I recently ordered a music stand from Amazon for delivery in Antibes. Perhaps it was the shape of the box, but dispatch to the usual Amazon Locker being impossible, I scanned the available pick-up options.
Geoffrey’s of London. My heart did an elaborate flip.
What better excuse? I would be obliged to set foot into Geoffrey’s, and while I was there . . . . I ticked the appropriate box, and in the days awaiting my Amazon delivery notice, I drew up a short list.
I have a complicated relationship with Geoffrey’s. When my family and I moved part-time to Antibes 13 years ago, we were at first too busy with French renovations to amble into that corner of Antibes where Geoffrey’s resided. It wasn’t so far from Rue de la République, the street forming the spine of Antibes’ picturesque old town, but at the edge of Place des Martyrs de la Résistance, this backbone bent fetchingly toward the vibrant Place Nationale, and I’d never felt the urge to detour onto Rue Lacan past the broad, utilitarian Post Office building.
But this late morning I stood in the sunshine at the far end of Rue Lacan. On one side of me, Antibes’ rampart walls masked Port Vauban and its maritime sprawl of sailboats, speedboats, and superyachts. On the other side, the terrace of Le Blue Lady pub popped with voices. Patrons, all clean-cut men but for one high blond ponytail, sipped their coffees and beers (for it was that transitional time of day). If I’d approached them, I would’ve heard English.
Sandwiched in the middle of the port and the pub lay a quieter destination – but only in the auditory sense. Monster posters covering the storefront blared a different sort of Anglicisms: Colman’s Mustard. Hellmann’s Mayonnaise. Pot Noodle. Bovril. PG Tips. Marmite. Mingled among the marketing were Union Jacks, one flag embedded in the “O” of Geoffrey’s. The title ran in a banner headline at the top of the building along with the phrase “British Supermarket.”
Amazon reference number and a short list in hand, I swung open the glass door. The sales clerk looked up from the till, then back down at her paper. When you entered Geoffrey’s small warehouse, there was no need to share the customary French “bonjour,” even if I knew her version of the word would’ve been “hello.”
Desire and disdain, both of them, flooded my soul as the door closed behind me. It was just like my first visit, a good decade ago, when I’d searched for cream cheese. I had laid my hands on a killer cheesecake recipe, and while the French did cheese – they obviously did cheese – I needed cream cheese. Geoffrey’s small tub of Philadelphia had unearthed an inner conflict: My Canadian-American family had decided to live in France. Together we’d known North American and British customs, but we’d chosen to embrace a new culture in its true and undiluted state. Was shopping at Geoffrey’s giving in?
The same utilitarian shelves now fanned out before me. I glided through their aisles, unable to resist the lure of tastes and memories hidden among the inventory. There were mustards and mayos and treacle and walnut-honey crackers from The Fine Cheese Company in Bath. There were Cadbury’s chocolates and Digestive biscuits, the cookies I’d crushed while living in London to create graham cracker crusts. There were Campbell’s cream of chicken soup, Branston pickle, and marmite, the disgusting smear that British friends insisted was a nutritious and delicious part of any breakfast. There was an entire section of shelving devoted to Sharwood’s and Patak’s seasonings in all their korma and curried splendor. In Britain, I remembered, Indian food was its own food group.
I wandered and gawked before slipping into Geoffrey’s cereal section. I had a reason to be there: My short list contained two breakfast cereals. Having already searched the French supermarkets, my eyes at last fixed on a coveted word: Cheerios. Lolo had insisted Miel Pops (Honey Pops) were an impossible substitute, so a box of Honey Cheerios slid into my basket.
But where was the All Bran? Having once reigned in French supermarkets as the only serious breakfast cereal not packed with a burst of chocolate in every bite, All Bran had disappeared altogether from Antibes’ shelves. Even Geoffrey’s stock was depleted – but the British supermarket did carry other options. I popped a box of bran flakes into my basket beside the Cheerios.
In the next aisle I stumbled on mac ‘n’ cheese. I couldn’t help but browse. Years ago at Geoffrey’s, Kraft dinner had cost nearly 10 euros a box – over 10-times the price back home. Now a couple more reasonable varieties occupied the store’s shelves, but again I passed. I was nothing if I wasn’t disciplined. Mac ‘n’ cheese was not on my list.
Pivoting, my ardour returned. No one did tea like the Brits, and Geoffrey’s boasted a wall of the stuff. I plucked an 80-pack of PG Tips’ perfect pyramid bags from the collection and placed it in my basket.
It was then that I spotted the quintessence, the absolutely pinnacle, of British foods. Beside Geoffrey’s teas purred an illuminated refrigerator case. Crowning the long unit in artistic lines and pyramids were tin cans bearing the ubiquitous turquoise label. Heinz baked beans. I dallied, my hand reaching upward – until I remembered I’d be the only one in my house to eat them. No one wanted to live with someone who had just eaten a whole can of Heinz baked beans.
I drifted back to the front of the store, passing bins of potato chips (or crisps, as they surely were known here). Regular salted and peri-peri and vegetarian chili -flavoured. Twiglets, Quavers, bacon rashers, and prawn cocktail Skips.
Are we what we eat? The phrase of an advertising campaign from my youth flitted into my head as I approached the woman at the till. Her antipodean accent now revealing itself, she buzzed someone in back about my Amazon delivery and rang up my findings.
I cradled the three prized boxes in my arms while waiting beside the till for my music stand. Was I bran flakes? It was the oddest-sounding idea, but I’d been missing bran flakes from my French diet. Who in the world didn’t crave a daily menu of French foods? I was living in the land of the zestiest tomatoes and sweetest strawberries, the flakiest croissants and most exquisite and beautiful cuisine, and I missed bran flakes. I was such a misfit.
Or was I? I thought of a French friend in Canada who delighted in occasional parcels from home that contained French cheeses and saucissons (the dried sausages you find in French markets).
Was I bran flakes? Or maybe PG Tips? Was my French friend cheese and sausage? Were my linguistic equivalents in the Côte d’Azur – those customers strolling the aisles alongside me or crowding the chairs next door at Le Blue Lady pub – were they marmite and rashers and Quavers?
As I signed for my Amazon box, Geoffrey’s glass door swung open. A young man walked in. He wore navy shorts and a white, collared t-shirt, and with his spiky blond hair I knew he was a yachtie – a member of some yacht’s crew who spoke a brand of fluent English.
The yachtie didn’t say “bonjour” or “hello” to the woman at the till. He didn’t offer a well-mannered nod in recognition of the governing language or culture. He didn’t pause or even slow his gait as an indication of inner conflict over visiting Geoffrey’s of London.
“Do you have any Cheerios?” he asked the attendant. She directed him toward the correct aisle.
I glanced automatically at the Honey Cheerios coddled in my arms. Maybe, in a way far less subtle than I’d both realized and hoped, I was what I ate.