Shopping in France has undergone quite a transformation over the past 15 years. These days, French shopping malls are very much like American ones, with oodles of trendy boutiques. In the States, it’s okay to enter, to touch, to browse, and to leave without making a purchase. It wasn’t always like that in France, and it still isn’t in many specialty shops. I believe that’s why window displays are so well done—that’s where you do your looking, but once in the store, you’re expected to know what you want and if it’s to be had, you’re expected to buy it.
Such was the case when, a few years ago, I entered “une pharmacie” on the Rue de Siam in Brest, a large port city in the province on Brittany in the northwest corner of France. I had brought twelve Cheyenne youth to stay with Breton families and attend a French High School in a charming village, but needing souvenirs, we’d taken the bus to the big city to shop. We synchronized our watches, and I let them all loose at the top of this busy shopping thoroughfare, with plans to meet at a café down below in two hours’ time. I am always delighted to get away from the students for a brief moment, I know they equally savor their freedom, but unlike them, I like to pretend I am French and speak only the language. I usually pass off as a native, provided there aren’t rambunctious kids tugging at me blurting loud questions in English.
I went in the drugstore and decided I’d like to buy a few cheap items that resemble American products so my classes back home could compare—some French Band-Aids, some anti-itch cream, maybe an unusual item like “Boules Qui Est-ce?”, little cotton-coated wax balls designed to keep out noise for concentrating students. My intent was to bring back to Wyoming a few lightweight items kids could handle and examine and compare. However, seconds before my fingers made contact with an item on the shelf, the officious clerk strutted over to intervene, physically halting my arm and asking she could help me. Startled, I looked up at a display of cellulite cream.
“I have seen so many products like this,” I said in perfect French, “and I was wondering if they actually do what they claim.”
She assured me in a dramatic voice that , oh yes, these creams were most effective at reducing “peau d'orange”, or skin with the dimpled, uneven appearance of the citrus fruit. Then, her hands did a little charade of rubbing it on thighs in a circular motion.
I feigned credulousness, thinking to myself that if it really worked, why didn’t Walgreens carry it? Little did I know that within three years, every leading American skin care company—Avon, Mary Kay, Olay—would come out with their own personal version of anti-cellulite cream. Then I turned to her thoughtfully and said in a soft but totally serious voice. “I was wondering—if it is so easy to create creams and pomades which take off inches, why didn’t there exist more products that could put on inches, you know, in all the right places?” I then did a charade of my own, gesturing a large bosom, and the wide-eyed pharmacist didn’t even smile or flinch but spent a pensive moment and then leaned in very close.
“If you can come back in two hours, Madame, I will have a product for you.”
I could not believe my ears. All my life, I had been waiting for the “voluptuous elixir”! Now, would I finally obtain it? Had she really understood me? And could I afford it, this cream to end what I considered a lifetime of humiliation and teasing? Then I glanced at my watch. Blast it all, I had to be at the Place de la Liberté in 45 minutes! And there was no way to stall—I was in charge of the group and , to further complicate the issue, we had a bus to catch!
“Je regrette, Madame, “I explained, totally deflated that I could not wait for the promised potion. “Mais je reviendrai.” I will come back, I assured her, not specifying a time because just maybe I could sneak back to this city before our plane went out on Tuesday, or, in the worst scenario, I might have to wait until the next French trip. Let’s hope not! I bought my realia for the classroom--a box of Band-Aids and some pastilles de gorge (throat lozenges) and then I left, feeling too embarrassed to stop into any of the other drugstores on the Rue ,on the off chance that “crème de sein”( boob cream) was a current trend and could be found elsewhere, when I’d been seeking it out my whole life unsuccessfully. There were four more green neon crosses, the unmistakable trademark of the French pharmacy, who only peddled prescriptions and over-the-counter health care fare, unlike the US version where one can find food, greeting cards, toys, and make-up. Perhaps I really could come back, I told myself as I spotted the first students waiting for me on the plaza ahead. It was doubtful this trip, given our full agenda for our last two days days in Brittany.
But I would indeed make it back. Though student trips to France happen whenever we can squeeze them in--occasionally Thanksgiving, sometimes January, and most frequently in March), we happened to be shopping in Brest, Rue de Siam, on April 7 of the next year. Not only perfect because it was a sunny spring day and we had two and a half hours to kill before our group lunch at Pizza Pietro, Place de la Liberté. It was especially perfect because it was my birthday and I was determined to buy that cream no matter what the cost!
I didn’t remember the name of the pharmacy, but I knew it was on the left side of the street , where the customer passed under some concrete arches and through an automatic sliding door. It wasn’t hard to find, there on the corner next to the trendy Jennyfer boutique. La Pharmacie des Arcades. I went directly in and looked around, trying to recognize the saleslady from the previous year. I touched a box of Band-Aids, hoping someone would rush to stop me from touching. Nobody came, so I finally found a blue-suited woman with hair slicked back in a tight bun and told her my story in impeccable French. As she listened, she looked horrified,
“Sorry, madame… We don’t have anything like THAT here!” No offers to find it, and, worse than that, she made me feel terribly idiotic for suggesting it. I quickly left the store, feeling like my dreams were dashed; maybe I had the wrong pharmacy.
Energized by the hope that I could still find my miracle lotion, I trotted up to the next green cross on the left side and charged inside, this time not hesitating to ask for help. Again the story from last year, and again a shaking head and the rolling of eyes on the part of my interlocutor. “Sorry, Madame, we’ve never had anything like that.” I might as well have been asking for brain tonic to boost my IQ by 100 points. After I tried all the drugstores on the left, I jaywalked and asked stores on the right but the answer was always the same. Apparently, small-breasted French women felt fine about their physique and there was no pressure on science to augment their endowments. But this was my birthday, the clock was ticking, and, by golly, I needed to give myself a present to make up for having waited a whole year to be this grandly disappointed.
So just before I arrived at the Place de la Liberté, I ducked into “Rêve de Jambes”, a lingerie store, where I bought myself a hundred dollar black satin swimsuit, convinced since it was expensive and French, it would look fantastic. But I never wore it once, probably because without the flesh to fill the upper portion, how could it possible look as good as it should. And I always thought the most ironic part of the story was that it happened in a city whose name was none other than “Brest”!