I'm sitting here eating a bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with brown sugar. It's a breakfast that's taken a long time to make. About four weeks, in fact.
When people heard Dave and I were going to live in France, the first thing most of them said was "Bring me back some wine!" A few enterprising folks asked for cheese. Nobody expected us to lack for food in France, and I'm here to tell you there's no lack exactly. But they're missing a few things that I consider essential to my well-being, and Dave's too since he has to live with me.
This whole breakfast issue started at the end of October, when the weather really stared to turn. One morning I got out of bed, stepped onto the bare hardwood floor in our bedroom and realized that Golden Grahams and milk weren't going to cut it that morning, or for quite a few of the upcoming mornings. So I pulled out my shopping list and added oatmeal and brown sugar. That was my first mistake.
Two days later I headed to Carrefour (pronounced car-FOUR), the biggest damn store I've ever seen. Now I've been to plenty of Costco's in my life, but Carrefour makes Costco look like a 7-11. You can buy anything at Carrefour, up to and including a motorcycle. A real one, none of that scooter crap. I've often thought it would be completely appropriate to be assigned a Sherpa guide and an ox laden with camping equipment when you enter Carrefour, for it's possible to get dangerously lost in the frozen foods.
So this day I went into Carrefour with a pretty impressive shopping list and only a packet of chewing gum in my purse. I like to live on the edge. Two hours later I emerged with about two-thirds of my shopping list fulfilled. I simply couldn't find the rest.
This wasn't because Carrefour is so big, which is what you might think. The food section is only about half the store - the rest being taken up by motorcycles, washing machines, DVDs and the like. The challenge really two-fold, and I had to deal with both of the issues head on. Packaging in Europe is often very different than in the US, and to make matters worse, some things that we take for granted in the states are simply unheard of here.
Take for instance, oh, say...oatmeal. Couldn't find it to save my life. Now, oats are a common grain, and oatmeal isn't exactly the most technologically advanced food I can think of (unlike, just for another example, non-stick cooking spray, another item on my list that day that I left the mega-store without). Oatmeal is one of the great comfort foods of my life, right up there with Kraft macaroni and cheese (which, before you ask, isn't available here either. The French have better things to do with their cheese). I've never had to go into a grocery store and actually read the boxes in order to effectively shop. I go in and pattern match. Scientists, grocery store designers, and most of all advertisers know that I do this, and they arrange things so they can be found. But I don't watch advertisements in France.
The Quaker Oat ad people trained me like Pavlov's dog to look for a round box with a man in a white wig on it when I want to purchase rolled oats. Though there's a large cereal section at Carrefour, there's no round box with a stern religious man on the front. And despite the fact that I very carefully read all the boxes in the sugar section - no brown sugar either.
I eventually located oatmeal on my next shopping trip, at a smaller store closer to home. The culprit with the oatmeal was, indeed, the packaging. French oatmeal (flocons d'avoine) can be found in short square containers that look like Uncle Ben's rice boxes. And the picture on the front is a rather unappetizing bowl of cold rolled oats in milk - the oats are doing a good imitation of Golden Grahams, in fact. I was hoping that the brown sugar was also pulling a foreign packaging trick on me, but no luck. I went home clutching my oatmeal like a prize, but confounded by the brown sugar issue.
We have a lot of resources here in France. Most people in our office are quite eager to help us, and some have even gone so far as to make phone calls for us. So when I couldn't find brown sugar, I started asking around. The first person I asked was my colleague, Christophe, who replied that yes, of course there was brown sugar in France. I asked him if it was kept with the rest of the sugar or if there was some French organizing technique I wasn't aware of (this was actually the case with dried beans, which I'm used to looking for in the soup section, but which can be found in French stores near the produce). After a few exchanges, we determined that what Christophe thought of as brown sugar is what I know as unrefined cane sugar - the kind you get in little individual lumps. Not quite what I was looking for.
So I turned to Maryse, our infinitely patient French teacher. Maryse lived in England for 11 years, so I was sure she would be familiar with brown sugar. Again, I got the unrefined cane sugar response, but after some back and forth, she was sure she'd seen "real" brown sugar somewhere... maybe.
Now by this time I'm wondering how on earth these people make cookies if they don't have brown sugar. And then it strikes me that I haven't exactly seen a lot of cookies in France. Pastry, yes. Crème caramel, sure. Chocolate mousse, fruit tarts, tortes all present and accounted for... but very few cookies, and come to think of it, what cookies I have seen aren't the kind that use brown sugar in the recipe.
By the end of the week, I was obsessed. Must have oatmeal and brown sugar. And when I'm obsessed, I generally do what any good Silicon Valley geek does. I turn to the web.
Now the web is a wonderful thing, but it's also full of a lot of junk. Try doing a search on "brown sugar" and see if you don't get at least 200 hits for Rolling Stones sites. No satisfaction from the web, with the exception of actually finding a picture of brown sugar and showing it to people at the office, who were pretty much confused by it. No, I've never seen that before in my life, was one response.
So for several weeks, I had to let it lie. Maryse was on the lookout, and I had finally broken down and asked my parents to ship some from home. $2 worth of brown sugar shipped to the other side of the world costs about $30, in case you're wondering. I told you I was obsessed.
Today I'm pleased to say I'm virtually swimming in brown sugar. Maryse arrived at our housewarming party a few days ago and excitedly pulled out a small paper package filled with the elusive stuff (please note that it wasn't in a box). Since most of the office folks who had been confounded by the web site pictures were at this party, we passed the package around like an 8 ball of coke, people pinching a bit to taste it. Cultural exchange isn't always as groundbreaking as I imagined it would be.
And when I arrived at work this morning, there was a care package from home containing 2 boxes of brown sugar, 2 boxes of Stove Top Stuffing and a box of Cream of Wheat (if you thought the oatmeal thing was tricky - Cream of Wheat and Stove Top Stuffing aren't here at all - no how, no way, just forget it and move on). It's a carbohydrate kick care package, which may not do wonders for my diet, but goes a long way towards easing homesickness. Oatmeal never tasted so good.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go buy a motorcycle. I know where I can get one cheap.
- KNP Nov 27, '00