This is my third week working in a medieval priory in the small village of Talloires on the shores of Lake Annecy in France. I get my freshly baked long loaf of bread and news about the weather from the village boulangerie early each morning. I get my cheese and vegetables from the farmers' marche in the afternoon.
But what has been most fascinating hasn't been these traditional food retail sources. If you imagine the most stereotypical French village bakery shop, vegetable stall at the farmer's market, and rustic dairy cheese store that you can, you'll have it exactly right. What more could I describe?
Instead, I keep noticing the strangely unfamiliar features of the more "modern" food sector. At the "Monoprix" in the nearby city of Annecy, the cashier sneers at you if you require a shopping bag. To an extent that would be astonishing in the United States, everybody here packs their groceries into their own reusable bags even in modern supermarkets.
There is a "8 a huit" -- literally "8 to eight" -- in the middle of the village, which has modern signage and looks like a Seven Eleven in the United States. You'll notice, though, that there are fewer hours in the retail chain's title, and that's the least of it. In addition, the store closes for two hours at lunch.
You might fear the "8 a huit" would push the local boulangerie out of business, but not at all. The baker is the source of bread for the "8 a huit." An American friend on the faculty here once went to the "8 a huit" in the afternoon and asked for some bread. The shop-keeper said they were out of bread for the day. My friend pointed to the American style wrapped factory-made sandwich bread. Oh that, said the store-keeper with disdain, and sold some.
On television here, George Clooney peddles Nescafe with a kitschy ad in which he flirts with two pretty women who are describing something with adjectives like "full-bodied" and "sophisticated," but it turns out to be the coffee not the movie star. There are advertisements for McDonald's on the television, but they run with a news ticker along the bottom warning you to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, along with a link to a national website (see accompanying images), somewhat akin to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The label for my container of table sugar includes advice not to eat too much sugar.
From the tenor of food labeling and dietary guidance political debate in the United States, one would think that such policies would cause a complete collapse of the food system. But, they seem to be doing just fine.