This is my first apartment that didn’t come with a toaster and an English electric water-heating pot. I don’t care about the quick water-heater; I can always boil some water on one of the two burners next to the sink if I want tea. But for me, a toaster is essential. The irresistible baguette of Paris is a staple of my diet. I need to be able to toast it for breakfast and when it’s less-than-fresh. The key to quality is to buy and consume your baguette fresh each day, or store it in the freezer. But sometimes I forget to use my petite freezer compartment as a breadbox. If you store bread in plastic bags at room temperature, which to the French is a sacrilege, the crust gets soft and the lovely crispness is lost. Toasting improves the texture if you have stored it in plastic. I must confess that I sometimes make this irreverent faux pas.
My landlord, Michel, said that he would reimburse me for a toaster if I would shop for and purchase it. That seemed fair, since he lives a hour’s train ride from here and probably doesn’t want to spend his weekend getting me a toaster.
I had scoped out toasters yesterday at Monoprix, and found they are more expensive than in the U.S.. Monoprix is a department store-cum-supermarket which is similar to our Target. Monoprix had toasters at 25, 35 and 45-euro price points. You have to multiply that by one and a half (150%) to get the dollar equivalent. The exchange rate these days (2011) is murder on an American budget — everything is waay expensive. I had planned to visit the huge BHV department store today, near the Hotel de Ville
(City Hall), to check out small appliances. Last night while I was looking at hair curlers on amazon.fr
, I decided to peruse the toasters, too. What a selection! There were dozens, priced from a low around 20 euros to over 200. But ordering online meant waiting for delivery, and I want a toaster NOW. Then, Michel told me that amazon could not deliver to the building because they don’t have the front-door code to get into the vestibule where the mailboxes are. I guess Amazon France doesn’t ship via La Poste, which is the equivalent of the U.S. Postal Service. La Poste can get in any apartment door to access the mailboxes.
Where could I have something delivered?? I still wanted to order a hair curler which wouldn’t burn out on European electrical current as my American one had. Aha! Valerie would know. She was our 2006 upstairs neighbor, and now is a dear friend. Her (“our”) building on rue Lucien Sampaix in the 10th arrondissement has a Guardienne, Madame Chavarot. She’s the caretaker who is on the scene during the daytime. Mail and packages come to her, and she hand-delivers them to each apartment. But it has the same entry challenge as here in the 5th, a massive old wooden door at the street where you need to punch in a code to pass through, then an inner door requiring another code, or call-box to ask a resident buzz you in. Valerie said it’s not a problem to have packages delivered; there’s a buzzer at the street which I never knew about. Once, I waited out on the sidewalk for 20 minutes before I could tag along with someone who knew the code. The secret button rings in Madame Chavarot’s tiny quarters on the ground floor. She doesn’t live there, but she has a long, narrow room with a table and chairs, TV, a daybed, bathroom, washer-dryer, small stove and fridge. Cupboards line one wall. They hide, among other things like cleaning supplies, some wicked-strong port wine. She got me tipsy on it last time I visited. Madame doesn’t much care for chocolate, and her boyfriend works at a florist’s. But she loves champagne, so she’s easy to buy for. If something was sent to me at the building, Madame Chavarot would hold it for me. Our relationship is cemented with champagne and port, and many hours of chatting — in French, since she doesn’t speak any English.
Valerie said I could have an Amazon order sent to her, but suggested that I might first want to try the specialty chain called Darty, which carries all manner of electronic gear and also both large and small appliances. There’s a Darty at Place de la République, a short walk from rue Lucien Sampaix, and on Métro line 5, “our” home line when we called Lucien Sampaix home for three months in 2006. Serendipitously, the other end of line 5 is the closest Métro stop, Saint Marcel, to my current apartment across the river in the 5th arrondissement.
I decided to forget about BHV — it would probably be too expensive anyway — and head to Darty to search for hair curlers and toasters. I had looked up the French names, so I would know what to ask for: fer à bouclé for curling iron, and grille-pain is a toaster. When I exited the Métro at République, I was home again, in my old stomping grounds. There was the giant statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, towering above the enormous square. It being Saturday, the place was bustling even more than usual. Tout le monde, and their children, were out shopping. Plus half the cars in Paris.
Statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, at Place de la République.
I was soon in Darty’s basement, which was uncomfortably warm with all those people in it (no air conditioning until mid-summer, and even then it’s weak). First I found les fers à bouclé’ and determined they didn’t have the kind I need, and even the possible substitute I had seen at Darty on-line won’t do. On to les grilles-pain. Michel had said be sure to get a small one, as the kitchen has a very narrow counter. Darty had about twenty different toasters on display, nearly all of them way too big for my modest kitchen. But they did have one which would work: the “ultra compact” SEB model I’d seen at Monoprix for 35 euros. Here it cost 38 euros–that’s $57 folks, for a mediocre-quality toaster, made in China. (But what isn’t?) The made-in-Europe grille-pain models– England and Germany particularly seem to love their toast — were très chèr (very expensive), albeit of higher quality.
Being frugal, and not wanting to lug the toaster plus two bags of groceries all they way home from Place de la République, I decided to buy the SEB ultra-compact at the Monoprix across from the Saint Marcel métro station in my new neighborhood. So it was back to line 5 and a 15 minute métro ride to my part of the 5th.
Something I was reminded of today is how many Paris stores, even small neighborhood groceries, have very visible security people. They are invariably tall, powerfully-built, stern-looking, extremely noir Africans, dressed in coats & ties. They watch the customers with suspicion, those little walkie-talkie thingies in one ear. Kind of like US Secret Service agents. They stand near the entry doors, and strategically around in larger stores, their presence striking fear into the hearts of honest customers and shoplifters alike.
Today I approached two of these intimidating security guys and said (very politely, bien sûr): “Bonjour, Monsieur. Excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais à quelle heure êtes-vous fermé aujourd’hui?” “Excuse me for bothering you, sir, but what time do you close today?” Stores are closed on Sundays in France, with few exceptions, so one had best get their urgent purchases made before Saturday night closing. At the République Monoprix, I had asked another security guy whether ALL Monoprix stores close at 22h00 (10:00 pm) as posted in his store, and he replied that it depends on the neighborhood. Stores in sketchy neighborhoods close earlier, at 20h00 (8:00). I wasn’t sure whether the Saint Marcel neighborhood is considered safe or questionable. There IS a soup kitchen set up in the evening at the Square Marie Curie a block away. They feed quite a crowd of down-and-out men, who sit or stand around in groups socializing as they slurp their soup and munch on the main course. Does that qualify as sketchy? Those raggedy dudes rather intimidated ME.
So I hustled to get back before 8:00. Thankfully, the enormous guard at the Saint Marcel Monoprix assured me they are open until 22h00, so I guess it’s a safe neighborhood. I bought the toaster, and a bag to carry it, and headed home to rue Poliveau. Mission accomplished!
Sorry, there are no pictures of Darty, the selections of fers à bouclé’ and grilles-pains, Monoprix or the security guards. This was written in 2011, the first year I began taking photos, and I didn’t think to document these experiences. Here’s a photo of the toaster, though:
Voilà le grille-pain!
It’s surrounded by the staples of my Paris kitchen: bread, yogurt, paté, spinach-artichoke soup, pasta & bottled eggplant-red bell-pepper sauce, and cheese, cheese, cheese. A few of my favorites are shown here: Chaource, Saint Agur, and a Pié d’Angloys which I’d never tried before. Normally, there would also be Camembert and perhaps a couple of others. In Paris, you CAN live by bread alone. Along with cheese. And of course some healthy greens.
Oh, and I couldn’t resist. Here’s the yogurt aisle at a Monoprix supermarket: lots of choices!