Foreign food shops revelations of culture

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to head to Greece for two weeks of sunshine, island-hopping, museum-tripping, and swimming in the clear Aegean Sea.

It was absolutely glorious, and I miss the freedom even more now that I’m on lockdown. I loved the hubbub of the bright, crowded streets, the cool water on my sunburned limbs, and the rich taste of the wine. But strangely, most of all, I enjoyed wandering down the aisles of the little Greek supermarkets.

Museums are fascinating, but exhausting. Cathedrals are stunning, but after a while, they begin to look the same, merging into a morass of stone walls, intricately carved sculptures and luminous spaces.

Botanical gardens are stunning, but beware the harsh sunshine, or the sudden showers. But a foreign grocery store? Heaven awaits — in the form of aisle after aisle of strange and beautiful food items. I like to watch the locals squeeze the fruit and vegetables, carefully selecting the best of the batch. I love to try the little samples of olive tapenade and feta cheese, and then purchase a small bundle of the tastiest morsels.

There is of course, the question of whether I’ll be able to talk to the cashier, and thank them in their native tongue. Will I give them the right change, or will I fumble around awkwardly? Sometimes I spend the whole day practising, rolling the foreign words around on my tongue like boiled sweets. I have flashbacks of learning French in high school by correspondence, painstakingly learning how to order five baguettes and seven apples.

Then there’s the fun in finding the familiar grocery items — Lindt chocolate bars, small packets of Lays crisps, bottles of Coca-Cola, and packets of Oreos, all in a different language, but recognisable. Perhaps more exciting, although sometimes dangerous, is food I don’t recognise — Icelandic fermented shark, known as Hakarl, Andouillette sausages, Finnish Blodplattar and creier pane (boiled pig or calf brains, coated with flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs, then fried).

Sometimes, there’s shock realising a carton of eggs costs much more in Iceland than it does in England, or the happy surprise realising you can buy a carton of red wine in a small Italian deli for just €1 ($NZ1.83). As someone who has struggled with particularly pernicious eating disorders in the past, it’s lovely to be excited about food.

Grocery stores and supermarkets can also tell you so much about the place’s culture, from the area’s favourite food and prized delicacies, to their stance on plastic bags and sustainable wrapping. Then there’s also the social customs of the supermarket — do people stop and chat to each other, or do they put their heads down, and wheel their trolleys around the store like they’re on the autobahn? There is so much more to experiencing the culture of a country than traipsing around a museum or queuing up at the major tourist sites. For a comprehensive insight into a place, you need to understand the locals’ everyday lives.

Perusing the aisles of a local deli can also tell you a great deal about the country’s agriculture, industry and international relationships. You might also learn about its level of development, fashion trends, and attitudes towards food and socialising.

My weekly trips to the supermarket now are a pathetic little highlight of my quiet, closeted life. Sometimes, when I am bored of eating the same reheated chilli, I recall fondly the best finds I have made in stores across Europe — the warm pretzels in a Munich bakery, the cans of preserved fish in Lanzarote and the cool handfuls of wet mozarella cheese in Prague.

When the world returns to normal, and I am finally able to get out and travel abroad, I will take great delight in once again wandering through as many foreign supermarkets and grocery stores as I can.

  • Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

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