Saturday, November 16, 2013
Late this afternoon I was desperate to get out of the house. So leaving my husband with the two kids bouncing off the walls, I jumped at the occasion to go to the mall. There, I admitted it. There just happens to be a mall near our apartment. Like all self-respecting malls, its self-defense system is its parking lot: it is virtually impossible to approach on foot and requires great determination to reach by bus or bicycle. We are exactly five minutes away by car, but on a Saturday afternoon it takes almost another fifteen to find a parking spot. The mall looks exactly like any mall anywhere across America: when I venture beyond my favorite department store, the BHV, or the upscale grocery store, Monoprix, and wander into the rest of the place I feel almost certain I've stepped into Seattle's Northgate shopping center. With two-tiers of clothing stores, a food court, soft innocuous music, it makes me positively dizzy with geographic vertigo. Tonight I arrived after dark, and cars were still circling both levels of parking garage like famished vultures. This being France, half the occupied spots were technically illegal: there were cars in the crosswalks, others parallel parked along and blocking an entire lane of traffic; there was even a Land Rover perched on a high sidewalk. Naturally I took the first spot I could find, nowhere near my destination. Once I finally made it inside the Monoprix, I found the checkout lines interminable and the aisles of the supermarket almost as difficult to navigate as the parking lot. I had to run in and out to get a cart, jump repeatedly to grab items from a high shelf, wait for an elevator. When I finally slammed my trunk shut on my shopping bags -- noting in passing that a French compact car trunk is completely filled after one grocery shopping trip -- I had a sudden startling realization. This country makes it hard to spend money. You have to WANT to be a consumer, and want it bad. In the US, it's the other way around. I remember reading somewhere recently an article whose author marveled at encountering someone in a checkout line in Target with one item. One item -- in this particular case, a toilet plunger -- seemed like utopia: how could anyone walk out of Target without their cart full of crap? This, the article maintained, took truly uncommon willpower. We should all strive for the same, and our lives, our houses, and our moral well-being would only be improved as a result, but we should remain realistic: impulse buying is a fact of life. Drive down any commercial route in the suburban US and you see the neon signs for the big box stores, the grocery superstores, the chain specialty stores, the restaurants and the banks. If you have a passion or a problem, someone somewhere along that road is ready to feed it or fix it. It is easy to pull in -- there are always plenty of parking spots -- pop in, pay, load up the car and get out. I loved it when I was back visiting on my recent trip: I could spend money, and spend it easily, and if I got hungry after all that shopping, there was always some convenient place to stop and eat. Tonight, fighting with my runaway shopping cart in my French mall parking lot made me think about Costco. I'm not sure I could go to Costco with my little French car, if such things as Costco existed here, which of course they don't. Impulse-buying on a Costco scale wouldn't fit into my apartment. Even buying staples in bulk wouldn't work: I've nowhere to store a three-months' supply of toilet paper. Some of this is specific to the Paris region, of course, since outside of Paris, people have larger houses, complete with such luxuries as attics, basements and garages. And yes, France's Carrefour Hypermarket is another Walmart wannabe, stocking plenty cheap junk from China designed to create a desire to spend where none existed before. Still, shops are in majority closed on Sunday everywhere in the country, and those which stay open the latest on weeknights still close their doors by eight or nine. That's a full day and six full evenings a week to think about something other than shopping. Imagine that.