It stands on the only street in the small village of La Berarde high in the Dauphiné Alps, one of two shops and a few cafes. The village is at the end of a precipitous road with only the mountains beyond. It is uninhabited in winter. A sun-faded dusty sign says ‘Alimentation’ and a couple of steps down lead into a single long room. At the end of the room stands the serving counter where the shopkeeper spends the day. The walls are lined with everything you might need for a camping and climbing holiday. Basic food, toiletries, climbing gear, postcards, beer, wine and gas. The shop operates a semi-self service system, if you can see it, and want to buy it, just help yourself and take it to the shopkeeper.
You will still need to be served with some things. He stands behind the counter, looking as old and dusty as the sign outside; I guess he is about sixty-five. He is there from seven in the morning to nine at night, all day and every day. Whatever you want, he is unfailingly polite and serves with a slow deliberation and in the style of a bygone age. Take the purchase of some cheese for example. You catch his eye and greet him in your schoolboy French; you can see he is speaking slowly and clearly for you. The first decision is what sort of cheese. He points to two large rounds, you choose, “Tom de Savoy” not knowing the price. Next how much, “Oh, deux cent gram”, trying to think how much that is in English weight. The cheese is carefully cut and weighed, if it is over or under you are asked if it is Ok. After the cheese has been weighed and priced, it is then carefully wrapped in a piece of greaseproof paper. If other items are needed such as fruit and vegetables, you could be there ten minutes.
At times, his wife and a local teenager help him out, but there is never enough room for more than two people to be served at any one time. He looks tired, especially if it is hot and I wonder what he really thinks of all these people who come to La Berarde and his shop for a few months each year. The customers are of three sorts, mountaineers going up the hill who want chocolate, salami, bread, cheese, sardines. These are clean, well dressed and smell Ok. The next group are those who have been up the hill for several days and are now back to the campsite for a rest. Their purchases will include large quantities of beer, wine, ice cream and bread. They are dirty, dusty, smelly, unshaven and sunburnt. The third group are tourists who have driven up the hill to see La Berarde, they will drive down again that day, and they are lightly dressed and buy postcards, stamps and souvenirs. Whatever type of customer you are, (type ‘A’ becomes type ‘B’ in about three days), everyone waits patiently in line, knowing that impatience will not speed things up; you are on holiday anyway, so what is the hurry.
I had forgotten customer type four, those wanting a shower. The system is of interest. You ask if a “douche” is “libre”, if one is, you get a key and a ticket on which he notes the time, you then rush round the corner to the showers, hurriedly or slowly shower and when finished lock the door you return the key. The longer the shower the more it costs, a quick sluice costs maybe twenty five pence, along soak after a five day trip sixty pence. The extremes of our group were five lads for twenty-five pence (did they all shower at once?) and one young lady for a pound.
When I left after three weeks of a long hot summer the shopkeeper was looking exhausted, I hope he has a good long rest in autumn. One day I will shop there again; it is different from Safeway that is for sure.
©Peter Main – 1984 & re-published 2020
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