Hands up: who enjoys visiting foreign grocery stores not just to buy supplies but also to browse and be surprised? Yes, me too! I had almost forgotten how much I loved exploring them until I read a post by a fellow blogger about her love for checking out the food sections in supermarkets both home and away. (Thanks for the inspiration Milla!) Although my main reason to pop in might be to find something tasty for lunch or essential extras to take back to the hotel – after all, how could I resist the cheap cartons of wine in Italy, which could be so easily chilled in the bathroom sink?! – I’m equally happy to just have a good look around, see what is there, and (discreetly) observe the locals and what they buy.
What is considered daily staples and treats can vary hugely from country to country. Therefore, in addition to the recognizable universal brands the shelves are often laden with goods in unfamiliar packaging and sometimes with unpronounceable names – goods that tempt you to touch them, pick them up, shake them, and try to figure out what on earth you are holding in your hand. It can, of course, be a bit of an anti-climax when you realise the exotic-looking packet contains something as commonplace as baking powder or canned meat…
If you don’t know the language at all or the country uses a different writing system from your own – well, that makes a simple shopping trip just that little bit more interesting. Best not to get vegetable oils and cordials mixed up! Also finding what you need isn’t always as simple as expected. Bread rolls and cucumber, for example, are usually easy enough to locate once you have figured out where the bakery and produce departments are but are eggs placed with sugar or flour or in that notorious place ‘somewhere else’? To experience that funny ‘lost in translation’ feeling you don’t even need to go abroad for: a trip to a local Asian or Eastern European supermarket usually does the trick for me. Noodles and rice are easy, the various pickles in jars are usually recognizable enough, but some of the bags and cans often leave me slightly bewildered even when they include pictures and translations. I mean, what exactly is peanut soup or Ching Poo Luong?!
It’s also funny what little quirky details you remember from your shopping trips. In Italy, for example, supermarkets not only stock the cheap wine but also seemingly never-ending supply of bottled water in containers of all imaginable sizes; in France I couldn’t find fresh milk in a supermarket but had to settle with the UHT variety; in the UK crisps and coke are not just party food but something people pick up to go with their lunch-time sandwich, and in Finland sweets and chocolates cover both sides of a long supermarket aisle – and even more at Christmas. I can’t actually remember if I went to a supermarket in Thailand or Hong Kong: chances are I would have been intrigued by so much more than lack of fresh milk.