Paris, December 27, 2016
TANG Frères, Tang Brothers, the go-to supermarket on Avenue d’Ivry for all oriental grocery, an institution of sorts in Paris, was not as I had remembered it from my last visit there in the summer of 2001. It’s now bigger, louder, more crowded, more unpleasant. The plan was to get my hands on rice, soya sauce, and rice noodles possibly. The Asian girl was starting to wilt from too much bread after only two days. Rice, rice, give her some rice!
Well, there was rice: Thai Jasmine, basmati, but not quite the Japanese ones I was looking for. No top-end koshihikari, I can understand, but there was not even the requisite and ubiquitous Nishiki, nor the most basic short grain from Japan, but what they did have was sushi rice. I guess I could settle with that.
The other thing I was going to hunt down too was barley—not pearl barley, but the plump ones from China with a deep brown vertical scar down its belly, the very ones I had forgotten to stuff in the suitcase in a fit of hurried packing following a busy festive season. It could well have been as critical as my thyroxin, which I didn’t forget. After all, given my heaty constitution, I survive on a three- to four-times-a-week dose of boiled barley to stay cool and well.
So, in a spirit of camaraderie, I approached one of the staff, a Chinese, and asked him in Mandarin if had barley: Yi-mi, I articulated. His reply was gruff: Er hang. Second row! But all I saw were shelves and shelves of rice. I suspect he may have heard mi, which was rice indeed. Oh well! When I did run into him again at a different aisle, I told him I hadn’t any luck finding it, he screamed in Mandarin: I told you it was the second row. I gave up on barley but was thrilled to find chrysanthemums instead, a second-rate substitute no doubt, but good enough none the less.
The whole enterprise of fixing a dinner of fried rice noodles with pho, shiitake slivers and ground pork all got canned the moment I walked past the meat section. The cold, cloying odor of red meat, the yellow pallor of the chicken skin. They made me cold and nauseous.
So it was off to the checkout, and being the dork I was, a newly arrived visitor to the city and the supermarket, I get told by the cashier to get a move on with all my shopping the moment the lady in front of me cleared.
“Take out all your shopping from the basket and lay them here,” she barked in French, pointing right at the short and narrow conveyor belt that slid right up to her just as tight and narrow counter. Then she snapped, “C’est simple!”—it’s so simple—suggesting I was not very bright.
That’s true, it was simple. And I seemed to have forgotten that this was not NTUC or Cold Storage in Singapore. It was self-serve. So she screamed again: Allez! Go on, get your shopping in your own bag! And given my momentary freeze, she rumbled the same thing in a Chinese dialect, something that sounded like Teochew, thinking I didn’t quite understand French.
Thank goodness, I did bring my own shopping bag, but it started filling up so quickly, there was no space left for the eggplant, the pho, the two cans of Asahi. Je voudrais un sac, s’il vous plaît! I need a bag, please!
Vingt centimes, she said, with displeasure.
This, as always, is the nightmare moment for me. Whenever I hear some numbers rattled off after I ask “How much?” I always have to hear it again, if not two more times. She had frightened me enough for me not to ask again, so I put some guess work to play.
I register 25 cents in my mind, so I’m digging for my coins, holding the line even more, giving her 20 cents and another 10 cents, when she picks at the ten and presses it back rudely back onto my palm.
Vingt, madame, vingt centimes.
No one can understand how the sounds register in my mind, a somewhat dyslexic one at that! I heard vingt for twenty, but the “cent” in “centimes” vibrated with “cinq” or “five.” Of course, it seems obvious the words “cent” and “cinq” aren’t the same, but for an ear of a Singaporean girl, still not quite wired yet to the sounds of French, they were a blur of sameness.
A sympathetic French friend like F would understand, and he did when the story was regaled over dinner. But that gruff and tough, rough and rude lady at Tang Frères? Forget it!