By Michele Reed
On my birthday back in late March, my favorite French clothing store gave me a raincoat and a set of scissors. Not because it was my birthday, but “just because.” There would be a birthday gift from them, too, but more about that later. The giving of small gifts or “petits cadeaux (puh-TEE cad-OH),” by merchants is a sweet custom in France. At first it shocked us, and even though we are now used to it, it still regularly amazes us.
We were caught off guard the first time it happened. The olive seller we frequent at the market put a container of his homemade garlic and lemon relish into the bag with our other purchases. When we looked quizzical because we hadn’t ordered that, he announced, “Un cadeau!” — a gift. Over the following weeks he regularly put something extra into our bag — some tapenade, a little burlap tote bag, a jar of gourmet mustard — after we had paid for our order, so there was no misunderstanding.
The organic vegetable seller will throw a bunch of parsley or other herbs gratis into our bag, and the lady at the fromagerie, or cheese stall in the market, will make a “cadeau” out of a piece of cheese we are considering buying.
Bruno, the baker just two doors down from our house, does it too. Every time I ask about some delicacy I hadn’t seen before, he will just give me the pastry, loaf of bread or whatever it was — for free. I’ve gotten free samples of his specialty, the Royaume (delicately flavored with fleur d’orange), corn bread (which unlike our sweet cornbread is a loaf of savory bread made with cracked corn and sunflower seeds), and a crusty country style round of bread.
Monsieur Ramos, our village butcher, first surprised us with sausages en croute, which turned out to be just like our American “pigs in a blanket.” Since then, he frequently gives us some little treat, including his house-made fricandeau, which is like an individual rich meatloaf, goose paté, and generous helpings of his homemade sausages.
Even the bus driver does it! When there was a strike in protest of a new labor law and the earlier, local bus, wasn’t running because its driver was on strike, we took the regional bus, with our regular bus driver (who loves practicing his English on us). After hearing we had waited two hours in the drizzly cold for a ride home, when we tried to hand him our tickets, he declared — in English — “It’s free!”
So the week that ended in my birthday was a banner one for gifts. The week started off at the butcher’s on Sunday. He has a big rotisserie outside the shop and every Sunday he roasts chickens and various other meats, their awesome aroma permeating the Place de la Mairie or City Hall Square. We alternate between a chicken and a rolled roast of pork or turkey. For Easter Sunday, he deboned and rolled a shoulder of lamb, which he roasted for us. On the Sunday in question he slid our roti chicken into a bag, and then added a four-helping package of readymade scalloped potatoes, just heat and serve and dinner was on the table. No-work Sunday dinner? I was in heaven.
On Tuesday, the baker gave us a package of half a dozen of his delicious croissants, and later that day, at the market, the cheese lady made a gift of a delicious pepper-infused soft cheese that went great on them.
On Thursday I was shopping for an Easter outfit and my favorite clothing store gifted me in return with three cutting boards and knives. The next day, I received a coupon in the mail for the aforementioned raincoat and set of three very useful scissors from the same store. I was thrilled since I hadn’t brought a raincoat with me from America and rain was in the forecast. About half an hour after returning home from that shopping trip, the same store sent me an email, wishing me happy birthday, and promising a necklace and bracelet of pearls from Majorca on my next trip into the boutique, absolutely free, no purchase required. I didn’t need the certificate of authenticity and 10-year guarantee to know they were the real thing. The weight and luster was incredible. Later, when we were in Barcelona to catch our plane home, I saw similar pearl jewelry from Majorca in the high-end jewelry stores, and Bill promised to add to my collection on our return trip.
On Friday the cheese lady provided another gift, a chunk of bleu cheese she saw Bill eyeing.
When we stopped in on Saturday afternoon at the butcher’s to get some ham and sausage for a Polish Easter brunch, he presented us with a bottle of a local aperitif — a carbonated beverage made of rosé wine and grapefruit juice, from an organic winery in our village.
As the week ended, we celebrated Easter thankful for our many gifts. High on that list was the kindness and generosity of our French neighbors.
Michele Reed retired after a career spanning four decades in public relations, advertising, journalism and higher education. She now writes travel articles, book reviews, haiku poetry and fiction. Bill Reed retired after four decades in social services with the County of Oswego, and now works at travel photography and photojournalism, along with writing book reviews.