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Shopping For Expats In France

We emigrated to the Morvan in 2005 from rural Suffolk. By the time we left, shopping in our nearest town, Woodbridge, was no fun at all. The town had for various reasons – rapacious rents, scarce and costly parking, and a retail park a few miles away – lost many retail businesses. Corbigny, 10 minutes’ drive from our new home, was a revelation. It still is.

Parking is plentiful and free and browsing is a joy. I have the feeling that this town is 40 years behind the times (thank goodness!). Corbigny bustles, except on Mondays, when almost everything closes to make up for Saturday opening, and lunchtimes – most businesses – apart from eateries, of course – close from noon until 2 pm. The long lunch break has always been observed, but the Monday closing has a lot to do with les trente-cinq heures .Digression: The 35-hour working week –– les trente-cinq heures – was brought in by the Socialist Jospin government in laws in 1998 and 2000. It is explained in The Connexion, France’s online English language newspaper. Interestingly, top-level management is exempt, along with childminders and people working from home. I can guess why…

Corbigny offers butchers and charcutiers, a fancy goods shop and a bookshop/stationer. There is what our little son called a Tyred and Exhausted Centre next door to un pressing, a dry cleaner’s. Clothes, toy and shoe shops, a haberdasher, three pharmacies, bakers and confectioners to die for, a greengrocer, two florists and a Red Cross charity shop rub shoulders with estate agents, bank and post office, hardware and electrical stores, cafés and eateries. Two hairdressers, a computer shop, a photographer (passport photos while you wait: no smiling allowed and – bizarrely – no spectacles or earrings), a wholefood supplier and a tabac.

Digression: As Nigel Molesworth would say, Any fule kno that in France you can’t buy tobacco products just anywhere. You need a tabac, a shop licensed to sell tobacco products. Tabacs also sell newspaper, telephone cards, postage stamps and lottery tickets.

People come from the surrounding villages for their weekly fix of shopping and socialising. Several restaurants offer weekday menus for around 12 euros, some including wine.

Corbigny also has a furniture emporium, a big DIY/garden store and two supermarkets with a low staff turnover and a helpful attitude. Atac, a little brother of the Auchan chain, is our choice for fresh fish.

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Digression: When we lived in Suffolk we were accustomed to buying our fish from the fishermen’s huts on Aldeburgh beach and begging cod heads for our pets while the seagulls swooped and wailed. Atac is a long way from the sea, but refrigeration is a wonderful thing.

Our local Aldi, part of a German chain, is good for basics and outstanding for fruit and veg, but offers less choice than Atac. For example, they do not stock gin or silver polish and their cheeses and meats are pre-packed. If you want your cheese cut to order or your fish and meat weighed while you wait, you need Atac.

Every Monday a bundle of advertising material comes through the post, announcing forthcoming bargains – bonnes affaires – at Atac and Aldi and further afield. The same information is also available online. Atac’s special offers are mostly food, drink and household items. Aldi, however, reminds me of the quote from Forrest Gump – you never know what you’re going to get.

Wednesday and Saturday are the days for their ‘specials’. Typically, there might be dried fruit, children’s socks, tortilla wraps, cut price hardback books, a smartphone, a barbecue, pyjamas, and bed linen.

Click on www.aldi.fr to see what they have on offer this week. Their wine promotions are usually excellent, and our oenophile visitors load their cars with vins médaillés – bottles that have won an award in one of the innumerable wine festivals and sport a gold or silver sticker to prove it.

Aldi sometimes offer plants and garden tools. It is then that the Dutch invade in force. Turn up at 9.15am in search of bedding plants and all you will find is empty shelves with the occasional leaf or sprinkling of soil.

Atac is notable for dayglo orange signs advertising special offers. Foire des Artichauts/Chaussures/Bières/Choufleurs urges customers to stock up on artichokes, shoes, beer or cauliflowers as if they were going out of fashion. One often sees drab work clothes hopefully labelled Idée Cadeau. I do not know anyone who would enthuse over a gift-wrapped khaki fleece with matching gardening clogs, but maybe I haven’t lived in the Morvan long enough.

Atac also has its resident beggar, a youngish, apparently able-bodied man who sits outside on a camp stool with a homemade cardboard sign and two well-nourished dogs. I once offered him a morning’s gardening in return for a meal for him and his dogs and the minimum wage.

Digression: The minimum wage in France is the Salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance, known as Le SMIC, pronounced to rhyme with squeak.

He declined; maybe he could earn more begging. His dogs are friendly and it is usual to see mothers encouraging their children to donate a euro and pat the dogs. This worries me. What is the insurance or indeed the legal position if a child teases one of the dogs, who then retaliates?

Atac is the place to go to find out what is going on. Here you can pick up your copy of the Criquet, the monthly free magazine which includes interesting articles in addition to advertising. Every issue carries book reviews, advice on surviving the newest version of Windows, articles on local history, a horoscope, health advice, tips for gardeners and fishermen, recipes, a crossword puzzle and much more. It also carries a wealth of advertising for goods, foods and forthcoming events.

The ads pay for the edit, but many of the Criquet advertisemants are attractive and entertaining in their own right.

The little posters (God bless PCs and cheapo printers) by the checkout promote everything from dinner dances through concerts to all-you-can eat moules frites (mussels and chips) evenings in town and in nearby villages.

'What's the difference between an Essex girl and a supermarket trolley? A supermarket trolley has a mind of its own.'

If you want a trolley – une caddie – you need a euro or a jeton, a token to set it free from its chain gang. There are days when I am glad of a caddie as a walking aid, and I am never without the price of its release. In the trolley park of a hypermarket near the Channel Tunnel I watched a little girl with a pocketful of jetons. Helpfully she took the tourists’ euros, inserted jetons, released each trolley and handed it over with a smile. Budding tycoon or petty shyster?

All our local shops are closed on Sundays – no 24/7 Tescos or Sainsburys here. Cheapskates like me haunt Atac for Saturday afternoon bargains: the stuff that won’t keep over the weekend On the Saturday before Easter, when the store would be closed for two days, I paid a euro for a plastic crate containing mushrooms, tomatoes, an artichoke, a cabbage, two heads of chicory, carrots, an overripe avocado and a big piece of pumpkin. My finest hour, however, came when I spotted five large punnets of Spanish strawberries marked down to 50 centimes each.

Digression: Strawberries from Spain arrive in our shops as early as mid March. They can’t hold a candle to English strawberries or even French ones, but they are cheap and a glug of kirsch works wonders.

I dug out my granny’s big preserving pan and my mother-in-law’s recipe. John’s Mum was the overworked wife of an Anglican rector just outside Tiptree, possibly the strawberry capital of the world, and her jam was the envy of every ambitious WI member. The secret is in the layers – a layer of fruit, then a layer of sugar, and so on – and an overnight stay in a cool place, covered with a teatowel before you boil. Bon appétit!

Together with husband John, Rosemary Border Rabson emigrated to the Morvan in rural Burgundy in 2005, where few other Brits have ventured. Rosy's chief preoccupation is Charity Cottage, a holiday home-from-home in their garden at Maré le Bas. Rosy runs Charity Cottage in aid of Combat Stress. The cottage has its own website, www.charity-cottage.org.uk , which has links to Combat Stress. The British Corner Shop – purveyor of British favourites to expats – supplies a taste of home. The Rabsons are taking bookings for 2015.

Rosemary Border Rabson

In 2005 Rosemary Border Rabson and husband John Rabson emigrated to the Morvan in rural Burgundy, where few other Brits have ventured. Their chief preoccupation is Charity Cottage, a holiday home-from-home in their garden at Maré le Bas which they run in aid of Combat Stress (money donations) and Help for Heroes (free accommodation). Since 2012, when Charity Cottage won the Daily Telegraph’s Best British Charity award, the total amount raised for Combat Stress, comprising UK royalties and donations from visitors to Charity Cottage, is nudging £10,000.

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