At the bakery I helped myself to a salade niçoises. I was in the midst of preparing my selection when the woman came from behind the counter and said “it’s for me” (as in she was going to package it for me). She immediately spoke in English. Evidently the simple “bonjour” I uttered upon my arrival exposed me.
After having worked years in the Financial District without a lot of time for lunch, if I see food lined-up for the taking, I’m going to take it. And in this case I believe my assumption was logical. Rows of pre-packaged salads and dressing containers à la Briazz lined the store-front window. Easily accessible and on the opposite side of the counter from the vendor, the only thing left to do was throw a lid on it and go. The climax of which apparently required an expert’s touch.
The same thing happened at the grocery store. I completely understand why one should wait their turn while the fromagère (female cheese merchant) grabs a giant wheel of brie to slice, weigh, wrap, and price. But I don’t understand the logic behind making an impatient couple wait in the same line for the tiny jar of black cherry and thyme jam perched above the fresh cheeses that they so desperately want to serve with the comté that they're going to pick-up in the pre-packaged cheese section. When Fred reached for the jar at my goading, a totally legitimate reach – he was schooled. Better him than me as he has the verbal capacity to (1) understand what he’s done wrong; and (2) respond. Thus we waited for Madame Cheese to select the jar, wrap it in paper, and slap the price on it. (We’ve since started purchasing the freshly made jam; since we have to wait, we might as well go for the good stuff!)
Fred’s coworker recently returned from a trip to San Diego. He commented that it was nice how in the U.S. we “create” lower-paying jobs for people such as grocery baggers in order to provide more opportunities for people to work. I laughed because I hardly think France needs people to wrap up and label jars when an overnight stocker - if they even exist here - and a label gun would do the trick (or a bar code for that matter).
In my opinion a bagger makes way more sense. You’re expected to bag your own groceries in France. No biggie, it’s like being at Trader Joe's. But at TJ's you have the sense that you’re helping. And if you run into trouble a pro is standing-by to advise you whether the eggs or pita bread go on top. Here the checkers bark the total then sit with their hands up their noses while I frantically bag my stuff before they’ll even start ringing-up the next customer (most stores have very limited space in which to corral groceries, others have larger areas and use a wooden stick to divide groceries like water through a canal – I go to the latter on days when I’m feeling a little less agile).
So what's my point? Jobs that save time are useless to the French. As much as I complain and seem impatient, there is something nice about the traditions of selecting artisan cheeses with the assistance of a professional, purchasing freshly-baked bread daily, visiting the boucherie (butcher’s shop), etc. And as my friend pointed out to me, it is in these situations where you can actually witness a French person respect a line – and that for me is worth the wait!