I have to admit, I’ve always enjoyed going grocery shopping. Even when we’re at home, I can happily spend an hour or so going slowly up and down each aisle, checking out new and interesting items, comparing prices and choosing what we’re going to eat for the next week. But put me in a store in a foreign country and I could easily lose the better part of the afternoon there. A lot has been written about the fun of visiting foreign food markets, and they can be wonderful. But sometimes it can be just as interesting to explore a supermarket as well.
I love learning about food in other countries and for me, a grocery store gives me much more insight into what people eat every day than a restaurant ever will. For example, our rental villa in Italy was on the outskirts of the non-touristy, working class town of Terranuova Bracciolini and we did most of our shopping at the little Co-op grocery store in town. One time I went in on a Saturday and was surprised to find a table set up in the middle of the deli section with an entire roast pig laying across it, head and all, and a sturdy looking woman in a white coat wielding a giant cleaver, ready to lop off a chunk for you to take home for your dinner. That would just simply never happen in our local grocery store at home.
Of course, shopping like the locals do is not always easy. My brother and I traveled to Russia in 1998 and we thought it would be easier to buy some groceries for a long train trip than to try to find food on the train. What followed is an experience I’ll always remember as the “Russian Inconvenience Store”. The only food store we could find in St Petersburg consisted of three long, narrow rooms, each with a different, but slightly overlapping variety of foods. One room had mainly fresh foods, one had sort of a deli counter and bread and another mostly canned goods, but there were some things in all three rooms. The tricky part was that you weren’t allowed to pick out items yourself. The centre room was largest, and at one end there was a sort of raised platform with a woman at a cash register. You were supposed to tell her what you wanted and then she tallied it up and you paid her. Only after you paid did you take the receipt she printed out and take it to each of the three rooms, wait in three separate lines, then give it to the person behind each counter and collect your items.
Now I’m sure this would have been a fairly straightforward, if needlessly complicated procedure for anyone who spoke Russian. For us it proved to be nearly impossible since there was no way to communicate what we wanted to the woman at the cash register. In the end we were able to acquire some food by limiting ourselves to items in the centre room, having one person running around the room and gesturing wildly at the items we wanted while the other stood at the cash desk to pay. Even with that we still ended up with a can of some sort of mystery meat that we never did have the courage to open. It’s probably still sitting in the communal kitchen of our guesthouse to this day.
Some places, on the other hand, make shopping much too easy. I went to China in 2002 and it was quite apparent that big box shopping had taken off in a big way, at least in the major cities. I was in the mega city of Chengdu when our group decided that we had had enough of Chinese food 24/7 and it was time to stock up on a few Western snacks before heading into the countryside for a few days. We were told that the best place to find Western food items was at the brand new Carrefour Supercentre. So off we went.
Now, I’ve been to a few Asian grocery stores before so I had some idea of what to expect. But I just couldn’t get over the scale of the place. They didn’t just have giant, alien shaped dried mushrooms, they had bins and bins of giant, alien shaped dried mushrooms. I expected to find shrink wrapped trays of chicken feet, but after walking by the meat section I found it hard to believe that there were any chickens left in Chendgdu that still had their feet attached to their bodies. And why wouldn’t you sell large inflatable boats right in the middle of the grocery section, looking decorative in the middle of the aisle between the paper goods and the staggering variety of multi coloured teas? It took me 15 minutes just to buy toothpaste, narrowing down the wall of choices to ones that had both mint leaves and humans on the tubes. (hey, you can never be too sure!)
But my favourite grocery shopping experience of all time was probably my first visit to Harrod’s food hall in 1995. Now I’ve been told that it’s become more of a tourist attraction over the years and there are now better places to get that luxury food hall experience, but twenty years ago it still felt like a place where real people bought food. Well, not real people like myself, really rich real people, but it was a cool experience, anyway. I remember noting that the domestic rabbits lying in the meat cases were significantly more expensive than the wild ones, even though some of the wild ones had a few tufts of fur left here and there. At another counter you could buy the most exquisite little cakes all decorated with little marzipan figures that cost more than I had paid for accommodation for the week. The cheese hall was a wonder all on its own. I don’t think I ever ended up buying anything on that visit, but I felt I learned more about how the other half lived than I did visiting the floors of designer clothes in the rest of the store.
So now, whenever we arrive at a new destination, my husband is quite used to me wanting to head right out for a trip to the local grocery store. Not only do I get a chance to stock up our food supplies, but I also feel like I get a little bit of insight into the place we are visiting. I may not speak the language, recognize the foods or have any idea of how the rules work, but that’s all part of the fun!