Saturday, 11 April 2009

Il ya du shopping dans l'air

There's always shopping to do, even in France. Apart from postcards and small gifts, I like to bring a few things back: different mixes of herbs and spices, a couple of bottles of wine, Claire Fontaine stationery (the kind with small squares). Coming across these later, I remember that I've had a holiday.

I joined Jana on her Saturday shopping expedition. We began with a shopping centre I hadn't visited before. It was difficult to reach from the bus - evidently not planned for pedestrians - but Jana led me confidently across roads and up the long, steep staircase to the entrance. I wasn't sure what I thought of the outsize, cartoon-style plastic flowers beside the steps - Jana told me they were the shopping centre's logo - but I liked the large, open-air courtyard. One of the things I particularly dislike about shopping centres is the way they are sealed off from sky. I like to experience the weather and know if it's dark or light outside. I began to enjoy the centre although it wasn't quite warm enough for us to sit and lunch in the open air. But there was something strange about the experience I couldn't identify - something beyond the sunshine and Frenchness of it all.

Another bus ride took us to a more conventional shopping centre - one I knew well. We separated for a while and I wandered alone round Carrefour, in search of stationery. Then I sat outside, waiting for Jana and watching the shoppers. Many achieve a confident elegance that made me feel dowdily insecure.

But something else caught my attention - and I realised what was strange about shopping in France. There were a couple of closed shops but these were being transformed by painters and carpenters. I knew that Franch prices had gone up - the changed exchange rate made me acutely aware of the need to economise - but there was no sign of the catastrophe that has hit the British midlands. It looks as though shops were surviving.

It's hard to make a comparison. I was in a Paris suburb, not Leicester, Derby or Nottingham. But, while central London seems unaffected, the London suburbs I know are beginning to sprout "to let" signs and vacant shop windows. So far as I could tell, the familiar ghost towns are a British phenomenon. While England sees projects for expansion bodged, delayed and cancelled - causing all kinds of private distress and disaster - France seems to keep going with its familiar mix of big chains and small, family-run businesses.

I've probably missed evidence of poverty in France. There are still homeless people and beggars, though there doesn't seem to be a great increase in their numbers. There are always people struggling to make ends meet. But perhaps the French never built their economy on reckless shopping for luxury goods in the way the British did. Purchases in France always seemed more considered - and often based on an assessment of quality rather than an urgent desire to possess. Perhaps the French have been helped by their concern for small, local businesses - or perhaps they didn't have the same enthusiasm for an economy built on debt. I'd like to think that they learnt from Zola's analysis of consumerism in Au Bonheur des Dames. But that's unlikely. Readers and critics today focus on the sexual aspects of text rather than their economic arguments. Few people notice that Rossetti's powerful Goblin Market explores the dangers of shopping as well as sex.

1 comment:

Alan Baker said...

A agree about the mix of family businesses and bigger concerns - I was struck by that in Carcassonne last year. In fact most of the shops and cafés in that small town seemed to be locally owned.