Happy beginning of fall, everyone! The temperatures are dipping into the 60s here in Geneva and we’ve already spotted some pumpkin patches in the countryside. I thought this would be the perfect time to kick off my new series That Swiss Life | An Expat’s Guide to Everyday Living Abroad. Follow along as I give you a detailed look into the different facets of everyday living here in Switzerland. My hope is to give you insider knowledge so the next time you book a trip overseas, you can navigate the country like a local.
If you’re all about that travel life, I have you covered as well. As my family and I head to various destinations around Europe, I’ll be sharing mini travel guides, complete with pictures, food options, Instagram-worthy spots to snap photos and kid-friendly activities (someone has to look out for the parents). Stay tuned!
What better topic to kick this series off with than the most essential of essentials — groceries. There isn’t anything more fundamental than food in my family. The root of all bad moods comes down to two things: 1) lack of sleep or 2) lack of food. With a 2 year-old, we can’t do much about sleep but we can take care of a food problem. Let’s get to filling that shopping cart (which you must pay for here in Switzerland).
The most important thing to know about grocery shopping in Switzerland is…you don’t grocery shop in Switzerland. Everyone — and I mean, everyone — goes to France for groceries. In my last post I mentioned the infamous $7 Starbucks tall latte. That type of hefty price tag can be found on everything, not just your cup of joe.
But grocery shopping in France isn’t as la-di-da as it sounds. Only a 20 minute drive from Geneva’s city center, you can get to France in less time than the average commute. It’s convenient and economical.
French Stores vs. American Stores
There are many options here for grocery shopping: Carrefour (~Harris Teeter/Safeway/etc.), Migros (~Whole Foods), and open air markets. In the month we’ve been in Geneva, I frequent a Carrefour the most often. The more pleasant (and picturesque) option is the French marché on a Sunday morning but it’s sometimes difficult to find those one-off items you need (more below).
The first time I went to a grocery store, I was lucky enough to be shown around by a more experienced expat. That might sound ridiculous. It’s a grocery store! But when everything is in another language, it’s kind of nice to know that the meat in Aisle 3 is cow’s tongue and not the beef tenderloin you assumed it was. Here are some more differences to be aware of:
- Leave a Euro, take a Euro. To get a shopping cart, make sure you have a Euro or two on you. All carts are hooked together and can only be taken if you slide a Euro in the slot on the front. Don’t worry, you get that Euro back when your return the cart. A good way to guard against an annoying rogue cart blocking a parking space.
- BYOB – your own bags, that is. The U.S. is catching onto this quickly but Europe has long since adopted this. There are a few plastic bags hidden behind the register but you’ll be met with a look if you ask for them. Thankfully, most stores sell reusable bags there, too, so you can avoid looking like a wasteful foreigner.
- Pre-label produce. You know how the hold up at the register is usually a clerk scanning the tiny tag on a piece of fruit multiple times before finally giving up and entering the code? France puts all that frustration back on you. You have to bag and print out a label on every bag of produce before getting to check out. Notice a trend here?
- Organic food options galore. If you look for the “organic” label in a store, you won’t find it. They call it “bio.” And there are so many bio options available — and at a reasonable cost! The French are also big on gluten-free, too. Ironic since the baguette aisle is…an aisle.
- Boxed wine for days. Sacré bleu, France! French wine in…boxes? Yes. And they’re not embarrassed about it. One store had almost more boxed wine than bottled wine. If France says it’s okay…!
- Keep calm, the eggs aren’t refrigerated. I was wide-eyed when I saw this. Nope, the eggs are sitting out in the open, not cold at all, as if they’d just been delivered from the farm. Salmonella? That was my first thought, too, but most chickens are vaccinated against the disease in Europe whereas the U.S. prevents it from steam washing the eggs before they’re sold. This article from NPR explains further. Apparently the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world to refrigerate. I can say we’ve had eggs since we’ve been here (that have been promptly refrigerated and washed) and so far, so good.
- Continue the calm, milk isn’t refrigerated either. This bothered me more than the eggs. Thankfully, I found the organic milk was refrigerated so I only recently looked into why most milk isn’t. Milk in France undergoes UHT pasteurization and is put in aseptic packaging, which is why the shelf life is so much longer than milk in the U.S. Nothing wrong with it but I’ll take cold milk any day.
- Recycle your corks here. I laughed when I saw this. Next to a huge container of recycled bags was an even larger container beckoning customers to please recycle their corks here. More corks than bags. You don’t disappoint, les Français.
- Why stand when you can sit. Just a random observation — the clerks sit at the register and don’t stand. Makes sense. Why don’t we allow that back in the U.S.?
- You’ll be at the grocery store every two days. No joke. Europe does not pump nearly as many preservatives into its food as the U.S. does. It’s a blessing because it’s motivation to eat that salad. It’s annoying because who really wants to go grocery shopping?
When it’s Sunday and you forgot to go grocery shopping on Saturday…you head to the market!
Nothing is open on Sunday’s (in Switzerland or France or Italy or…) and so far, we think it’s amazing. Ask us in 6 months if we’re as enthralled when our toddler demands a red apple and not a green one. For now, we’re enjoying the absence of a mad errand dash before the week begins.
Markets in France are exactly what you imagine — a tsunami of bread, cheese and macarons. The only tip I have so far is to bring plenty of cash because the allure of purchasing local is irresistible. You can also find all kinds of textiles in addition to food. More to come on these charming markets but if you have a free Sunday, get thee to one.
That’s all for now, friends! I’m working on the next installment and will post sometime in the next month. Stay tuned for my travel series as well!