A Community of Desires, by Annie Ernaux

In the early nineteen-nineties, I found myself shopping in a superstore in Košice, Slovakia. It had just opened, the first to appear in the city since the fall of the Communist regime. I don’t know if that is how it got its name—Prior. At the entrance, a store employee authoritatively placed a basket in the hands of the—bewildered—customers. From a platform, at least four metres high, in the middle of the store, a woman supervised the movements of the people wandering from one aisle to another. Everything about their behavior signalled a lack of familiarity with self-service. They stood in front of items for a long time without touching them, or wavered, cautious, retraced their steps, irresolute, with the almost imperceptible faltering of bodies that have ventured into unknown territory. This was their first experience of the superstore and its rules—the mandatory baskets, the warden on her elevated perch—displayed without subtlety by the management of Prior. I was troubled by this spectacle of a collective entry into consumerism, captured in real time.

We choose our objects and our places of memory, or, rather, the spirit of the times decides what is worth remembering. Writers, artists, filmmakers play a role in the elaboration of this memory. Superstores, which the majority of people in France have visited roughly fifty times a year in the past forty years, are just beginning to be considered places worthy of representation. Yet I realize, looking back in time, that from every period of my life I have retained images of big-box superstores, with scenes, meetings, and people.

The superstore and the supercenter cannot be reduced to their function in terms of home economics, to the “chore” of grocery shopping. They provoke thought, anchor sensation and emotion in memory. We could definitely write life narratives from the perspective of superstores that are visited on a regular basis. They are part of the landscape of childhood for everyone under fifty. For all but a limited segment of the French population—those who live in the center of Paris and other old historical cities—the superstore is a familiar space, whose regular use is part of daily life but whose impact on our communities and our way of “building society” with our contemporaries in the twenty-first century we do not fully grasp. When you think of it, there is no other space, public or private, where so many individuals so different in age, income, education, geographic and ethnic background, and personal style circulate and rub shoulders with one another. No enclosed space where people are brought into greater contact with their fellow-humans, dozens of times a year, and where each has a chance to catch a glimpse of others’ ways of living and being. Politicians, journalists, “experts,” those who have never set foot in a superstore, do not know the social reality of France today.

I have, on numerous occasions, experienced the superstore as a great human meeting place, a spectacle; the first time, I felt this acutely and with a certain sense of shame. In order to write, I had isolated myself off-season in a village in the Nièvre, but I was unable to write. Going to Leclerc, five kilometres away, brought relief: by being among strangers, I was “back in the world.” Back in the necessary presence of people. And thus discovering that I was the same as everyone else who drops by the shopping center for entertainment or an escape from loneliness. Very spontaneously, I began to describe the things I saw in these supercenters. I saw an opportunity to provide an account of the real practice of their routine use, far removed from the conventional discourses, which are often tinged with an aversion that these so-called non-places arouse and which in no way correspond to my experience of them.

So, from November, 2012, to October, 2013, I kept a record of most of my visits to the Auchan superstore in Cergy, where I usually go, for reasons of convenience and pleasure essentially linked to its location inside the Trois Fontaines shopping center, the largest in Val-d’Oise.

Trois Fontaines is a new kind of town center. Owned by a private group, it is completely closed and monitored: no one can enter outside of set hours. When you walk by it late at night, after getting off the commuter train, its silent mass is more desolate than a cemetery. Here, existing together on three levels, are all the shops and services that a given population is likely to need: a supercenter, fashion boutiques, hair salons, a medical center and pharmacies, a day-care center, fast-food restaurants, cigarette-magazine-newspaper venders, etc. There are public restrooms and wheelchairs to borrow. The customers, for the most part, belong to the middle and working classes.

For those not used to it, the place is disorienting—not the way a labyrinth, like the city of Venice, can be, but as a result of a geometric structure in which shops that are easily confused with one another are aligned on either side of a right-angled walkway. There is a vertigo produced by symmetry, reinforced by the fact that the space is enclosed, though daylight comes in through a big glass canopy that replaces the roof.

The Auchan superstore occupies almost half of the shopping center’s surface area, on two levels. It is the heart of the center, supplying all the other businesses with a flow of customers. It is the store with the longest opening hours, from 8:30 A.M. to 10 P.M., while the others are open only from 10 A.M. to 8 P.M. A self-contained enclave inside the center, the Auchan superstore sells, in addition to food, household appliances, clothing, books, and newspapers, and offers services such as ticketing, travel, photo processing, etc. In a sense, it provides goods and services that may be obtained from other businesses, such as Darty—that is, when it has not yet driven them out of the center, where there are no more bakeries, butcher shops, wine merchants, and so on.

That’s it for the physiognomy of the premises, through which I roamed as usual, shopping list in hand, but trying to pay closer attention than I ordinarily would to all the place’s actors, the employees and the customers, as well as the business strategies. Therefore, mine was not a systematic investigation or exploration but a journal, the form most in keeping with my temperament, which is partial to the impressionistic recording of things, people, and atmospheres. A free statement of observations and sensations, aimed at capturing something of the life of the place.


Friday, November 16th

5 P.M. I head for the Auchan pharmacy, located within the superstore, not far from the other health and beauty products, but self-contained, with its own checkout and a saleswoman capable of advising. The aisles are so narrow that shopping carts must be left at the entrance. A sign: “FRIDAY—BUY 2 GET 30% OFF.” Owing to the predictable increase in the number of customers, mostly women, rarely men, an additional saleswoman is on duty, self-confident, edgy, probably a grade above the usual saleswoman. (Her position of authority shows in her face and gestures.) A group of girls enters, white and Black, including a young mother with a child in a stroller. They crowd around the makeup counter and confer in animated murmurs, heads pressed together.

The pharmacy—like some organic-food aisles—requires long periods of standing. People fall into a meditative state before products designed to restore the waistline, bowel movements, and sleep, designed to help one live better, be better. These are the shelves of dreams and desires, of hope—therapy shelves, in a sense—but the best part comes before the item is placed in the cart.

Not far, posted here and there above the refrigerated sections for meat, are signs reading “FRESH MEAT AT UNDER 1 EURO; BUDGET-FRIENDLY OPTIONS FROM AUCHAN; MEAT AT 1 EURO PER PERSON.”

The language of seduction, humanitarian-style. The superstore calculates the cost of the ration on the plate. But what is the weight of a portion? Didn’t see; it was probably there in very fine print.

Near the “International” aisles, next to the halal and kosher sections, is a corner of the store where no one dares to go, a kind of gourmet grocery store, a Bon Marché food emporium in miniature. Pretentious section headings: “Oil Cellar,” “Pasta Cellar.” A three-hundred-and-thirty-millilitre bottle of A L’Olivier oil costs fourteen euros, and the rest is correspondingly overpriced—spices, biscuits, and canned goods with brand names. Does this special reserve, always deserted, enhance Auchan’s status? It was here that I saw a handsome mouse dart out from under the aisle of jams and preserves one day. Rodents evade the surveillance cameras far more easily than we do.

As there are many more very poor than very rich people, the clearance section occupies an area five times larger than the one for gourmet foods. Until 2007, it was located near the organic section, small at the time, where the two wings of Level 2 intersect, so that people crossed it on their way from one wing to the other. Management probably judged it more cost-effective to extend and multiply the shelves of (expensive) organic products in this strategic space, and moved the clearance section to an enclave at the very back of the second floor, which it shares with pet supplies. There, it is less of a blot on the landscape than if it were located right in the middle of the store. If you don’t have a dog or a cat, you can very easily ignore its existence. To the same degree that cat and dog food, with its colorful packaging, is presented as delicious and joy-inducing, the discount food for people, in the neighboring section, could not be less attractive, with items stacked on pallets on the floor or in wooden crates on shelving. Even the refrigerated displays look bad. Everything is stocked in large quantities, eggs in cartons of thirty, pains au chocolat in packs of fourteen for one euro and eighty-nine cents.

Across from the clearance section is the bulk section, containing bins full of all kinds of things, sweets and cocktail snacks that one stuffs in a bag and weighs.

Here, the usual language of seduction, driven by false benevolence and promised happiness, is replaced by the language of explicit threats. For the entire length of the bulk section, a sign in red letters warns “CONSUMPTION ON THE PREMISES PROHIBITED,” and another, higher up, more courteous, reads:

CONSUMPTION ON THE PREMISES IS PROHIBITED.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR UNDERSTANDING.

LIFE. REAL LIFE. AUCHAN.

A sign above the scales preëmpts the temptation to cheat: “DEAR CUSTOMERS, WE INFORM YOU THAT THE NAME AND WEIGHT OF YOUR ITEMS MAY BE MONITORED AT THE CHECKOUT.” A warning meant for a population presumed dangerous, since it does not appear above the scales in the fruit-and-vegetable section in the “normal” part of the store.


Saturday, November 24th

I arrive at Trois Fontaines in the early afternoon. Congestion in the parking garage. The moment I walk into the center, I am struck by the difference in clientele compared to weekdays. There are more couples and families, often with small children, more women with head scarves. A very tangible atmosphere of excitement and expenditure (or the desire to spend), multiplied by the number of individuals. Something like a Great Refuelling. Shopping carts are overflowing.

The “magic of Christmas” is evident everywhere. Garlands ripple down like silver rain above the escalators and walls. The center never looks more like a flamboyant Gothic cathedral than at this time of year. At the entrance to Auchan, gray-haired ladies—charity volunteers—distribute transparent bags. It is National Food Bank Day. One of the ladies hands me a flyer listing the products to be bought, preferably canned goods, sugar, coffee, oil. She tells me that hygiene items and baby food are also needed. Then, softly: “No pasta, please, last year we had three tons of it!” Ah! Filthy rotten donors! All right, then, no penny-pinching kindness. And a bit of imagination, please! The discomfort and conundrum of charity. I make it a point of honor to forgo the cheapest products and buy “as if for myself.” I have the cheerful feeling that taking the time to choose Blédina chicken-with-green-vegetables baby food and Rik & Rok chocolate is more honorable than giving money. Healthy charity. Later, at the checkout, when I empty the contents of the transparent bag onto the conveyor belt, it seems to me that there is a good fifty euros’ worth of food. But, on checking, I see that I have overestimated the value of my gesture: only twenty-eight euros.

In the cheese department, I notice a young couple. They waver. As if they were in an unfamiliar situation, as if this were new to them. Buying groceries as a couple for the first time is confirmation that a shared life is truly beginning. It means making adjustments for budgets and tastes, united over the basic need to eat. Proposing that someone accompany you to the superstore is a world away from inviting a date to a movie, or to a café for a drink. There is no seductive swagger, no possibility of cheating. Do you like Roquefort? Reblochon? That one is straight from the farm. Why don’t we make roast chicken?

People constantly refer to weekend grocery shopping as a “chore.” Lack of awareness or bad faith? Shopping is perhaps the price of prosperity, labor born of affluence. Subsistence has always required labor, much more so in the past than today, except for the privileged who had servants to take care of it.

This afternoon, people are clearly taking their time.

At the exit, flat boxes are spread over the ground. The food-bank ladies sort the items people have given them, oil here, coffee there, etc. The stark impression of a market for the poor, exposed in broad daylight.


Wednesday, December 5th

4 P.M. Rain. Inside the shopping center, we don’t see the weather. The space bears no sign of it. Shops are replaced, shelves are rotated, items refreshed. The renewal changes nothing, fundamentally, and always follows the same cycle, from January sales to the year-end holidays, with the big summer sales and back-to-school in between.

At this time of year, to walk through one of the doors of the shopping center is to enter abruptly into the effervescence, trepidation, and sparkle of things, an entire world one would never guess was there while standing in the cold of the parking lot in front of this red-brick Kremlin.

Lots of people in the toy section at Auchan today. Lots of children. Rigorously separated. No girls in front of the superhero cars and costumes, no boys in front of the Barbies, Hello Kitty, the Rik & Rok dolls that cry.


Friday, December 7th

8:45 P.M. In the shopping center, all the stores have been closed for three-quarters of an hour. Some, like the pharmacy, have lowered an iron shutter. Other dimly lit storefronts are covered with a kind of metallic mesh through which it is possible to glimpse displays in subdued lighting. Some of the Christmas lights have been extinguished, and the passages between stores are in semi-darkness. The people I pass look ghostly. There is a feeling of desolation, more than on other nights when I go late to Auchan, the only business still open, other than McDonald’s and Flunch. Wonderland has been switched off until morning.

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