A vos marques

On your marks…today we are off for a quick tour of some iconic French brands. Oddly, the same word for brands, les marques, is also a literal translation of the word ‘mark’ in English. I suppose there is a link if you think of it as a trademark or a mark of quality.

While people here in France are often somewhat resistant to marketing campaigns, French shoppers are nonetheless big on brands.

My late Belle-mère swore by certain brands as being a sign of quality performance, superior workmanship or good taste. She believed that a good product did half the work for you, whether cleaning the clothes, cooking the food or making you look chic.

Being even more resistant to this kind of thinking than the French, I had to disagree. But after a few years of shopping in France I must say she had a point.

Bottled mineral water is a big thing in France and I’ve blogged before about how we have entire supermarket aisles devoted to it. Badoit, pictured above, with its choice of finely or intensely sparkling bubbles, is still one of my favourite French brands.

When it comes to the other kind of bubbly, it’s a different story. I’ve often heard that the best champagnes are the smaller houses rather than the big brands, by my Beau-père swears by Nicolas Feuillatte. And it’s often more competitively priced at the checkout.

 

As for the stinky cheese, the Languetot brand of raw milk camembert is one of the best name brands. ‘Au lait cru’ and ‘moulé à la louche’ are two signs that it’s one the good old fashioned way. Along with the ‘appellation d’origine’ that means it’s the real deal.

Le Petit is pretty good, too.

 

 

As the old ad campaign went, il n’y a que Maille qui maille…

Maille really is the only mustard for me. Dijon, smooth or grainy, and with no mayonnaise mixed in please! I also have a strong penchant for their cider vinegar as posted with my vinaigrette recipe awhile back…

House brands, which many supermarkets do offer in many product lines, are usually cheaper but not always of the same quality as the original. On the other hand, some are very good value for the money; it’s just a matter of trying your luck.

For those who smoke despite all the warning labels, and an appallingly high proportion of the French population still do, Gauloises cigarettes are a classic. Slightly less stinky than the horrible Gitanes.

By sv1ambo (1975 Citroen DS23 Pallas) [CC BY 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons
One of the first cars I noticed on the road here was the old Citroen DS. A big, hulking, low-to-the-ground classic of French engineering. Most French people tend to be true to one  of the big three: Renault, Peugeot or Citroën.

Petit Bâteau is a classic brand of kids’ clothing with the iconic sailor stripes. The 1920s brand expanded into clothes for adults a few years ago. The quality of the cotton is particularly good.

There are many more, of course. My morning would not be complete without a probiotic yogurt of the Activia brand. Nature, bien sûr… With a slice of wholewheat toast from Jacquet.

These are just a few of the marques that have marked my experience in France (for which I have received no promotional consideration, I hasten to add!). What are some of yours?

 

Epic marketing fails

IMG_4277I saw this display of herbal tea at the supermarket the other day and wondered if somehow I’d missed something. Yo, die?

A lot of herbal tea is consumed in France, commonly referred to as ’tisane’. There are entire aisles devoted to tisane at the supermarket, and some pharmacies also sell herbal brews for what ails you.

Apparently this one is a special blend for kids. I’m not sure anyone with the slightest understanding of English will buy it, though. Unless perhaps as a ghoulish joke for Hallowe’en?

Swedish for ‘I’ll kill you’

Ikea GuyI used to read a column in the newspaper called “Can this marriage be saved?” Both halves of a troubled couple would tell their side of the story, then the marriage counsellor would pronounce an opinion as to whether or not the relationship could survive, and what needed to be done. It was pop psychology at its poppest. Needless to say, I ate it up.

I have never felt the need for this kind of advice. I know my marriage can survive. I know it because we have survived the true test, the only one that matters. My husband and I have survived – you guessed it: Ikea.

Labor and childbirth, bringing up two kids, multiple cats and dogs, an international move, teaching me to drive a standard – all of this pales in comparison to the stress of the ultimate relationship test: Shopping for, loading and assembling furniture from the retailer whose ad campaign – ‘Swedish for common sense’ – I long ago transformed into: ‘Swedish for I’ll kill you.’

Not only have we survived Ikea, we have done it on two continents and in two different languages. No, make that three – we’ve also shopped Ikea in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

In our early days, we went there because we had no money. We urgently needed a fold-out bed that was cheap without breaking his mother’s back – Ikea was there. Then we needed a Billy bookcase because, well, we’re both readers – there were books. Whenever in the store we discovered we needed a whole bunch of bizarrely named items. Ektorp. Kvarnvik. Tidafors.

Then we needed a crib. Heavily pregnant, we schlepped through Ikea in Toronto. Biblical thoughts ran through my head: “She grew hungry in Kitchens, broke waters in Bathrooms, lay down in Bedrooms.”

Our different navigating styles became evident as I instinctively sought the shortcuts (long before they became official, going against the flow of packed humanity). He followed the official routes while moaning and complaining about the whole thing. Ikea for me was a challenge, for him it was plain old suffering.

Our different approaches became even more apparent when it came to loading the car. I wanted to strategize the trunk and figure out a plan, but before I could even think he had shoved it all in (what can I say, it’s a male thing!).

And our differences came to a head when it was time to assemble the f**ing things. While I methodically sorted the various parts, he had the main frame assembled and had thrown out boxes and instructions. Inevitably, there were tensions. We would be missing a screw (I always knew this to be true about myself) or some other essential widget. He would become furious about Ikea and its crap quality, swearing never to return. I would go back by myself the next day, swearing never to allow him access to a screwdriver again.

The crib got assembled. I did not give birth in Bedrooms. Miraculously, our furniture stood straight. Some of it has lasted as long as our marriage.

I have learned how to make the most of our differences. I let him do the heavy work while I hide the instructions and save them in a file. I shop by myself and just ask for his help in unloading the car. Solo, in my Micra, 5’2’’ of determination, I have managed to transport entire wardrobes. Where there’s a will, there’s a woman.

In the latest chapter of my love-hate Ikea relationship, the dog left his mark upon a footstool where the cat was lording it up. I felt love for the Swedes when I saw that the cover was removable and washable. Then I saw how (insert that word again) hard it was to remove the thing, ripping my cuticles in the process. Mostly husband is way more patient than me. And he has stronger hands. So when I washed the cover of the *unpronounceable name* he promised to put it back on for me when it was dry, then promptly forgot and left for the week. I waited three days and then decided to do it myself (did I mention patience is not my virtue?)

If he could do it, I could do it. First, I put on one corner. This did not work, as it would not stretch to fit the other corners. I tugged and I pulled and it started to rip. I cursed and I swore and examined my bloodied cuticles.

I reasoned the technique was just to get it over the entire frame more or less straight, then fix the seams. I did this, congratulating myself on the triumph of rational thinking. Then I tried to fix the velcro. It was upside down. I cursed and swore a bit more. Arv! Flört! Kortvarig!

Sometimes people ask: after so many years in France, which language do you curse in? Both, of course. And occasionally, in Ikea.

What’s your most memorable Ikea moment?

Service ‘sans’ smile

The French have mastered the art of 'le paquet cadeau'
Mastering the art of ‘le paquet cadeau’

You may read the heading of this post and assume it’s going to be another litany of complaint against France and all things French. You would be wrong, although that would be a reasonable assumption. I am about to tell you that there is a service culture in France. What there is not is a smile culture.

The reasons for that are anybody’s guess. Bad dental work? Stiff facial muscles? A refusal to bend one’s anatomy to social norms dictated by les américains? The fact is that the French do not feel a need to smile all the time. When you get over that expectation, you will enjoy surprisingly good service.

Start by putting aside preconceived notions of what you consider essential to good service: a friendly greeting, prompt attention, gratitude for your custom.

Say you enter a small shop in a typical French town. I am talking about a ‘boutique’ not a ‘grand surface’ – a whole different strategy applies for shopping at the super store. Start by saying a general bonjour to anyone within hearing distance. This will help ensure you blip on the radar as belonging to the civilized world. Look around casually and notice there is another customer already being served by the lone salesperson. At this point you need to be patient. The salesperson – whether the owner or an employee – is unlikely to pay you any attention at all until they finished serving the first customer.

“Madame?” (Or “Monsieur” as the case may be….)

This will be your clue that the person is ready to deal with you. Do not expect any greeting beyond this. The salesperson does not know you or want to know where you’re from or how you are.

But from this point forward you may be be pleasantly surprised. French service is:

  • Professional
    The French take pride in their profession, whether as a server or a sales assistant in a specialty shop. Even service sector jobs are held by trained professionals rather than students or casual hires.
  • Informed
    The notion of expertise is essential in France. Whether you are looking for a particular wine or widget, you will benefit from service that is generally well informed and experienced.
  • Unhurried
    Unless you arrive just before closing, you can expect to take your time. Many shop owners or sales assistants will go out of their way to show you different options and take the time to help you choose the item that suits you.
  • Low pressure
    You will not necessarily feel pressured to purchase a more expensive item or even buy anything at all.
  • A little bit extra
    ‘Le paquet cadeau’ is a standard service in the French boutique. Although it has become less of an art in recent years, you will always be offered free gift wrapping. Some of the creations I’ve taken home over the years have been like small works of art worthy of framing.

I’m always amazed at the time people take in shops here. True to my North American roots, I am usually in a hurry. Often I already know what I want and if not I make up my mind quickly. But sometimes I make the effort to slow down a little and take the time, so as not to disappoint the shop owner eager to share his or her knowledge. On those occasions I usually learn something new. And I always go away with a sense of value from the exchange.

Sometimes, as the shopkeeper shows me to the exit, I even take away a smile.

What’s your experience of service in France? Good, bad or indifferent?

 

Why ‘Les Soldes’ leave me cold

Les SoldesI won’t be going to the sales this month and probably not next summer either. Here’s why.

The semi-annual sales officially kicked off last week in France for five weeks – as they do every year on the second Wednesday in January and third week in July. Like most things in French life, these dates are closely governed by a complex set of rules and regulations. Merchants are not even allowed to use the word for sales except at specific times of year defined in the Code de la Consommation (Consumer Code). Stores can offer discounts or ‘promotions’ at any time but the actual, hard-core ‘sales’ periods are strictly controlled.

The idea is to protect the poor, innocent consumer from manipulation by unscrupulous retailers who want to sell them a crock of lies.  This is French paternalism at its best.

The precise etymology of the French word for sales, les soldes (masculine and plural), is hard to trace. It comes from the Latin solidare (consolidate) and has common roots with the words soldat (soldier) and solde (bank balance). Strictly speaking, the concept of sales seems to have little to do with either, although some people’s approach to getting a bargain can be described as military and have a devastating impact on their bank balance.

But the problem I always have with the French word for sales is that it’s a false friend in English: why would I want to buy something if it’s already solde?

And having grown up with the tradition of Boxing Day sales in North America, I expect to find things on sale immediately after Christmas. By the time the French sales start, I’ve generally lost interest and am licking my wounds from various excesses over the holiday period. Besides, I only have to step across the border to Geneva, which follows the Anglo-Saxon tradition, to find sales starting on Dec. 26th.

But are the sales really worth it? Truly, why bother? Unless of course you love crowds, pressure and stress. Or you have that competitive streak and really want to fight over the last sequined top in your size. During the sales more than ever it’s buyer beware: nothing will be exchanged or returned. If you’re lucky, you’ll get something you can actually wear, in your size and color. If you’re like me, you’ll buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need because it’s 60% off, stick it in a closet where it’ll gather dust until next year’s soldes. Then, you’ll get rid of it to make room for a new crop of stuff you’ll never wear.

I have a much better idea. Wait until the spirit takes you to a shop that you love, where they’re offering a pre-sale promotion to preferred customers. The fact is, most French boutiques offer their regular customers the best deals way before the sales even start.

In just about every French shop you enter, you will be offered a ‘carte de fidelité,’ or customer loyalty card. They’re generally free (and if not I refuse on principle). You’ll need to carry a large wallet or purse to hold the hundreds of cards as no one seems to be able to take this to the digital level.

Another fine tradition in French boutiques is the ‘paquet cadeau.’ If you’re offering any gifts, take advantage of free gift-wrapping to save yourself the trouble. Some boutiques take it to an art form, although the larger chains will probably just throw in the wrap.

One word of advice: in the smaller, family-run boutiques in France, act as if you were visiting someone’s home. What we perceive as a public space is considered very differently by the French. Be polite. Don’t forget to say bonjour, s’il vous plaît and au revoir, even if you only slipped in for a few minutes to look around. Do not ask to use the toilets.

And now for a confession: these days I shop for very little in physical stores – I much prefer to buy most everything online. The fact is, if you want something specific, ordering online will be faster, cheaper and more efficient. French retailers just don’t offer the broad selection of merchandise available elsewhere; a whole world of shopping choices is now just a few clicks away. So unless it’s something you need to try on for size, go for the online experience.

And before anyone starts moaning about shops closing, jobs lost, the importance of ‘la proximité’ (local retailers)…I beg to differ. Online shopping is progress. There are just so many other ways I’d rather spend my time and money.

Sold?