03 . 09 . 18
The Supermarket Tourist

Writing and image by Julia Georgalis. Above, a supermarket fruit and vegetable display in one of Sweden’s largest supermarkets

Food shopping, on a day-to-day basis, is a bit shit really. Either it’s finding the time to traipse all the way to where there are actually good food shops like fishmongers or bakers. Or there’s going to the crap Tesco up the road that is possibly the most nutritionally devoid place I’ve ever set foot in. Or there’s the behemoth of an ASDA that I drive to sometimes at the weekends, where everybody is slightly depressed, usually forgetting both my pound coin for the trolley AND bag for life (even though I have approximately ten million at home) so end up paying for plastic bags (which makes me feel guilty for killing sea turtles) or carrying everything really awkwardly piled high in my arms back to the car. You know the drill. It’s so banal. And I hate banality. But then you go on holiday and all of a sudden FOREIGN supermarkets make an appearance and, well that’s a different story altogether.

Food shopping whilst travelling then becomes a past time instead of a chore. I enjoy it immensely, not just to nosey around all the weird and wonderful foods that people from far away exotic lands eat, but because, in some ways by looking at the places where people shop we can at times see the state that a country might be in, be it politically, culturally or to get a glimpse of the values that people place around eating.

Example. 10 years ago, I lived in Italy. Which was obviously gastronomically glorious but I lived slightly out of town so had to shop in one of the mega supermarkets. Unoriginal as the whole place was the only fruit and veg we could buy there was still seasonal and most of the veg was knobbly and even still had dirt on it. It was real produce, not like the essentially plastic vegetables on offer in British supermarkets. It may have (and most likely has) changed by now but I like to think that, as we all know how Italians feel about their food (very serious) that even the supermarket giants were forced to retain their values of quality because they knew that their customers demanded this. Fast forward to a recent trip to an American rural town, however, and we have a whole different scenario. There is one supermarket that serves a few hundred people and the quality is shocking, the variety non-existent and the prices extortionate, stripping nearby inhabitants of the right to explore and enjoy their food. This reveals a glitch in the food system, in political structures and a marginalization of those who live in rural communities. A case of, ‘wellllp, you’re poor and you live too far away so we don’t really care what you eat, we’ll just take all this delicious food for us delicious city folk and then we’ll sell the rest so we can get all the cash monies and leave you guys still poor…’

These delicious cities are also worth going on supermarket safaris in and usually contain lots of different, more complicated layers of food shopping when you have a more complicated set of social structures and more people clustered together, as cities often do. For example, something that you may not find in smaller towns are the independent, immigrant shops, selling independent, immigrant food to independent, immigrant communities who have moved to these cities and exist within a subculture. High end, artisanal shops often signify that you’ve stumbled into wealthier (or older) areas. Or aisle upon aisle of alternative milks, kombucha and health foods signal the arrival of the young or denote hipster strongholds – and here I think back to an earlier trip to LA where I went into a supermarket in a particularly trendy part of the city to buy some normal, plain, white flour but couldn’t find anything other than gluten free options (what’s a girl got to do to make a cake around here…).

And how do different places pay for their food once it’s all collated into our trollies? This too is important. In Nepal, money is offered gently to the cashier, not dropped on the counter, messily. In Sweden, a Swede once explained to me, items are not to be piled onto the conveyer belt but placed, one item at a time, so that the cashier can pick everything easily. It’s all very considerate.

Supermarkets are also the ultimate best place to pick up local delicacies to bring home, forget picking up stuff at the airport or at over priced tourist markets. Because, let’s face it real deal locals get their real deal food from their local food shop, be it supermarket or other. And here I am also reminded of Brits hopping over to France or Italy to buy all their cheap (and much better) alcohol, or Norwegians stuffing Swedish cheese brands into their trollies because cheese is essentially the equivalent of gold in Norway. There are foods that we too take comfort in when we see them on a supermarket shelf that perhaps we miss when we live in other places. I have stuffed my suitcase full of such things on the regular when visiting friends – Yorkshire brew tea for my friends in France, dairy milk chocolate for the Italians and Heinz baked beans for the Brazilians.

So, I mean, supermarkets are the worst. They absolutely are. I shake my fist to them all. But sometimes, for a genuine travel experience, all we have to do is stick our head around the door of one of these pillars of capitalism to get a gist of what might be going on beneath the surface of the countries that we visit, and sometimes, without realising it, the everyday food brands and foodstuffs that we can buy here, can be more comforting than we realise…