Friday, March 11, 2011

Bags a-plenty, groceries, airline machismo, and network annoyances

Part of the fad that is “green” includes replacing disposable plastic grocery bags with reusable bags. The idea is that instead of filling landfills with trillions of flimsy plastic bags, people will use the same sturdy bag over and over when shopping for groceries.

It seems to be kinda sorta working, and I practice it, not out of environmentalism but simply because it's often more comfortable, and sometimes unavoidable.

The disposable bags have “handles” that contract into a kind of Sinclair monofilament (Larry Niven) or shigawire (Frank Herbert) that separates the joints of the fingers on the way home from the supermarket. It doesn't help that I usually buy heavy things, such as multiple liters of whole milk (the Marguerite brand of microfiltered milk, which is very tasty) and mineral water, such that each bag may weigh six or seven kilos. The bags are painful to carry even for the half-mile or so that separates me from my preferred supermarket (there are much closer supermarkets, but they don't have as many of the products and prices that I prefer).

The reusable bags are much more comfortable, as they usually have something resembling proper handles, sometimes with something to protect the fingers as well. My favorites are those from Monoprix (which is also where I usually buy groceries), which have plastic covers around the carrying straps so that you don't slice off your fingers when carrying them, and those from the FNAC, which are incredibly large and sturdy and even a bit fashionable.

The interesting thing is that these bags are actually very good buys. They are typically sold for a pittance, like €0.90 or so, and they can be used for years. They are usually immensely strong—I think you could carry an anvil in the FNAC bags without too much trouble. They should all last for years. And therein also lies their problem, at least for me.

See, in theory I suppose, you're expected to reuse the bags each time you shop. However, that means that you need to bring the bags with you. If you're coming straight from home, that may not be a problem, but if you are stopping for groceries after working or in some other circumstances, it's unlikely that you're going to be carrying empty, reusable grocery bags around with you. So you end up buying new reusable bags at the store. This is the problem that I have.

I now have a large collection of very sturdy grocery bags in various states of wear and tear. When I know I'll be getting groceries on the way home, I stuff two of the bags (one for each hand) into my utility vest, but they take up a lot of room in the vest and can make it uncomfortable to wear. In some cases, other things are taking up space in the vest, and so I can't carry the bags, which means I have to buy new ones. And that's how I have such a large collection of the bags now.

From time to time I throw a few away, which totally eliminates their ecological advantage. But what am I supposed to do? Carry two grocery bags with me everywhere?

Moving right along, I've noticed some other things lately about grocery stores and even a few restaurants. It seems that the new color code for “environmentally friendly” (itself a meaningless buzzword) is some shade of dark gray combined with some shade of green. Monoprix’s Daily chain of mini-supermarkets uses this color scheme, and Carrefour has copied it for their competing chain.

Speaking of Carrefour , I can't recommend them. The lines are longer at Carrefour than they are at Monoprix, the selection of products is weirder (at least for me), and they've been cited by the government multiple times for selling expired products, mislabeling products, and paying their employees less than the legal minimum wage through clever bookkeeping. Their Proxi and Shopi chains of mini-markets aren't too bad … although I prefer Monoprix’s Daily chain for that, too. Carrefour, incidentally, is the world's second-largest retailer after Walmart, but it has virtually no presence in the U.S., just as Walmart has no presence in France (the headquarters of Carrefour). Monoprix is owned by the French Casino Group.

If I want more chichi merchandise, I can go to La Grande Épicerie, that very upscale grocery store attached in turn to Le Bon Marché department store, itself a renowned Left Bank emporium that belongs to the LVMH group, the same group that owns Louis Vuitton (is everybody getting this?). Their prices actually aren't too much higher than Monoprix or Carrefour, unless you are buying stuff that you cannot get at the other stores. That would include double cream from the U.K., which is very pricey (I've only splurged on it a few times), and Blast-O-Butter popcorn, which I really like and occasionally buy if I can afford it (€3.50 for a box of three bags of microwave popcorn).

Of course, the most modest supermarket in France still has a much better selection than many supermarkets in the U.S. At even a tiny family-owned mini-market, you can still find smoked salmon, imported mortadella, and three dozen varieties of excellent cheese—none of which resemble the yellow PVC that passes for cheese in the U.S. Every supermarket in France is a Trader Joe's, in other words.

For the Indian stuff that I buy to make my favorite rice dishes, I got to a modest but popular Indian grocery up by the Gare du Nord train station. A few days ago I did pass a supermarket that claimed to have all sorts of exotic world foods available, and it was closer to where I live, but now I've forgotten where it was! (That sort of thing happens when you walk around Paris a lot.) Like any big city, Paris has a store for everything if you look hard enough, and often it's within walking distance, at least for someone like me who routinely walks several miles a day.

In other news … I see that Air France made a big deal out of “all-female crews” on several flights in observation of International Women's Day on May 8. It's funny how macho men and women often have no idea that their patronizing attempts to deny their machismo are backfiring in the worst way. If Air France really did treat the sexes equally, it wouldn't have to set up all-female crews as some sort of special event, would it? American airlines don't issue press releases to announce all-female crews because they already routinely have such crews on a daily basis, even if they are (understandably) less common than mixed crews. The hypocrisy at Air France is chest deep, but rumor has it that it's a very macho organization internally. Air India made the same mistake.

There was a big earthquake and tsunamis in Japan a few hours ago, as my trillions of loyal readers probably know. The French media scoured Japan to find an actual Frenchwoman who actually lives in Japan, and focused on her as an authority on what the quake and tsunami were like. This is typical of journalists, not just in France but everywhere. Every television and radio network wants people who can speak their language, and they'll select a totally unknown and unqualified person who can speak their language without an accent over seasoned experts who aren't fluent in that language. Some intelligence agencies know this and will plant accent-free speakers of foreign languages at public gatherings so that they can get the message they want communicated to any foreign media present. It certainly worked in the old Soviet Union, but they weren't the only ones doing it.

Speaking of media, I'm very irritated by the video I see of the disasters in Japan. Even though the world now supposedly has sparkling high-definition TV for you-are-there realism, when you actually look at video on major networks, it's a blur, worse than VHS tape. Where's all the high technology? Even Japan is afflicted by this, and they build most of the technology. My own modest videos made with a consumer camera are ten times clearer and sharper than the stuff I'm seeing on networks. And the mediocre images that they broadcast are half-hidden by garbage graphics, like blinking text, rotating logos, redundant captions (“TSUNAMI HITS” beneath footage of a 10-meter wave—as if people might mistake it for, say, a variety show), and a continuous ticker of irrelevant news sliding across the bottom of the screen.

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