coming Asian area district of Belleville. Tang Freres (Asian Market chain) is the Largest Asian market  outside of China.
                                                                                                        Kosher meat
Little India the Market Maven and I                                                                                    

There also exists a "Little India" just off the metro La Chapelle on line 2, where you will find fabulous spices and exotic fruits and vegetables.  And, off Barbès Rochechouart, you can find African markets. You'll also find throughout the city Boulangeries (bread shops), Patiseries (pastry shops), Boucheries (butchers), Fromageries (cheese shops), you get the picture.

MARKETS. Markets are a great way to shop. First of all, you get fresh air, and you shop where the locals shop. Not only will you find fruits and vegetables, but wonderful seafood, various meats and fowl.  You can even buy cooked items like roasted chicken with potatoes, which is mainstay for most on Sundays to bring home for the family dinner, plus the potatoes that sit at the bottom with all the drippings from the chicken coating the potatoes. French are not afraid of fat. You can find prepared foods such as paellas, and the list goes on. Interestingly, you can also find clothing, furniture, tablecloths household items and at a much reduced price compared to the department stores. And, you can even find horse meat (Chevaline) which I have to confess I've never tried, nor do I wish to try it.  A little trick, you can even find souvenirs at the markets for much less than the department stores.  Note: you cannot bargain as in some countries. The prices are fixed, unless of course you're at an antiques market.

French people have no problem splurging on good food and wine for themselves, family and close friends. If a Parisian invites you to socialize, nine-times-out-of-ten, it's not going to be in their homes. You will more likely meet at a café and/or a restaurant. Two reasons for this, Parisians entertain outside the home because apartments here are quite small, an average apartment is around 35 square meters about 380 square feet.  The French can spend hours at a café or a restaurant. Americans are more home centric, hence, we love entertaining in our homes. Typically you will not be invited to Parisians home unless you are family or very, very close friends, because it's considered their sanctuary, and of course because of the size constraints. But if you do get an invitation, it will be feast of good food and good conversation.

If you are interested in a guided tour of the markets, a very dear friend, Marie Johnston, aka  The French market maven will provide you a tour of the markets and even help you cook your great finds in her apartment, with a fabulous view of the Eiffel Tower.Or, if you are interested in a personal food tour check out "Context tours".

BOUTIQUES AND SPECIALTY STORES. You will find these throughout Paris, and some are even open on Sunday, such as in the Marais district. Ironically, the main shopping boulevard in the Marais is "Bourgeois" which they close off for Pedestrians on Sundays. When entering a smaller store or a boutique, you are entering their "home", so always be courteous by saying "bonjour" (hello) first. If you don't, you will be perceived as rude and they will be rude back to you, trust me!  Customer service is always customer driven, not proprietor driven, completely reversed from the US paradigm. They are "of service" not "at your service".  You can find some incredible one-of-a-kind items. They tend to be expensive, but if you're looking for something unique and prefer smaller boutiques, this shopping is for you.

There are all sorts of department stores and malls. You'll find the well known shopping areas concentrated behind the L'Opera, where you will find such stores as the Galeries Lafayette Printemps, Zara, HM.  And, if you venture out a little bit and take the Line #1 metro to the end to "La Defense", there is a huge shopping mall. Be forewarned, the department stores and malls tend to be extremely crowded and busy on the week-ends.

The more popular department store is BHV, located in the heart of Paris in the 3eme, right across from the Hôtel de Ville (Mayor's office) where you can buy anything from clothes, household goods, to even hardware. Keep in mind stores in Paris under stock, whereas stores in US overstock. Also, you're not going to have the variety as you have in the states. In some way it's easier, because you don't have that many choices. So, if you see something you like or more importantly need, buy it. Oftentimes, I find what I need and return to find them already sold, never to be seen again.

Keep in mind a lot of items are very expensive in Paris. I once asked a French friend of mine why everything is so expensive? for example, if you buy a standard pillow at BHV you can pay as much as 50€ ($66) for one pillow. He said, because labor is expensive and taxes are high, so that's why it's expensive. But in return, they get wonderful social services like a minimum of 4-weeks vacation, fantastic retirement benefits and good inexpensive health care.

You can buy toiletries at department stores, and some supermarkets. But they tend to be very expensive. So for example a small normal size dental floss, don't be shocked if it costs around $7, even for lip balm it's between $5-7. Mouth wash is also very expensive. What I typically do, as most Europeans who travel to the US,  I stock up on all things expensive in Europe, but inexpensive in the U.S.. And, recently I brought back a valise, for which I had to pay an additional $50, with kitchen utensils and toiletries, clothes and shoes. Even though I paid $50 for the extra valise, I still saved quite a bit of money had I bought the items in Paris. Tip, bring Q-tips from the US. The Q-tips here will kill you or give you brain damage. And, unless you like wrestling with plastic wrap, always bring back plastic wrap as well as aluminum foil. The French aluminum foil is like thin paper.

PICARD.  This is a specialty food store that you'll find throughout Paris. They specialize in frozen foods. It is often said that, "Monsieur Picard is a French housewife's best friend."

Typically, I do not like to buy frozen foods, especially vegetables; however, I find this store to be simply amazing. The food display and presentation are just incredibly beautiful. Where else can you buy foie gras, confit de canard or canapes that you can bring from freezer to table, and as you can see from the photo below they're beautiful and I can attest they tasted good. And, the desserts are incredible. Bottom line, if you need something quick and don't have the time, don't pass up this incredible store.

PHARMACEUTICALS.  They say, France is filled with hypochondriacs, I guess I fit in well. It's not uncommon to see a pharmacy every 2-blocks.

Only pharmacy's can sell over the counter medicines. You will not find aspirins, tylenol or anything like that that in the grocery stores or department stores, by law they can only be sold at a pharmacy.  Now here is where it gets interesting, pharmaceuticals in France are at least a quarter or sometimes even half the cost of U.S. pharmaceuticals for the exact same items.  And, France has most of the same pharmaceuticals we have in the U.S. like alka-seltzer, actifed, imodium etc.  Also, the bigger difference is that the Pharmacists in France are allowed to give you prescription medication. You can go in and tell them what's ailing you and they can actually prescribe medication for you.  Vitamin supplements can also be bought at pharmacy's and also health food stores such as BIO (pronounced bee-oo) or Naturalia, but vitamins and health supplements in health food stores tend to be quite expensive, so bring them from the U.S.

ANTIQUE SHOPPING. Antique shopping can be quite fun.  There are several antique shops throughout Paris and also what they call marché aux puces (flea markets). This is a website quite helpful to locating the markets, Antique and flea markets.

My favorite antique/flea market is at the Port de Vanves. If you search, you can find amazing finds, but you can also find some real junk. And, yes you can bargain.

Summary:  Shopping in Paris is not better or worse, it's just different. Most of the stuff we have in the US you can find in France, or an equivalent. You learn that if you need cream cheese, you go to Bon Marché or Galeríes Lafayette, but pay a premium, about $6 for 6 ounces.  Peanut butter is not very popular in France, but can be purchased in Chinatown, or the Arab markets. They have an international food section in most groceries, albeit limited, which will sometimes have Mexican, Chinese, and yes on occasion peanut butter. Be aware though, the peanut butter is filled with sugar. I recommend bringing some from the US or making your own.

Shopping is not a sport here, there are, however, 2-sale months sanctioned by the government, it's in January and July. And, oftentimes Parisians will save up for these events and literally buy everything in sight that they'll need for the next 6-months, like shoes and children's clothing.

I've always enjoyed shopping, but living in Paris has taught me to shop smarter. Because homes are smaller, we don't buy in bulk, nor do we have gigantic refrigerators or freezers where we can store food for years. I have to shop more frequently for our daily grocery needs. In a way it's good, because #1 I don't spoil food, hence, less garbage, #2  shopping every day ensures our quality of food is fresher and healthier. I still haven't learned how to cook for 2, but I am getting better. And, as for clothing, if I buy something, I have to be willing to throw something out in it's place, because we just don't have the closet space.

With this said, I shop for what I need, and it is no longer a sport for me. So, I guess my 1-step program of moving to Paris has cured me of my shopaholism.  Hopefully, this will carry on when I'm in the U.S. as well.


  1. Excellent article! Thank you for sharing your advice and experience.


  2. Have been visiting Paris since 1952, spending a month (May or September)each year for the last 18 years, I cannot find anything with which to disagree. A truly splendid and informative article. I read "French or Foe" by Polly Platt about 20 years ago which simply explains the French and their customs, particularly the obligatory "Bonjour, Madam" as you enter a shop. Only one person has ever been rude to me, but she was rude to everyone. I have even had a lot of experience with the American Hospital, for which Kaiser cheerfully reimbursed me. (They greet me as an old friend in the emergency reception area)

    Dave Reedy