Your first French experience of a DIY store (bricolage store) could be a daunting one if you are more used to Homebase type shops in the UK, which focus on paint colours, home ornaments, extension leads and light fittings, garden furniture and so on. These kind of ‘department store’ DIY shops are less common in France, although they are becoming more frequent around the larger towns.
The range of products that are available in French DIY shops is not necessarily smaller, but it is different.
Your bricolage store in France will have a smaller range of paint colours, for example. But if you want chemicals – acids, cleaning chemicals etc – you will find them all. The electrical fittings will look different – a light fitting or a wall socket will usually be sold as its component parts, rather than one pre-packaged socket. Unfortunately you can’t usually replace mauve paint with neat hydrochloric acid, so you need to adjust!
There is often an offputting range of devices and mechanisms for trapping and killing any vermin that enter your home, and a large selection of clothes for hunters will be available.
The hardware section will be large. In part this is because of shutters – everywhere in France, but nowhere in many other countries. There is an enormous array of fittings available for fitting shutters to a house, and again many are sold in their component parts rather than an easy to understand packet stating ‘complete shutter ironmongery kit’.
Very often I have left a shop empty handedh to go and inspect an existing fitting or bracket more closely, later returning to the shop to buy the parts I really needed.
So, nothing insurmountable so far in the shopping experience. But there is a problem that lurks ahead..the French language.
This enormous array of components, parts and fittings all have a French name. The staff will know the names, and will happily point you in the right direction if you ask. But only if you know what you are asking for, which of course you almost certainly won’t. I suggest that you learn some key words for your current project before your visit. If you don’t yet know the words for shutter, bucket, saw, nails and so on it will be very difficult to describe more precisely what you are looking for. Many of the words won’t be in the dictionary – eg ‘the fitting that I cement into the wall to support the shutter hinge’ – but if you can say attach, shutter, wall etc you should be able to muddle through.
I have often heard the tale of the person who asked for ‘preservative for wood’ (preservatif = condom) rather than wood treatment (traitement). Almost certainly an untrue story, but repeated very often. A friend told the shopkeeper that he ‘wanted a small tap’. The shopkeeper called the other staff over and asked him to repeat the question. ‘Do you have a small tap’ he repeated, to the hilarity of all. Of course he didn’t know (and who would) that petite robinet (rather than petit robinet) is a schoolboy joke about having small private parts…
This is not such a major problem in larger stores where you can examine the products yourself. But your local builders merchants won’t offer that advantage. Rather, you will need to announce what you are looking for, typically with half a dozen local tradesmen looking on. To stop yourself looking completely stupid, make sure you say ‘bonjour, monsieur’ at all and sundry as you enter the shop, and smile enthusiastically. Then they should at least take pity on you. Even better if you can learn the French for sand, lime, cement, etc before you go.
To help with the first hurdle I recommend ‘Je cherche le truc pour….’ (I am looking for the thing that..). Je cherche is ‘I am looking for’ and ‘le truc’ means anything (the ‘thingy’) that you don’t know the name of. There is a list of common building words elsewhere on this site.
The major bricolage stores in France include Gamm Vert, Point P, Castorama, Leroy Merlin. E Leclerc also often have a large bricolage area, and there are several others depending on your region.