French supermarkets are surprisingly interesting places. Not only are there live lobsters in glass tanks beside the poissonnerie counter, but you can also buy vin de table that comes in milk cartons. And, surprisingly, the wine costs less than the milk does. Seriously, it’s about ten francs a carton or so, give or take. Plus, there are also these little flasks of rhum that come in the same kind of cardboard and plastic packaging that children’s toys use.
The trip was, of course, Carl’s idea. He’d originally planned to borrow his mate Dave’s van and go over there with the lads. But, none of them understood a word of French between them. Plus, despite some enlightened European Directive that said we could bring as much back as we liked for personal consumption, Dave had more than a few horror stories about customs pulling over low-riding vans weighed down by the contents of the local vineyard.
Despite his best efforts, Carl couldn’t get Dave to bring the van. My guess was that he worried that they’d find red diesel in the tank or something like that. Honestly, with Dodgy Dave, it really wouldn’t surprise me a bit. So, the whole thing turned into a date instead. Sure, Carl had tried to make it sound romantic but, even if it wasn’t, I wasn’t exactly going to turn down a day trip to France.
Even if, as I had learnt, it just meant driving through lots of empty countryside until we found the nearest supermarket. The biggest irony of all was that, once we’d stuck a ten franc coin into the trolley and made our way inside, one of the counters had a sign dangling over it with “ENGLISH SPOKEN HERE” printed in bold letters.
‘Oh, shit.‘ Carl sighed, as he spotted the sign.
‘Zut alors! Merde!‘ I corrected him. ‘When in Rome…‘
‘Er.. I mean. I’m sorry for dragging you over here to this boring old supermarket. If I’d have known they spoke English, then I’d have taken the lads instead. Tell you what, we’ll get lunch in the local village or something.‘ He stuttered.
‘That sounds… magnifique.‘ I smiled at him. ‘Come on, let’s buy some plonk.‘
As different as the supermarket was, with it’s open shelves of industrial chemicals, locked cabinets of shotgun cartridges and rows of videos in clear plastic security boxes, some things are universal. The booze was, just like back home, at the very far end of the shop.
We probably weren’t the first couple who had spent half an hour in the drinks aisle, playing trolley Tetris with the little beer bottles, rum flasks and wine cartons. But, the whole thing still felt excitingly new. When we were done, the whole thing came to just over a thousand francs. Despite my suggestions, Carl insisted on using the English checkout. It wouldn’t have surprised me if there was an extra surcharge for it. But, I’d left the calculator back home in the kitchen.
Getting the stuff into the car wasn’t really the exercise in frustration that I feared it would be. Sure, we’d had to drop a few of the crates into the seatwells, but it wasn’t like the car was riding low. Ten minutes later, we’d parked in the local village.
I’d thought that it would be quiet in the way that only French villages in the early afternoon can be, but it was market day. The streets were bustling and the air was filled with both the sound of a hundred rapid-fire conversations and the smell of fresh meat. A young man behind one of the stalls hacked away at a chicken with a giant cleaver. An old man casually gutted a fish between puffs on his pipe. Piles of vegetables lay in front of us, gleaming in the summer sun.
Finding a restaurant wasn’t the difficult part, but finding a table was. We’d ended up crammed in the corner of the top floor of a converted house, the air heavy with the aroma of boiling tomatoes, sizzling garlic and endless gauloises. Carl squinted at the menu with bewilderment, whilst I translated. Out of curiosity, I decided to try the escargot. When we’d finally found a waiter, I ordered in halting secondary-school French.
Half an hour hour and a couple of glasses of table wine later, our food arrived. Carl, adventurous as ever, had gone for chicken in tomato sauce. I, on the other hand, had an elaborate plate filled with little black things. They tasted like garlic and had a surprisingly chewy texture. Rolling his eyes, Carl said: ‘Olives? I thought they were Italian.‘
‘They aren’t olives, they’re escargot.‘ I smiled.
‘And what’s that when it’s at home?’
‘Snails.‘ I grinned. Carl grimaced. ‘But, you’d never guess from the taste.‘