My host father tries to pronounce groceries as we pull into the Carrefour ten minutes from my host family’s house. We are speaking a little English – per his request – and he struggles with the word while looking for a parking spot, his tongue refusing to nestle up against the roof of his mouth and make the necessary shhhh noise.

“Is that right?” he asks. “Groschesries?”

“It’s better.” I nod my head and laugh good-naturedly, feeling the briefest sense of superiority with my mother tongue until I think back to a moment in my French class two weeks ago, where, when trying to pronounce les odeurs – French for “smells of odors”– I said, instead, les oeufs durs, French for “hard eggs.”

We both get out of the car and go to the trunk, where my host mom has loaded bags of all shapes, colors, and creeds. Paper, plastic, and fabric cover the floor, nestled together like a giant quilt. While digging around for some that are suitable, my host dad pulls out an empty gift bag. He holds it aloft in the night air – think Simba at the edge of Pride Rock in The Lion King – eyes ablaze with wonder and confusion, and then laughs loudly into the sleeve of his arm. I join in. Chuckling, we take three reusable shopping bags out of the trunk.

“Charlie, je te propose de prendre un chariot pour faire,” he tries again, “the groschereeyes.” Le chariot is the French word for shopping cart, and, as I walk to the holding area for the shopping cart, twirling the coin I will use to unleash un chariot between my fingers, I can’t help but think about how much more exciting of a word le chariot is for shopping cart than shopping cart. I slip the coin into the slot, pull out le chariot, start pushing it, realize that the wheels allow me to move laterally in addition to forwards and backwards, unabashedly do several donuts in the middle of the road, twirling the cart like a young father would a merry-go-round holding his kids, start to back up a line of cars searching for parking spots, and then break into a slight jog to join my host dad, who is heading for the main entrance.

Once inside, we break first to the right, in search of printer ink. The shopping list says so. Yet, already, I know there is more to this excursion. My host dad’s normally quick walking pace slows considerably. His shoulders slack, and with a dazed smile and wide eyes licked and stamped onto his face, he wanders from aisle to aisle. He pores over objects and prices, tapping his fingers together and humming to himself. He wants to touch everything. He wants to buy even more.

“Il y a toutes les choses ici,” he says over and over again. “C’est génial. C’est génial.” I follow him with le chariot, thinking of family trips to Costco, where work gloves and bars of soap come in packs of 432, and, if you’re not careful, you can lose my dad in an instant, as he marches through each grandiose aisle in search of adventure, self-discovery, and kale in bulk for a decent price. I laugh to myself as I think about my mom’s facial expressions on those occasions when she decides to make the trip with him. She waves the shopping list in her hand, following him like a mother chasing after her children who have decided the only way to properly move around a public pool is to run as fast as humanly possible from one destination to another. I now know why, very conveniently, my host mom organized a get together with friends tonight at the exact time of this shopping trip.

Carrefour truly has everything. It is the size of Costco meets the variety of Wal-Mart meets the brightness and freshness of Target. By the time we reach the food items on the list, my host dad has already placed a new Moka Pot in le chariot, and has fiercely contemplated the merits of buying a new power strip. We go back and forth between English and French for a little bit, until he loses his last bit of patience. “Groceries” frustrates him. Already having butchered over half of the pronunciations in the entire French language, I can empathize.

“C’est pas facile, l’anglais,” he says. “C’est pas normale pour moi.”

“Maintenant tu sais comment je me sens tout le temps avec le français,” I say. He laughs and puts his right hand on the front end of le chariot as we drift out into the main walkway of the store. As we walk, and I give le chariot a little sidewise wiggle now and again to remind myself that it’s capable of lateral movement, I listen to the cacophonous buzzing of noise. French, satin and low like a bass line, fills up the store and then slides around the aisles like water spilling out of an overflowing bathtub. People open doors to take out refrigerated items. Wheels squeak against the floor. Toddlers squawk and babies cry. An occasional “Pardon” or “Excusez-moi” pops out of the backdrop as people wiggle by, pushing their chariots and conducting their evenings.

My host dad and I find ourselves in a section of the store containing a cheese counter, a bread counter, and an aisle filled with diverse, ready-to-serve meals. There are cold pizzas with myriad toppings ready to be slid into the oven. There are premade desserts. There are fresh meals centered on chicken, beef, lamb, potatoes, and fish.

“Choisis quelque chose pour le diner. Je prends du pain,” he says, and he heads off towards the bread counter. Instantly, I’m lost in the looming choices. I examine a couple of pizzas, weigh the quality of several types of baked potatoes in my hands, and am looking hesitantly over a plate of stuffed meatballs when he returns. I realize I’m nowhere close to a decision.

“Je peux pas decider,” I say. “C’est impossible.”

“Non, non, je comprends. C’est trop. C’est trop.” We land on some fresh white fish that we will cook with vegetables and eat with rice and some of the fresh bread my host dad has bought. We also take two premade raspberry desserts.

We head to the cheese counter, and my host dad gets down to business. He is an expert. He walks around the windows and takes a look at every cut of cheese on display. He rubs his hands together. He places his fingers on the glass. He runs his hands through his hair. He chats off-handedly with the woman working behind the counter and asks for samples. I stand with le chariot, smile amiably at the woman when she looks at me, and position myself so I appear to perfectly understand their conversation. I can’t help but wonder if I look out of place here, an American in a French supermarket. I double check to see if my arms and chest look relaxed leaning against le chariot, if I seem at ease in this setting. I think about the other people in the store and wonder if, when they look at me, they can tell that I am not a native. Many people have informed me that, overseas, it is fairly easy to pick out an American in a crowd. Is it that easy with me? I don’t know the answer, but I feel more uneasy about the fact that I am thinking actively about ways to hide my nationality.

My host dad takes a couple of more turns around the glass. He steps back, crosses his arms, and thinks to himself for several moments. Ultimately, he decides on four cheeses – of which I only know one – and we both watch as the woman expertly slices the correct portions from the wheels and wraps them. No inch of the supple paper used is wasted, the creases and the folds running exactly along the contours of the cheese. She hands them one a time to my host father, who delicately sets them in le chariot. He says “merci” and “bon soir” to her. We head in the direction of unrefrigerated foods, and I tell him how amazed I am by the sheer amount of types of cheese they sell.

The journey through the unrefrigerated foods is dizzying. My host dad regards the shopping list merely as a set of guidelines and moves throughout the aisles on his whims. Different types of pasta find their way into le chariot. Crackers, chips, two boxes of cereal, four medium-sized containers of coffee grounds, Greek yogurt, cookies, spaghetti sauce, two six-packs of beer, a four-pack of bottled water, containers of butter, and eggs are only some of the items that wind up in le chariot. We march creatively through the shopping list. Sometimes I stay out in the main walkway while he skates around other shoppers, in search of something at the other end of the aisle. Sometimes I take le chariot with me and follow him. Sometimes I leave it out in the walkway, nestled up against boxes of fruit snacks, antibacterial wipes, or tonic water, and wade in after him.

American pop songs play on the radio as we shop, and I still feel chained to the questions that resurfaced at the cheese counter. Several weeks’ worth of tension kick around inside in my body, and I understand that I’m still adjusting to living in France. Culture shock isn’t made of the stuff they tell you in brochures or on Buzzfeed “564 Things to Expect When Traveling Abroad” lists. It’s looking at a new world that exists around you and trying to process the normalcy that exists within it. It’s learning to understand that, everywhere, people have no clue about how to flirt with each other, cars hurtle down neighborhood streets at mystifying speeds, and we are all just trying to get through the ardors of our days without winding up being the smelliest person on the subway, in the grocery store check-out line, or at the weekly company meeting on Thursday mornings at 9:45.

I watch the world move in fast forward around me as my host dad and I finish up our grocery shopping. But as we weave around shoppers and employees and head to check out, I search for faces. I search for the small, good thing of kind human eye contact, and in return I get smiles and warm faces. I admire the stories of these people who have happened to share Carrefour with me tonight. Mothers and fathers wheel their kids around, trying to decide on what to eat for dinner. People who are alone walk with baskets slung around their arms. Adolescent boys in packs of three or four strut around with arms full of soda, chips, and packs of Reese’s Cups. All of them hold onto the hope that they can find everything on their shopping list for a good price, that the person working the checkout counter won’t crack the eggs or smash the bread, that nothing will fall down and spill in the back of the car during the drive, and that, when they get home, the house or the apartment will be warm and comfortably full of lamplight. As we are checking out, and I am loading groceries into the bags we brought in from the car, I look around the supermarket and think that this may be one of the more beautiful things I’ve done and seen during my trip thus far. I vow to myself to start doing a better job of separating people from their nationalities. People are always just people. You know you are close to conquering culture shock when you can get through shopping for groceries in another country without having a major existential crisis.

My host dad shuts the back door of the car after we are done loading the groceries and turns to me.

“Merci de ton assistance, Charlie,” he says. “C’est plus facile à deux!”

Charlie King-Hagen is a student at Kansas State University and an official API Student Blogger. Charlie is studying abroad with API in Grenoble, France.

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  1. This is beautiful, Charlie! And reminds me well of many evenings spent roaming the aisles of Carrefour. Keep up the great writing!

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