It didn’t go well for Jean Valjean. You remember. Sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. Served a total of nineteen years (after a couple of escape attempts complicated things). You don’t steal bread in France.
You’d think I’d know better.
In all honesty, I hadn’t dabbled in petty crime since the Great Coloring Book Theft of 1999. Of course, that effort was foiled by my mother before I even got the goods out of the store. I gave up the outlaw life then.
So I was quite surprised the other day to discover, upon exiting Lidl with my groceries, that my cart contained two baguettes. I’d only chosen one, only wanted one…the crusty kind, cooked until golden brown. The only acceptable kind to pair with soft, gooey cheese. This baguette, though, was pale, soft, and less appealing. And was that–sure enough, someone had taken a few generous bites off the top. This was not my bread.
I looked around wildly, making a dozen calculations. Who had seen me? What should I do? I was a bit off my game. This trip to the store represented my first solo automobile voyage in France. (For the first few weeks, I whirled around the many roundabouts like they were games of Russian Roulette: my life at stake, everything left up to chance.) I strained to remember my new credit card code at every transaction. What’s more, I was several months pregnant and particularly invested in a sale on strawberries (I mean, they were giving them away. I bought ten cartons). I had a lot on my mind.
Where did this bread come from? Oh, right. I remembered. Standing behind me had been a fortyish woman with wild orange curls and a deep voice. She had clearly been itching for a cigarette, had the pack out and ready to go, the box’s stark warning–FUMER TUE–impossible to miss. She was the kind of person who talks to others in line. Out of boredom, maybe. Her modest purchases–a baguette, a plastic container of tabbouleh, a soda–shuffled down the belt following my week’s worth of groceries.
She had glanced in my general direction–j’ai la dalle. She groaned. Oh j’ai la dalle.
Ugh, I’m starving. I gave her a half-smile. What was I supposed to say? What would a French person say? Me too? Bon appetit?
I’m starving, she had said. And I responded by walking away with the bulk of her lunch.
I may not have looked particularly criminal. I looked like, well, a pregnant woman in overalls pushing a cart of strawberries. But I was guilty. Rushing to load up my purchases to avoid slowing things down, I had grabbed what I thought was my bread, setting it gently on top of the rest, next to a bouquet of tulips. Loading the groceries in the back of the Renault Captur and discovering my own bald-faced deception, I had to make a decision. It was one of those times when the pros and cons of several possible choices flash in front of you, all augmented by a rush of adrenaline.
Option 1: leave the half-chewed baguette in the cart and hightail it out of there. The best option for saving face. While extremely tempting, also rude and wasteful.
Option 2, a: find the woman, apologize, and hand the bread back. Okay, okay. Obviously the right choice. I hurried back to the entrance and scanned the checkout lines and nearby cars for the woman. She wasn’t there. Merde.
Option 2, b: tell the cashier what happened. Call it a hunch, or call it the kind of intuition you get after living in France for several years. Either way, I knew I would only be laughed at if I tried to hand over a chewed-up, 85-centime piece of bread.
That left Option 3: take the bread and go home. Well, I didn’t have to feel good about it.
I set the baguette on the passenger seat, next to the tulips. Time to face the roundabouts. Apart from the theft it had been a good first solo grocery run. I was set to pull out of the lot, turn-signal flashing, when I noticed a woman approaching. I rolled down the window.
Yeah, you have my friend’s bread, she said. She didn’t sound angry or accusatory at all, just matter-of-fact. Unfazed. She knew it was me, though, there was no doubt about that. How long had they been watching? Grateful I had not abandoned the bread in the cart, I picked it up and passed it through the window. C’est normal. She accepted the bread and my harried apology with a wave.
I’m lucky I got off with a warning. Because really: you don’t steal bread in France.