Culture Shock of a Food Junkie

Written by kvfawcett on June 25, 2010 – 1:12 pm -

Some people gauge a country by its museums and monuments. Others gravitate to a place because of sand and surf. Many head to destinations based on what they can buy and bring home. None of these reasons is right or wrong. People travel for their own reasons—and that’s their business, not mine.

But no matter where I go—and I’m always ready to go anywhere, even to places where I can’t get a visa—there are always some must-sees after the usual major tourist attractions. You don’t come to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower any more than you go to Siem Reap in Cambodia and not visit Angkor Wat: granted, we know that.

After Notre Dame or the Luxembourg Garden, my list also includes places where people shop for food. Street market or supermarket, it’s all the same to me because we can learn a lot about a culture from the food people eat when they’re at home—in other words, the food for sale in the markets. The prices of groceries, from staples to produce to meat, can give some idea of the general condition of a country’s economy and a rough notion of how large a proportion of household income the locals are willing (or forced) to pay to feed themselves.

Perhaps my fascination (obsession?) with grocery stores began when I moved to Paris and didn’t speak French beyond bonjour, s’il vous plaît and merci. I was intimidated by the open markets where, if I touched a tomato, the vendor might slap my hand loudly saying, N’y touchez pas. I’d slink off and wonder if my cooking days were over and what were those cuts of beef and why did the chickens still have their heads on and no, I didn’t want it, merci.

I found solace in the Monoprix, where I could read the labels, take my time because there wasn’t someone else standing behind me and what do you mean, you have to bring your own bags and pack your purchases? I spent hours in that store on the Rue de Rivoli across from our apartment on the Place des Vosges. And I learned enough to grow confident in taking on the real markets.

This is true everywhere. You have to get used to the way food is displayed, priced, and used. Those elements after all are cultural, not universal. For example, Australian supermarkets are expensive even when buying local products such as fruit and cheese. I was surprised by the high cost of Australian beef. The wine is good, but (OK, I’m prejudiced) wines of comparable quality can be purchased for less in France.

Now, in Asia, I modify my list unless I’m in a grocery store that caters to foreigners. It’s not hard to identify them since they stock many items few locals would consider buying, and the stores generally have bigger grocery carts. There will be boxes of cereals and few Asians begin their days by eating Wheaties (“the breakfast of champions”) for their get up and go.

Rice is cheap according to Western standards. Not too many foreigners are searching for tiny portions of dried shrimp and other weird-looking items. If you crave peanut butter, chances are it’s going to set you back more than you want to pay unless you can’t do without a fix. Forget wine and opt for beer.

Obviously, no matter where I travel, I compare products with what I’m used to finding in France. But then, consciously or not, I inevitably compare shopping in France to shopping in the States. Parisian markets are for the most part much smaller than American grocery stores. If you want to go to a huge one, you’ll have to go to the suburbs to stock up, but without a car getting your purchases home presents a problem.

The good news is that Internet shopping has come to France, and local markets deliver. About once a month, I’ll order all the heavy stuff that I don’t have to look at—like bottled water, cleaning products, and wine. I know what they are—and let someone else lug them. I’d rather confine my daily shopping to produce, meat, fish, and my caloric downfall—cheese, glorious cheese. And then there’s the mainstay of life, bread. There’s nothing as good as a baguette that’s just come out of the oven, and please let me confine my croissant intake to a maximum of one a day.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I shopped at the same grocery store. Occasionally, I’d stray to the French Market but invariably was horrified by what I’d need to shell over at the check-out counter. The Georgetown Safeway (a.k.a. The Social Safeway) was the store of convenience and choice. When Washington was a village, I had to allow extra time to say hello to neighbors, friends, and parents from the school my son attended.

After being closed for a year, the former building has been replaced with a 71,067 square-foot one that’s state of the art everything and is “the greenest supermarket in the District of Columbia.” It has been built and will be maintained according to LEED Standards. There are even especially assigned parking places for cars that are fuel efficient like hybrids and electric cars. This is the ultimate in going green. And yes, you’re expected to bring your own bags—if not, each plastic bag costs five cents.

Who’d ever guess I’d experience total and absolute culture shock surrounded by produce, every type of food product and thousands of bottles of wine? And this wasn’t in an exotic destination where you’re not quite certain of what’s precisely being sold.

On May 6th the new Safeway had the grand opening the area’s residents were eagerly awaiting. People entered the store totally wide-eyed to be greeted by so many employees asking if they could help you, did you find everything and passing out samples. When I asked where the ladies room was, someone walked me to it and opened the door. I was fully expecting for them to enter the room with me and… never mind.

A guest from the U.K. accompanied me on one of my visits and was clearly overwhelmed by the size of the store and its vast selection. Choosing a cereal was enough to send him into a cold sweat. And what’s this about having a sommelier and a temperature-controlled wine room selling vintages that cost in excess of $100 per bottle.

Yes, this is an over-the-top store. Even the selection of flowers made me stop. When I ended up at the cheese counter that has an enormous selection, I was so happy until I looked at the prices, swallowed hard and put them down. There was no way I was going to pay that amount of money for a pasteurized Brie and will wait until I’m home in Paris.

I had a revelation. People who work in French supermarkets will never kill you with kindness. I suspect when the Georgetown Safeway is running smoothly, many of the company’s senior management will disappear and shoppers will be left to their own devices.

But, the food items I want—bread, cheese, wine and produce—cost substantially less in France. And who cares if I can’t choose from 22 brands of toilet paper. I’d rather buy cheese,merci, not to mention truffle salt.

No matter where I go, I take myself. And within my inner core, there’s an indelibly etched part of France, and certainly its food that will be with me until the day I die. C’est normal. You can’t live somewhere for 22 years and not be impacted by its culture.


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