A foreigner walked into a supermarché in rural France.
He was hungry, and happy to have found a place where he could get most of what he needed and so minimize his driving around, though the quality of Carrefour’s goods wouldn’t be up to the snuff of small local shops like the village boulangerie and the boucherie, and surely the stark ambiance would be trying.
Goodness, what an array of stuff, everything from figs to frying pans! The foreigner noticed that things weren’t arranged as he might have arranged them, or how they might have been arranged in, say, a Whole Foods store. So it seemed that this expedition might take longer than anticipated. It was already later in the day than he’d wanted to shop, and his visit collided with the arrival of many of the locals; their numbers grew as he wound his way through the aisles, wondering where some things were but being pleasantly surprised by the voluminous choices of “exotic” things like boudin forestiere and the many varieties of salt and pepper that he’d not likely find at home. Sea salt from L’ile de Ré? Who knew?
The bagging and pricing of loose fruits and vegetables presented an unwelcome challenge for the foreigner. Most items had to be individually weighed and priced, but there were exceptions, those priced individually, and it wasn’t always clear which was which. He located the weighing station and, anxiously eyeballing the constantly swelling lines at the checkout stations, rushed this vexing task. How to enter leeks on the keyboard if one doesn’t know what they’re called in French?
By now it was nearly 1700 hours and the store was a beehive of pre-dinner activity; the lines for the only two cashiers (of 6 or 7 possible, but unmanned aisles) were long and it seemed everyone had a week’s worth of groceries. The mood was tense; one sensed that civility was straining at the bit. The foreigner took his place in one of the two long lines and pushed his basket along the floor as he approached the cashier.
She suddenly bolted from her station, prominently holding aloft, on exhibit, a small brown paper bag. Everyone knew what this meant — some fool had neglected to weigh and price an item — or done it incorrectly, gasp! — and now everyone would pay for that error, a breach of contract and etiquette. The line rippled like a snake ingesting a rat. A baby let out a hair-raising screech. But in relatively short order the cashier returned triumphantly to her station, scanned the new tag and tallied up that customer; the line heaved a sigh of relief. Eight long minutes later it was the foreigner’s turn, and he stepped up to the register and greeted the cashier with the obligatory “Bonjour, Madame,” knowing that things can get very prickly in the absence of that simple phrase. On a previous trip he’d seen all activity cease, the merchant stone-faced and immobile, until these well-wishes were tendered.
Beep, beep, beep, the foreigner’s items were fed through the scanner. Then the cashier held up the single lemon among the foreigner’s goods and, with an indignant, twisted look, notified him that it had not been weighed and priced. “But,” the foreigner countered, “The lemons are sold by the piece, that’s what the sign says.”
“Pas correct, Monsieur,” the cashier retorted and imperiously strode off to the produce department to weigh and price the lemon. The patience of those waiting in line behind the foreigner was now at its limit, judging by the audible exhaling and fidgeting. But the cashier wasn’t gone long and returned, again triumphantly, with the properly tagged lemon. No one in the line was amused.
The foreigner had entered the store with one goal in mind, to pay for this small load of groceries with a 200-euro note. A well-worn note, in fact, left over from a years-ago trip to France. Paying with a 200-euro note often elicits strong emotions, sometimes outright hostility. But the foreigner had thought about all this and concluded, what better place to do this than a supermarket? The local outdoor market was just two days off, and it would be far better to have a fistful of tens and twenties than this cumbersome 200-euro note. The cashier handed the foreigner his 54-euro tab and the foreigner handed over his 200-euro note.
The woman’s pasty cheeks puffed up, and her puckered lips issued a raspy sound that in company might be considered rude — a sound well-known throughout France. The cashier’s eyes narrowed, “Monsieur has nothing smaller?” Of course the foreigner had a pocketful of smaller notes, but his intention was to rid himself of this albatross. “C’est la monnaie, Madame,” he informed her. The offending note in hand, she wheeled around and opened the cash register behind her, rifling through what was there to no avail. Then she came back to her register and picked up the phone.
When the manager arrived, the cashier was holding the 200-euro note up to the light, twisting it this way and that. The two of them, while pointing to various areas on the unfortunate note, discussed the variety of anti-counterfeiting guards in place — the Europa portrait watermark, the hologrammic portrait of Europa, a series of short raised lines on the left and right edges, an emerald-green number in the bottom left corner of the note, with the symbol of the euro in it. Finally, appearing satisfied, the manager departed, and the cashier produced, as the foreigner’s change, two 50-euro notes, a ten, a 20, and a slew of coins, saying that’s all she had.
The foreigner picked up one of the 50-euro notes and held it up high to the overhead fluorescents, twisting it this way and that, massaging it all the while with his thumbs, and then brought it down to his eye level and quizzed the cashier, “C’est bon?” Then he spit onto the face of the note and rubbed the spit hard into the note. He vigorously rubbed the note along the sleeve of his shirt and, with a quizzical, somewhat theatrical look, examined the sleeve for ink. He puffed up his cheeks, and emitted a similarly rude sound earlier heard from the cashier, and said, “Je suppose que c’est authentique.” He gathered up his bag of groceries, the remaining notes and coins on the counter, and, lavishing a broad smile as he departed, said “Bonne fin de la journée, Madame.”