Grocery Shopping in French

“Ground beef. Like, beef– cow meat– but it’s all ground up in little bits.” I did my best unofficial international sign language to accompany my explanation.

“Ah! Bœuf haché?” The grocery store employee led me to the freezer and pointed at the package of meat, eyebrows raised. “This?” He asked. It didn’t look exactly like the ground beef at Walmart, but it appeared to be ground beef nonetheless. I smiled and thanked him, placing the package in my cart.

There are only a handful of affordable grocery stores on the island of Sint Maarten, and my options are to pay $170 a trip to shop in English or $102.75 to shop in French. I choose the language barrier and saving seventy bucks.

I spend a lot of time staring at labels, trying to make out what this can or that box holds. I’ve become pretty good at guessing, and I’ve even picked up some French in the process (although don’t ask me to try to pronounce it). Whenever I learn to speak French, I’ll have a head start. I will know the word for every single food item ever invented.

Some of the labels are easy. I babysat for a bilingual family, and their kids called milk lait at all times. The cow on the front also helps.

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Others aren’t so easy. I always thought fromage was just the word for “cheese,” but apparently it’s the word for every single dairy product on the planet.

This is not cheese. It’s yogurt. When I bought it, I needed yogurt, but it looked like it could be  cottage cheese or whipped cream. I decided that the risk was worth it. Ben hoped it would be whipped cream, so he was disappointed.

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This does not say fromage, but it IS cheese. Thank goodness this bag is see-through, or I would have been even more confused than I already was.

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The hardest products to find are the ones I don’t know the French word for, can’t see through the packaging, and don’t even recognize the packaging. It took me a few trips and some asking around to find baking soda. I was looking for the small orange box, but apparently Arm and Hammer doesn’t do French.

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I suspect the packaging issue is why I still can’t find baking powder. My friend Aqiyla went shopping with me yesterday, and she couldn’t find it either, although she speaks French. You don’t realize how powerful branding is until you’re dropped in the middle of unrecognizable foreign brands.

One thing that is not hard for me to locate, however, is Nutella! I think I have a Nutella radar built into my brain. I’m OK with becoming more European, if it involves chocolate for breakfast. Yes, please!

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I have encouraging moments, too. I’m getting to the point where I can read a lot of French words, even if I couldn’t use a single one in conversation. I can understand most French signage around town, and I can tell the difference between all-purpose flour and pastry flour. I can even scan package ingredients for allergens and be fairly confident that I won’t send anyone into anaphylactic shock.

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I never thought I’d say this, but there are days that I really miss Walmart. But at the same time, I’m glad I have the chance to make shopping a bilingual adventure. After all, I never quite know what I’m going to come home with…

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6 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping in French

  1. Haha I did chuckle at your shopping expedition in French! As I speak a little French and can read it, I wouldn’t have had a problem, but we sail in Greece, and you just try finding baking powder or Nutella in a tiny Greek mini-market, and making sense of labels on unidentifiable tins and packets! It’s a nightmare! And in most butchers’ shops, they keep everything out of sight in the chiller, so you have to ask for what you want and they will bring it to you. I did once end up with two kilo of pork chops instead of just two single chops!

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  2. The other day I was trying to find turkey sandwich meat. I ended up gobbeling at the poor French lady. Then I set off an argument between her and her sister about which was duck and which was turkey. Who knew there was duck sandwich meat?!? Turkey is dinde in case you ever need to know 😉

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  3. Oh my, I can identify with the foreign shopping experience. I’m thrilled if a label here has any English words on it. Actually I’m thrilled to find a store that seems sort of like a grocery store at all:)

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  4. For baking powder try looking for ‘levure chimique’. Baking powder is a mix of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar. Levure is also ‘yeast’ so it’s a bit confusing for English speakers. In effect the French are calling their baking powder ‘chemical yeast’. Confused? Sorry😏

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