Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Culture Shock of Grocery Shopping

The aisles never seem to end!
Variety is the spice of life right? Variety is one thing, but having too many choices can put you over the edge. Grocery shopping for most is a routine and many times mundane activity. It's one of those things that in your home country you rarely think about. But the minute you are faced with grocery shopping in a country that is not your own, it makes things much more interesting and sometimes very stressful.

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to go to the local markets to find the great things that aren't sold at home. Even local grocery stores can be a great spot for gifts to bring back for friends and family as long as it's not perishable.  But that's traveling when you have unlimited amounts of time to wander aimlessly.
Boroughs Market in London

What's not so fun is when you are living abroad and you have just worked a very long day, and all you want is some taste of home. Armed with your google translate on your phone (if it's working), you go to the store hoping to find something that resembles a familiar meat or anything really that could be thrown together in a reasonable amount of time. Let's face it, shopping for food takes exponentially longer when you are away from home. The peanut butter is never the same, and you won't easily find Kraft mac and cheese. But you adapt. You find new things that you like and can't live without like that Old Amsterdam cheese I came to adore.

Just Mayo! 
But what about when you come back home after living abroad? To me that was even more traumatic than figuring out that the word for chicken in Dutch was kip. My first trip to a grocery store after I got home was to a Stop and Shop in Northern New Jersey. I felt like I had just stepped onto Mars. There were little remote controls to track your purchases, computer screens to order items from the deli, and aisles upon aisles of pretty much everything. There was even almost a whole aisle devoted to mayonnaise. I was floored. I walked around the freezing cold store in the summer with my mouth open shaking my head in disbelief.  My mom, who I was with, wasn't the slightest bit fazed by the whole ordeal, and she thought I was the crazy one. Is it really necessary to have that many things to choose from? In my mind it's just too much.
My personal cheese man, Fred

I quickly realized how spoiled I had been living abroad. Sure it was hard to find the specific brands I was used to, but nothing beats having a cheese man in Amsterdam who I knew on a first name basis. I missed trolling the endless open air markets in the various places I had been. I missed the Saturday market where I would buy a bag full of produce for under 10 euros.

So my little nugget of information here is that I advise you to seek out your local farmers' markets and specialty shops. They may cost a little bit more money, but you are getting a better product (most of the time) and you are helping local businesses stay afloat. It's easy to go visit the big guys because they have everything, but what they are missing is that human connection you get when you visit a vendor who grew the tomatoes himself or helped to harvest the honey and knows the backstory of the bees.

Market in Cuzco, Peru