Monday, June 09, 2008

Saying 'hello' is optional?

When I made my first forays into apartment living in France, I used to have grocery store anxiety. Would I do all the right things, remember the steps to the French cash-register dance? Say "Bonjour, madame," then scurry to the end of the caisse to start filling my grocery bags. Wait to pay the cashier until I was mostly through loading the bags. (Otherwise, as soon as I'd paid up, the caissière would begin processing the next customer's items.) Then no matter what, saying "Au revoir, madame," and perhaps, "Bonne journée."

Now I've got the choreography figured out at Shopi or Monoprix or Carrefour. Then I return to the US, where the pas de deux is different. Last month when I was in the States I automatically started loading my groceries into the bags at the Piggly Wiggly, and the cashier looked insulted, as if I were implying she didn't know how to do her job. I quickly thrust my hands to my side and to avoid the misunderstanding. She filled the sacks -- didn't ask "paper or plastic," but did ask if I wanted a helper to take the bags to my car. Talk about culture shock.

We sometimes forget how much these day-to-day transactions are very much the fabric of daily life, wherever we are.

Here in France, a blogger has been chronicling her life at the cash register at a grand surface, a huge supermarket. Caissière No Futur is a blog in French by a former supermarket cashier, 28-year-old Anna Sam. Seven years ago she began working as a cassière to help support herself and pay for her studies. After a few years on the job, she began chronicling the life behind the cash register on her blog. I find it to be gripping sociological drama. She also encourages submissions of supermarket anecdotes from both cashiers' and customers' views in addition to publishing her own observations. Anna has become somewhat of a media celebrity, appearing on French television, and her book Les Tribulations d'une caissière was just released this week.

Intrigued about a fellow blogger in France, I contacted Anna to ask if I might write a little article for anglophone readers. I ventured, apologetically, that some of her seemingly "rude customers" might sometimes be well-intentioned Americans in France, who unwittingly neglect to say "Bonjour" and "Au revoir" at the cash register because it's not always done in US supermarkets.

"In the US, saying 'hello' is optional?" she wrote back, incredulous.

I wish I could translate her blog for everyone-- there are so many great stories, some wonderful eye-openers. I look forward to reading the book.
And I wonder if she has an American counterpart, who blogs about life at the Stop & Shop, or Winn-Dixie, or Kroger, or Wal-Mart.

13 comments:

Corinne said...

Polly, what a great post! I wonder what's at the root of our collective fascination with supermarket checkers? Here in our neighborhood in Boulder CO, we (seriously!) have extensive conversations with many of our neighborhood friends about the checkers at the local King Soopers (Kroger). The guy with the pentacle necklace, the guy who ran 100 marathons and then moved to Japan to be with his girlfriend, the woman who made a "watermelon" joke to me when I was 8 months pregnant and still hasn't been forgiven, the overachieving manager who always asks if there's any way he can improve your shopping experience. Maybe it's because these people know many of the intimate details of our lives without realizing it, I'm not sure, but it's definitely fascinating!!

Alison said...

I went to her blog a couple of months ago after reading about it somewhere else. I can't remember why I didn't subscribe to it, though.

Anyway, you're right, it is quite a fascinating thing; after moving back to the States, I had to get used to not filling my own bags. And more recently, I flummoxed a checkout girl because I had my own bags. (I usually do the U-Scan, where I don't need to talk to anyone or explain my French shopping bags.)

I don't know if there is a blog about being a checkout person, but there is WaiterRant, which is quite a funny blog about waiting tables. He got a book deal, too.

Evelyn said...

I'll never forget my first solo trip to Bon Marche. I neglected to weigh my fruit in the produce department and had to leave all my groceries at the check-out stand and go do it. I was mortified! I'm sure the cash register woman told great stories about my stupidity! Who knew grocery shopping could produce such anxiety?

Samantha said...

Hey, I know her! She's from Rennes, and a couple months back, Ouest-France did a big article on her and she also got interviewed by all the local TV channels.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Samantha --

You're back! I've felt so bereft of info. Hope all is well; and i like the new recipe blog.

To all,

To me it's an interesting notion to recognize the lives of cashiers. Anyone, for that matter. I've always wanted to be a bit of a George Plimpton and spend a while in other people's lives. Cassiere No Futur sure shows & tells the gamut.

David said...

Gosh, I wish I had time to read her book...

Anyway, Polly, it's interesting you're talking about this now, because as a parallel to our discussion about what's offensive or not (regarding Louise Bourgoin), one cultural difference I could never get used to is the bagger boy in the grocery store.

It's hard to explain, but I could never feel comfortable having a person, who should be enjoying his retirement, bagging my things and then offering to push my cart to the car as if he was my servant...

Of course my resentment was not against the baggers, but against a system that makes poor people basically be our slaves and shoppers accept it without thinking twice about it.

I don't know if I make much sense, as there isn't much sense to be made out of it, as it's all about cultural habits.

Priscilla said...

When we first moved to Texas (from California) I was so impressed with the supermarkets because they hired mentally challenged young people to be the baggers. They took pride in doing a good job, earned a salary, and provided a service. I was always glad to tip them each time.

Caffienated Cowgirl said...

Isn't it strange, in a country like America, where people will talk to anything, that we forget the simple things like "hello" and "goodbye"? The British were like that...not really saying much. I always caught them off-guard by saying "have a nice day" as I left :)

Marianne said...

This is brilliant - so true how you have to rush to the end of the desk to get your things into the bags before the next person- I always get it wrong. I don't know about a cashier but things like Waiter Rant about waiting in restaurants is along the same lines - an interesting perspective, I think everyone should work a job like this once in their life so they know what it's like.

Anna said...

I vividly remember the first time I got through a shopping trip at Monoprix without any help or problems... balancing my groceries on one arm as I signed the receipt, tossing the last few items into my heavy, heavy bags while tucking my wallet away in my purse. I rule.

Zane said...

I horrifyingly remember the first time I forgot to weigh produce myself. I had NO idea what she was saying about a ticket. I thought there was a sticker on the bananas, just scan it already!

The other thing: bring your bags. Nothing like trying to hold a bunch of groceries and trying to look like you meant to not bring a bag with you.

The Late Bloomer said...

Love this post, Polly (I know I'm doing some major catch-up here, having been behind on a lot of my blog reading in recent times -- but it's such a pleasure to have SO MANY of your well-written posts to catch up on!)... I read a bit about this gal recently in Elle magazine, I believe, and I was intrigued... Now I'm going to check out her blog!

It's so true about the difference in interaction at the caisse here in France... Funny thing is, it's not very often that you run into a truly "friendly" caissière, but I have a favorite at my local Casino store, and I always try to go through her cashier aisle. She's just so nice, and I find I could chat with her all day long! Not a common occurrence, of course, here in France...

And whereas my mom has an eagle eye about watching all the items get scanned through back in the U.S., most of the time here in France I'm too preoccupied with filling up my shopping bags to be able to do that. But just a few days ago, I did pay closer attention, and lo and behold, I caught an item go through much higher than listed on the shelf. I embarrassingly pointed it out, and although the gal at the register was at first irritated, when the price was checked and I was proven "correct" about it, she told me I had "done everyone a favor", as did the gal just behind me, who was pregnant like me... It made me feel much better!

Maela said...

Actually, if you have the opportunity to go on the blog of Anna Sam (well you need to speak french) you would have much more on the way that she could see the supermarket world. It is just fascinating. I give the link... just in case... http://caissierenofutur.over-blog.com/
Wish you a great pleasure in this perusal.

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