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Unpacking 18.5 Kilos of Oh-So-French Products

Packing at the end of a trip to France is trickier than usual. My backpack is uncomfortably heavy—I still have a bruise on my upper arm!—and boxes always get a bit crushed.

Still, opening the two giant bags of “things I thought I may need at one point and dumped into my backpack” in my Canadian bedroom is always an enjoyable surprise, as if I hadn’t bought all the products myself just days or weeks earlier.

It doesn’t take much to make me happy—if you live far from home, I’m sure you know what I mean. Only immigrants can get unreasonably excited about everyday products picked up in supermarkets thousands of kilometers away.

The giant bag of must-have French products
The giant bag of must-have French products

What ends up in my backpack falls into at least one of these three categories:

  • Cheaper than in Canada
  • Better than in Canada
  • Quick and easy taste of home

My first stop is usually the tempting supermarket “back-to-school” aisles. I use to dread the yearly late-August mandatory shopping trip as a kid because it meant summer was over and we had to spend hours sourcing extremely specific supplies—“one purple quad-ruled notebook for math… two packs of 100-sheet three-hole punched white paper for French… one red-ink fountain pen for geography… one small alphabetized spiral notebook for Latin… Canson paper for arts…”

It took me years and graduating from high school to realize French school supplies are awesome. Even store-brand paper is smooth, just thick enough and I’m a sucker for Séyès line-grid ruling. Four-colour Bic ballpoint pens are a classic and if it wasn’t for the fact day planners and other essentials are heavy, I’d make my own long writing supply list. Yes, I still use notebooks. Yes, I’ve heard of the Internet.

Classic French notebooks and pens
Classic French notebooks and pens
Classic French notebooks and pens
Classic French notebooks and pens

The next pit stop was the pharmacy.

“I’d like four boxes of Efferalgan, two boxes of Doliprane—wait, make it six, and—.”

“Do you need to see a doctor?”

“Oh, I’m not sick! I just… like to be prepared.”

Also, French acetaminophen and ibuprofen are easier to take on the go—they come in single-dose packet, no water required and some are cappuccino-favoured.

Basically robbing a French pharmacy...
Basically robbing a French pharmacy…
Vitamin C
Vitamin C

I may get sick but it won’t be scurvy—not with all the vitamin C I bought!

Isopropyl Alcoho, Arnican (for bruises), Efferalgan and Doliprane
Isopropyl Alcoho, Arnican (for bruises), Efferalgan and Doliprane

I don’t usually bring back alcohol but shelves have been empty since March in Canada.

From the pharmacy
From the pharmacy

I used the after-bite cream at the beginning of the trip because Mark got eaten alive by mosquitoes the first night. Gotta love large French windows with no screens…

Afterbite cream
Afterbite cream

For bar soaps, I had to trust my favourite brands and my experience because for the first time, I wasn’t able to smell them—nope, not the famous COVID-19 symptom, but the fact I had a face mask on…

French soap bars
French soap bars
Roger & Gallet soap bar
Roger & Gallet soap bar
Briochin soap bar
Briochin soap bar

I also bought some shampoo—I can find Klorane in Canada but it’s more expensive—and conditioner.

Shampoo and conditioner
Shampoo and conditioner
Sunscreen, aloe vera cream, exfoliating soap and clay mask
Sunscreen, aloe vera cream, exfoliating soap and clay mask

Face creams are much, much cheaper in France than in Canada. The average price of the ones pictured is about $12. Same goes for eye cream, which I mostly used because my skin is dry in Canada.

Face cream
Face cream
Eye cream
Eye cream

I bought two tubes of my favourite French detergent for hand washing clothes—it’s cheap, convenient and smells great.

Laundry detergent
Laundry detergent

I didn’t feel like buying clothes this summer—I don’t really need anything and the whole “mask on + hand sanitizer” routine was annoying.

I did step into H&M because I find their jeans and shorts fit well and last for years, but I discovered that fitting rooms were closed. It must have been a worldwide store policy because this was the exception in France. I was about to leave when a pair of shorts caught my eye—€10 on sale, last size and model. I grabbed it and tried it at home ten minutes later. Lucky me, perfect fit! These are the shorts I was wearing when I met my old friend, if you’re curious.

H&M shorts
H&M shorts

My mom, Mark and I went to Decathlon on a rainy afternoon. There’s a Decathlon store in Ottawa now but it’s expensive and there’s way too much hockey gear. I bought a new pair of shoes as well the cheap and convenient microfibre towel and a couple of dynamo hand-powered flashlight (so no battery required).

Flashlight and towel
Flashlight and towel

I’m fully aware that soup is easy to make and tending a simmering pot would make me look like a great housewife, partner and mother. But hey, life. We cook all of our meals and I’m not wasting thirty minutes on making soup from scratch plus a main course.

Quick soup is a better option for me, especially considering I eat a bowl of it almost every day. Honestly, they taste pretty good and they travel well.

Instant soup
Instant soup
Instant soup
Instant soup

Local salt and Knorr cubes are another way to add a French twist to my Chinese-Canadian meals.

Knorr cubes and salt
Knorr cubes and salt
"Fleur de sel" fancy salt
“Fleur de sel” fancy salt

As for coffee, it’s a “pandemic special”—my one-cup-a-day habit doesn’t call for a fancy coffee maker or pods and during the lockdown, I discovered it was hard to find non-flavoured instant coffee in supermarkets. I brought back this cheap option (€2.50 for 50 servings) for the next major disaster forcing coffee shops to close.

Instant coffee
Instant coffee

Finally, Monsieur Éléphant is a gift from my mom. We bought it at the souvenir shop on the Île de Nantes a few metres from the famous mechanical elephant.

Monsieur éléphant
Monsieur éléphant

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