How to Survive Grocery Shopping Abroad

It is very easy when you live with family or in a university residence that one of the responsibilities that comes with being an adult is groceries. For me, my first experience living completely on my own was in Saguenay, Québec – a small, conservative city that speaks almost exclusively French. My second experience was in Paris, France – another French city but in a whole other continent! It has taken me several grocery trips to master the seemingly simple task of buying food, and it came with a few revelations as well.

The First Trip is the Most Expensive

When you start out with absolutely nothing to eat, it’s amazing how expensive the first grocery trip is! Of course, you won’t be buying things like spices or jam every single week, but you need to buy it on that first trip in order to have a reserve. In the same token, the last grocery trip will be the cheapest, since you have to use up all those odds and ends so you have nothing left when you are ready to leave.

Be Careful if You Don’t Have a Car

For some reason, even though I learned this lesson on my very first solo grocery trip, I still continue to make this mistake all the time! On our first grocery trip in Saguenay, my friends and I all kind of forgot that we needed to get the food home somehow and we all take the bus…uh-oh! We ended up with some pretty little bruises on our forearms because we had bought too many heavy things like milk and juice and apples. Lesson noted! It is too easy to overestimate your ability to carry a lot of awkward and heavy bags, especially for extended periods of time.

Check What Time the Stores Close

Maybe I just assumed that stores everywhere are open until 8 or 9pm every night because that’s the way it was back home. Growing up, grocery stores would be open until 9pm, and some like Walmart were even open until midnight! But in other countries, that simply isn’t always the case! In Saguenay, the grocery stores were closed by 6 or 7pm and I often worked later than that. In Paris, almost every store is closed on Sunday, groceries and otherwise. When my friends and I backpacked through Italy, we had the most difficult time finding food on November 1. Not only was November 1 a Sunday, but it was also All Saint’s Day and Italy is very catholic. No grocery stores ended up being open, and aside from two luxe restaurants and a chic bakery where the staff looked at our backpacks suspiciously, we found only one tiny pizzeria that would serve us something to eat. We were lucky we even found it!

Grocery Shopping is Constant

If you want to eat, you have to make sure you go out often enough to keep the fridge stocked. If you work several days straight, can you survive without making a trip? Groceries take planning, especially if you like things that are fresh. In France, the culture is to go shopping every other day. The Parisians buy a small amount several times a week to ensure that they eat the freshest food they can. Europe also does not like to include preservatives in their food, so even if I wanted to shop only once a week, I’d be hard pressed to do so without living on canned food and pasta all the time. Baguettes for example will hardly last more than a day or two. Planning to go out often enough and also planning your meals in advance to ensure you buy everything you need are both essential to surviving a grocery trip successfully.

Be Prepared to Give Up Your Little Comfort Foods

Saguenay was obsessed with salmon and potatoes – a salmon filet would to only cost me $1. As a result, I ate a lot of salmon that summer. Paris doesn’t have muffins, maple syrup  or grilled cheese and peanut butter is considered an “exotic” food. But wine is cheaper than water and I now consider Brie cheese to be “student budget”. You have to adapt your diet to what is available, what is seasonal, and what is affordable. You can get a cheeseburger in Paris, if you are willing to spend about $10 for it. You can also get a huge ham and cheese crepe and half a dozen macarons for the same price. If you are not picky when it comes to food, you will be glad for it.

The Store Layouts Will Make No Sense

Are you used to straight aisles in a grid formation where veggies are on one side and bread in on the other? Then you are in for a surprise. Grocery stores will make zero sense the first few times. For some reason (and I do not know why), Saguenay does not make aisles straight. Apparently they preferred curves. Curves are disorienting and I would take forever going back and forth through the aisles because I knew there had to be cheese, bread, bacon somewhere!

 

Once you have successfully taken a few grocery trips, it does become easier. Have patience and carefully plan the trip while holding few expectations. Soon enough, you will be a pro in your new city and you won’t understand what was so difficult about it in the first place!

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