Friday, May 29, 2009

zee mall

One of the things I like about traveling for long periods of time is the opportunity to observe the quotidian aspects of daily life in a different culture. I spent much of yesterday at the mall.

When I arrived in Lyon, a member of the train staff struck up a conversation with me in English and told me that he had visited Philadelphia:

“You know zee King of Prussia Mall?”

“No. I don't know it.”

“King of Prussia mall in Philadelphia?” he insisted.


“It is zee largest mall in Philadelphia!” He was as appalled as if I had said I had never heard of the Statue of Liberty.

It turns out that mall culture is pretty much the same in France as it is in the U.S. There are groups of giggling adolescents, exasperated moms with strollers, running children, and canoodling couples. Some elderly people sit quietly, people watching. This particular mall had a huge and impressive three story fountain in the middle.
There is fast food and just slower than fast food. (Yes, there was a McDonald's. This one featured a display promoting McDo as healthy using an enormous glass case full of clinical looking fake carrots immersed in clear tubes. It reminded me of the restaurant Founding Farmers in D.C.)

The products in the mall are only slightly different, but it was fascinating to visit the enormous grocery store/everything else store, sort of a combination between a huge grocery store and a Wal-Mart and a Costco, but without the huge bulk quantities.

The French take their food very seriously. As I gathered a few fruits and snacks, I admired the full aisle devoted to chocolate bars and noted there was also an enormous section for yogurt. The milk is not refrigerated. It comes in cartons. In the prepared food section, there was a man set apart from the others in a small booth devoted to a big wok of paella.

Twice I noticed people stealing. One man was chowing down pint of blackberries that rested in place in the produce section. As he stood talking to the woman with him, he put them in his mouth, one at a time and looked around surreptitiously, but it was clear that he didn't really care if he was caught. A bit later I noticed some teenagers standing in the candy aisle who had opened a bag of peanut M&Ms and were gathered around the treat as though one of them had slain a zebra.

I waited in line at the checkout. It seems like there is always a line 3 or 4 people deep. Americans would revolt. That little incident in 1789? Nothing. Toddler tantrum.

So I stood there, trying to observe the customs and mimic them. I spend a lot of time doing this lately: watching carefully and trying to follow along. The woman in front of me reached down and grabbed a large plastic bag, and the cashier rang it up and then put the groceries inside. I did the same. I still don't know the point, but it wasn't necessary. There were other bags.

The cashier picked up my produce bags one by one and gave me a disapproving glance between each one. She asked me something. I shook my head. She asked me again. I shook my head again. My responses are often based on what people expect me to say. Usually I say yes, but she clearly had busted me. I repented. I slowly realized that I was supposed to have the produce weighed and priced before I arrived. I waved her off and paid for the rest of my groceries. Oranges? Who needs juicy, sweet Spanish oranges?

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