Friday, November 20, 2009

Shopping - Part Deux

From my post of October 24: (
I keep hearing that the traditional way of life is disappearing. Neighbourhood bistros and cafés closing; local butchers, bakers, fishmongers, cheesemongers gone… All pushed to towards extinction by national grocery and restaurant chains…is there still room for local shops and restaurants to thrive? I mean to find out.

Three weeks in, what have I found?

Our apartment is in a neighbourhood called “Les Beaux Arts”, a quartier of apartments, full of artists and professionals. The hub of the neighbourhood is Place des Beaux Arts, a 4-minute walk from our apartment. Right in the middle of la place is a market, open every morning (except Sunday). Mostly, it’s local fruits and veggies, with a rotating group of specialty vendors who show up at the market on different days to offer cheese, charcuterie, roast chickens, pizza, and so on. Around la place are a collection of cafés and bistros. Radiating out on small side streets from la place are, for us, every type of small specialty shop that you need for day-to-day shopping: boulangerie and pâtisserie, boucherie, poissonnerie, and (of course) a wine shop. (An 8-minute walk in another direction takes you to the heart of the old city centre, with a larger market and even more speciality shops.) These shops are always busy and so, here in this neighbourhood in the centre of the city, I’d say that the traditional way of life – walking to neighbourhood stores, shopping for food every day, stopping at the local café – is strong.

But it’s also obvious that the one-stop convenience, selection, and price offered by the huge hypermarchés appeal to many French shoppers as much as they do to many Canadians. Newer neighbourhoods, older neighbourhoods with less population density, and small towns don’t have the same concentration of markets and small shops. For residents there, the one-stop impersonal hypermarchés are more convenient. Our neighbourhood, Les Beaux Arts, is an older one and the many shops and restaurants are an integrated part of the social life here. Shopping at the market or one of the local shops is more than just buying something; it’s social contact, the cachet of being a regular. That’s something that you just don’t get at the hypermarché. In fact, the possibility of living the traditional life probably attracts people to Les Beaux Arts who want that way of life, and repels those that don’t.

The traditional way of life still exists in France but, from my observation, it has declined, especially in small towns. Whether it continues to decline and disappear, or whether it will thrive in certain neighbourhoods with the right conditions, like Les Beaux Arts, the jury remains out on that.

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