Summer spent in the French aisles
Eilis O'Hanlon's family hates France, she says. Yet every year they return... for the supermarkets. But which is her favourite?
Every year, it's the same. We come home from our summer holidays in France and pledge: never again.
It's too hot. Everywhere looks the same. The villages are about as full of life as a mortuary. There are entire towns with no sign of human life, except for about three 24-hour pharmacies to keep the hypochondriac locals supplied with their favourite suppositories.
As for the people, they're so rude they make the average Irish traffic warden look like a graduate of Charm School. They're also a bit whiffy. I know it's a cliche, but they really are strangers to deodorant.
Then spring comes round again and thoughts turn to where to spend the hols, and all of us have exactly the same thought. Let's go back to France. It just doesn't feel like summer unless part of it is spent driving past yet another boulangerie (closed, naturally, because opening it to paying customers now and then would be too much like hard work).
I'd love to say we go there to improve our French. We don't. I have a passable knowledge of the language, but, being Irish, I'm too awkward to use any of it, so Himself, who knows approximately three phrases - two of which are wrong - does all the talking. Which, to be fair, he does with inexpert confidence, refusing to be deterred by a little thing like incompetence.
No, the real reason we go back to France every year is for the supermarkets. You're probably thinking I must have a pretty sad life if that's the highlight of my year. And you're right. I do. But, in my defence, I've never claimed otherwise.
At this point, we've become quite the connoisseurs when it comes to French supermarkets. In fact, the reason we keep trying out new regions is not to sample the wine, or the fascinating local cuisine, or even to explore the history of the area - which, in France's case, mainly consists of getting their asses kicked by a succession of invaders anyway - it's to see another new supermarket.
There's a lot of them to choose from, though they're not all worth visiting. I mean, who thought it was a good idea to give a supermarket chain a name like Mutant? It doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
Maybe it's the sense of otherness. As the world looks increasingly samey, there's something reassuringly different about them that reminds you that you're not at home.
There's also an undoubted disgust factor for a vegetarian family like ours in seeing just how many living creatures the French are happy to slaughter to satisfy their insatiable appetite for red meat.
Whole bunny rabbits - fur and ears still attached - lie there, little insides sliced open for inspection, as the locals look on, muttering, "delicieux!" Does everything have to be quite that dead?
Cream of the crop, though, is Leclerc, possibly the most perfect hypermarket in the known universe. There really is nothing more exciting than driving along and happening unexpectedly on the familiar blue-and-white sign at the side of the road, as the children start shouting excitedly, "Stop, please, we have to go in!" (I've trained them well).
Leclerc has everything that any human being could possibly want in the one place. Even deodorant, not that the French are buying much of it. Food, clothes, books, alcohol, stationery, cutlery, washing machines, bicycles, gardening tools - you name it, Leclerc has it. You could live perfectly happily for ever in a single branch of Leclerc without ever wanting for anything.
There are 569 different branches of the store dotted around France and my last remaining ambition is to visit every single one of them. Then I can die happy. Leclerc would probably be able to supply me with a really nice coffin too.
Which is more than those bunny rabbits ever got.