“Merde, le pain!”
This is how it all started. It was exactly 7:15 p.m. and my mom and I were stepping out of a downtown Carrefour supermarket, face masks still on, with two big bags of groceries—one for us, and one for my mamie.
I was about to trade food for Mark. I had left him with his great-grandmother for a couple of hours to go check out les soldes, i.e. the state-regulated six-week-long summer sales period, at the Galeries Lafayette. Watching Mark was also a fun way to cheer mamie up—she feels lonely since my papi passed away and the lockdown messed up her routine, she doesn’t want to go out anymore.
“Merde, le pain!” I said. “We didn’t buy bread for tonight, did we?”
“Non. And for once, we finished it all yesterday. It’s okay, La mie câline closes at 8 p.m.”.
When it’s hot, sunny and streets are full of people enjoying summer, it’s easy to forget how late it is—well, not technically late, but most stores close at 7 p.m. in France, with a handful of bakeries providing delicious fresh bread until 8 p.m. and large supermarkets welcoming hungry customers until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.
It’s not unusual to buy bread at 7 p.m. but it’s a bit of a close call because the last batch can sell out fast.
We crossed the street and rushed to the bakery. I didn’t even have to put my mask back on, I could see from the street that bread baskets were empty and customers were stepping in and out without baguette and with a frown on their face.
A lot of people are looking for bread past 7 p.m. The quest for cigarettes and a late-night bureau de tabac starts around 10 p.m., then past midnight party-goers are desperate for cheap booze, and if you see someone wandering around the streets at 6 a.m., chances are they’re hoping for early-morning croissants—it’s almost as if French don’t realize stores have regular business hours, usually posted online and on the front door.
This evening, I was one of the idiots who had forgotten to buy bread, the most common food in France.
“Let’s check out the other bakery.”
“Phew, one sesame baguette left,” I noted, standing outside. But two seconds later, it was grabbed and handed out to the customer in front of us.
“Shit, what do we do?”
“How about Boréa, close to Carrefour? I think it closes at 8 p.m.”
“Give me the bags and run!”
Alas, they were out of bread as well. “We have… some soft sliced bread left, I think.”
I shuddered at the thought of it. No soft sliced bread, thank you very much. I’m in France, I want it long, thick and hard, and by that I mean eating a fancy artisan baguette, what were you thinking, dirty mind!
The situation was dire.
“Where can we go?” I ask my mom.
“Supermarket… but there won’t be anything left this late, plus there’s a lineup.”
“Okay, what’s your plan B when you can’t buy bread at the usual places?”
My mom sighed. “It happened to me a couple of times this year with COVID and weird business hours. I had to do without bread.”
We let the sentence sink in. What a terrible year! Not only COVID kills people but it also indirectly interferes with fundamental human rights, like the ability to get fresh bread for dinner.
“Okay, plan C, then. I’m going to the train station, the bakery in front of it closes at 8 p.m., I think. I hope.”
“What time is it?”
“Take the tramway!”
Lucky me, we were right it front of the Bouffay stop and the tram was coming.
Two stops later, I stepped out and ran to La pâtisserie de la gare where baskets were still full of fresh bread.
I bought two baguettes.
“Got it,” I texted when I stepped out, noting it was probably the first time my Canadian phone was sending a text message about bread.
Then I walked straight to mamie’s place, which took a good thirty minutes.
Yes, all that for bread, “and you buy it every day and every city has it!” like Mark says.
Welcome to France.