Delights of shopping - in France

THE SHOPKEEPER shook her head. No, she absolutely would not sell us an avocado.It was not that she didn't have any. There they were in front of us, a large wicker basketful of dark green fruits.

THE SHOPKEEPER shook her head. No, she absolutely would not sell us an avocado.

It was not that she didn't have any. There they were in front of us, a large wicker basketful of dark green fruits.

But before she would put one in a bag for us, she wanted to know when we intended to eat it.

Today? No. They were not ready and she would not allow us to take away an imperfect avocado.

One of those small, neat melons, then? For today?

She carefully felt a few before handing us a melon at just exactly the right stage of ripeness.

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Of course, this exchange did not take place in England. It would have been extraordinary if it had. In France it was just part of the normal way of things.

Shopping for food in France takes time. Just like the cooking and the eating, it is part of a whole process to be savoured, enjoyed, to be done right.

One of the things I understand least about England is that shopping is now counted as a leisure activity. Many people apparently consider it their favourite hobby. The shopping they mean is browsing for clothes, toys, gadgets and gimmicks. In short, stuff.

Stuff that in most cases they don't need.

Stuff that will end up merely cluttering the home, on its way perhaps to a future car-boot sale - or, worse, the overflowing landfill.

The enjoyment is not in using these unnecessary things, or even in owning them, but just in the selection and purchase. Shopping, it seems, has become an end in itself.

Yet when it comes to food - which, let's face, we all need every day - we lose the will to shop.

We don't give the time and care to it that the French, many of them, still do.

We value supposed convenience, over freshness. We equate “value” with low price, not high quality.

We scrimp on food in order to enjoy all that other shopping.

We have become a pile-em-high, sell-em-cheap society, a land of supermarket dross.

Of course, supermarkets thrive in France too. The out-of-town shopping mall was a common fixture of the French landscape before it caught on here.

Yet somehow their small towns retain their small bakers where the bread is baked and bought fresh every day. Their patisseries and charcuteries, where food is a matter of care and attention - and which can't even be translated straight into English.

I don't know when or how Britain fell out of love with real food, so far that something bought from a fastfood outlet or heated in a microwave came to be regarded as a meal.

You only have to cross the Channel to see that it doesn't have to be that way.

Mind you, the first shop you see when you drive off the ferry at Calais is something called Boozers.

That doesn't translate straight into French. And it's another sad sign of what they have come to expect from the English.

WHEN I was a child, coming home from France to England meant returning from exotic filth and squalor to wholesome cleanliness.

From toilets that overflowed and niffed a bit to plumbing that worked. From stinking streets to well-cleaned ones. From cobbled or ill-patched roads that jolted the car like an old haycart to smooth surfaces that were no challenge to even a recently battered suspension.

Some time around the late1980s I noticed that that had all changed. France had become the cleaner, better maintained country.

Okay English plumbing has not regressed to former French standards. But while French standards in most things have risen, those here have slumped - and not just by comparison.

To enter England from mainland Europe now is to enter a land of scarily heavy traffic, poorly patched roads, ill manners and filth. It's remarkable what you get used to. You don't notice change that happens gradually around you.

But go away - even for a few days - and come back. See things as if through the eyes of a first-time or occasional visitor.

France is no longer mired, as it was when I was young, in picturesque post-war poverty.

And England is no longer the green and pleasant land I'm almost sure it once was.