Sunday, April 20, 2008

Buying groceries and other shopping in Strasbourg

Since we came to France almost eight months ago, we haven't really "shopped", and it's been a liberating experience. We have never really bought things just for the sake of having them, and we are not collecting things here for the simple reason that we either have to leave them here or take/ship them back to Canada with us when we go. Both options are expensive. So when the kids ask, "Can we get this?" or when I wonder if we should buy something, the easy answer is, "No", and the reasoning is always the same. Like I said, liberating!

Nevertheless, the temptation to spend money is everywhere, and the possibilities for parting with your money are endless: from the petite Mom and Pop épicerie (grocery store) or shoe store to the huge mall of the type that you see in North America; and from the strange mechanized Casino grocery to the typically European marchés (open street markets).

You can buy eggs, bread and milk on your way home from the train at this automated épicerie (grocery store).

Daily market at the cathedral square in Freiburg, Germany.

One day of the week that you can hold on to your money (if you stay out of the tourist areas) is Sunday. Most stores in Strasbourg are closed on this day, and families use the opportunity to visit the parks or aller lèche-vitrine (an odd-sounding phrase for going window shopping). During the week many businesses still hold on to the custom of closing between 12 and 2 p.m. each day, something that has frustrated us on many occasions when we have forgotten. Conversely, when you're really hungry and want to spend your money you find that many restaurants are only open for déjeuner (lunch) from 12 to 2 p.m., making a late-afternoon meal very hard to find, especially in the smaller communities.

While we can avoid buying "things", we still have to eat, and thus we can't avoid grocery shopping, a chore that we do every one to three days. We can't really buy a week's worth of anything here, partly because we have a tiny fridge in the apartment, and partly because we either have to use the tram or good old foot power to get the groceries home. Luckily we live only a 300 m walk from Place des Halles, a mall in the centre of Strasbourg, and located there is Galleries Gourmandes, a full-service grocery store.

The kids avoid grocery shopping with us whenever possible.

Although the major grocery stores look much like their North American counterparts, there are some obvious differences. For example, in Galleries Gourmandes, the cheese, chocolate and wine sections are huge.

And not only is wine plentiful, it can also be cheap. It's possible to buy a bottle for 0,92 € (about $1.50). Now, I'm not saying it's good wine... just very affordable. : )

About 1/3 of the cheese section at Galleries Gourmandes -- the self-serve part.

More cheese counter -- cheese cut to your specifications and service with a smile.

In contrast, chewing gum is horribly expensive, as is anything North American. You can get Old El Paso salsa, for example, but you pay about 4 € (over $6) for a small jar. For a while we paid almost 4 € for a block of four instant Asian-style noodles, before discovering that a block of six cost about 0,50 € at the Asian foods store right across from our apartment.

While baking (and the supplies to bake with) are easy to find in North America, it's almost impossible here. I have begun to suspect that most French people don't make their own desserts. And why would they, with the choice available in thousands of patisseries and grocery stores in the city? I think that's why flour is only available in 1 kg bags, and rolled oats in 500 g boxes, and why it's impossible to locate baking powder! We have solved this problem by simply not baking anymore... sigh... and getting our dessert-fix at the patisserie like everyone else does.

Being unable to bake North American style has been a ... ahem... very sad experience for us.

Let us know what you're cooking tonight! christinateskey @ yahoo . ca or mvieweg @ gmail . com

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008


The last three weeks have been a whirlwind of activity for us (and thus the lack of fresh blog postings). Our apartment has been a multinational gathering place as we have entertained visitors from both Canada and Germany.

The first to arrive was my sister Pat, one day ahead of her daughter, Blaire, who both flew to the Frankfurt airport and then took the train to Strasbourg. Pat's arrival was somewhat uneventful, but the day that she got here we were left wondering if Blaire would even make it. When Pat phoned Darla, another of her daughters, to say that she had arrived safely, Darla informed her that Blaire hadn't been so lucky with her trip. Blaire had actually missed her flight due to a tragic motor vehicle accident on Deerfoot Trail in Calgary, which caused all traffic to be halted for three hours. Luckily, though, she was able to get on another flight that left early in the evening, and she showed up at the Strasbourg train station the next afternoon, almost before we knew that she was in the country.

We spent a few chilly days over Easter weekend walking around Strasbourg with Pat and Blaire, investigating some old churches and traipsing through Petite France to see the ancient buildings. On Easter Monday we headed off to Paris to meet our friends from Burns Lake and left Pat and Blaire with intentions to go on a hike around Barr, just south of Strasbourg. However, the weather and a mix-up in bus and train schedules foiled their plans. If you ask them about their day, they'll both get wild looks in their eyes and mutter something about the freezing cold, an internet café, overeating, and an illegal Turkish gambling ring!

Our plans worked out a little more smoothly, and after meeting up with Ray, Wendy, Nikki and Brooklyn at their hotel, we had a good, if also very cold, day in Paris. We waited in line for about two hours before finally getting in to see the Eiffel Tower. It's quite an amazing structure, and the view from the top is spectacular. Had I been alone, though, I probably wouldn't have taken the time or paid the money to go up (just as we didn't when my friend Kelly and I were in Paris all those years ago!) However, it seems to be one of those rites of passage that you must go through as a tourist to Paris -- especially when you're with kids. Although we had had plans to walk the Champs Elysées, it was late in the afternoon after our visit to the Eiffel Tower, and we had to head to the train station to catch the TGV back to Strasbourg.

We spent the rest of the visit in Strasbourg, interspersed with trips to Germany and Switzerland. Highlights of the visit with our Burns Lake friends included an overnight trip to Freiburg, Germany; a trip to Europa Park, an amusement park in Rust, Germany, where Ray and Mark waited in a special lineup for the front seats on the ultimate thrill ride, the Silver Star, a roller coaster with speeds up to 127 km/h; a hike through vineyards and forest to an ancient castle; and a day trip to Basel, Switzerland, where we had a nice, if expensive, lunch and crossed the Rhine River on a reaction ferry. In Strasbourg we climbed the cathedral stairs to the viewing platform 100m high; wandered around the Place Cathédrale; took the Ill River tour; and visited a few of the city's parks. Pat and Blaire went their own way at times, with Blaire staying in Paris for a few days to visit with friends, while Pat was able to meet us in Freiburg on our second day there. Pat and Wendy also managed to get in some shopping when the rest of us weren't looking!

At the end of the visit we were sad to say goodbye to our family and friends -- Meghan especially enjoyed having the company of her best friend, Brooklyn. However, we only had a few days grace before we entertained some of Mark's relatives from Germany. Fritz (who is Mark's father's cousin), his wife Annemarie, his son Arno and Carmen, Arno's wife, along with their two children Jan and Amelie, came to Strasbourg by train for a short afternoon visit last Saturday. Annemarie brought us a very nice book about Offenburg, and we all had some French tartes and coffee. We had a nice chat with them (cheers to Arno and Carmen for their good English!) and then walked them back to the train station just before supper time. This departure, unlike the ones of our Canadian guests, wasn't so much a "good-bye" as a "see you soon", as we had already made plans for another gathering of family in Offenburg later in April.

After all of the visitors, it took us a few days to get back into our usual activities, but now we have settled into our routine of home schooling and exploring Strasbourg and the surrounding area. The kids were somewhat refreshed by the break and are now working hard to try to finish their studies early. We are looking forward to breaks in our schedule with visits from my mom and Mark's brother Steven and his wife, Chris, a trip to Greece, and a possible trip back to Berlin for Mark. Sadly, we already have the smallest feelings that our adventure is coming to an end, but we are determined to make the most of our last three months and the warm weather that we know is just around the corner!

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