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  • The Supermarket Tourist: Food safaris on holiday

    The Supermarket Tourist: Food safaris on holiday
    Words and photo by Julia Georgallis

    Food shopping is something that I feel pretty meh about on a day-to-day basis. Either it’s traipsing to where there are actually good food shops like fishmongers or cheesemongers or butchers or bakers (of which there aren’t a lot of where I live). Or there’s going to the crap Tescos up the road that is possible the most nutritionally and spiritually devoid place I’ve ever set foot in OR there’s the monolithic out-of-town ASDA that, again, I have to drive to at the weekends, where everybody is slightly depressed by the reduncancy of food shopping on a Saturday, screaming child in tow, and then once you get to the till and it’s, 'Oh shit, I’ve forgotten my bag for life, even though I have ten million of them at home...' so either I end up paying for a plastic bag which makes me feel guilty for killing sea turtles or I end up carrying everything really awkwardly/dropping everything on the way to the car...etc, etc. You know the drill. It’s so banal.

    But then, you go on holiday and all of a sudden FOREIGN supermarkets make an appearance and that seems like a different thing entirely. I appreciate that with the arrival of COVID-19, many of us will not be shopping in a foreign supermarket for a while, but it is genuinely one of the things I look forward to about going on holiday.  Food shopping, when on our holibobs, morphs from something that is part of the daily grind to a past time. Thinking about it though, supermarkets aren't actually really any different abroad.  They're actually kind of a bit shit in every country for the people who actually live there. Food shopping, after all, is a necessity and it can be a really boring one, at that. 

    But by looking at the places where people shop, we can, at times, see the state a country might be in – be it politically, culturally or the values that people place around eating.  Queues for hours and hours just to buy a piece of fruit in Brazil denote unbalanced work systems.  Towns with no good places to buy food express bad nutrition and fucked up food chains. Supermarket chain after supermarket chain show the arrival of capitalism. A plethora of artisanal shop either means a passion for food or, pass me the cold brew, the hipsters have arrived and the area has been gentrified. It’s a detective game. What kind of milk do people drink? What are the vegetables that are on offer and where are these vegetables from - are they homegrown or imported? And what about breakfast cereals and teas and coffees and what kind of carbohydrates are eaten – cakes or croissants? Yams, potatoes or rice? Being a supermarket tourist is so much more than looking at what brands are sold on each supermarket shelf. Foreign supermarkets are also often the best place to pick up local delicacies to bring home, screw the airport shops or the tourist shops dedicated to selling tourists the real-deal.  Let’s face it, real deal locals get their real deal food from their local supermarket.

    During my time living in Portugal, I realised that Portuguese supermarkets might actually be crappier than British ones (I really missed Waitrose, alright?) - the really great produce still comes from small, independent frutarias, mercearias, peixarias... If I had to guess, I would put this down to the fact that Portugal has a relatively small population, but grows a lot of produce which are mainly grown in small/medium farms which can directly trade with small sellers or the very fact that it is still a poor country and the large conglomerate supermarkets don't want to invest in the country yet. Conversely, 12 years ago, I lived in Italy. Which was obviously glorious, food wise, but I lived slightly out of town so had to shop in one of those mega supermarkets. But it was actually pretty good (perhaps it’s changed now - probably it has).  All the fruit and veg was seasonal, most of it knobbly and even sometimes still had dirt on it. We all know how Italians feel about their food – eating is taken INCREDIBLY seriously. So even the giant supermarkets retained their values of quality, or there'd be riots. Fast forward to a recent trip to a very small American rural township and we have a different scenario. There is one supermarket that serves a couple of hundred people and the quality is shocking, the variety non existent and the prices extortionate. It turns the town into a food desert, with people unable to explore food because they can’t afford it and because buying produce from that one shop is about as exciting as watching paint dry. A glitch in the food system, in political structures and a marginalisation of those who live in rural communities, a case of 'well 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.' 

    What happens at the cash till is also interesting. In Sweden, a Swede once explained to me, each item must be placed one at a time onto the conveyer belt so that it can be easily and efficiently picked up by the cashier - a clue to the Swedish working environment. In Nepal, money is exchanged gently, it is almost a ritual, rather than being passed hurriedly over a counter or thrown into our hands. And what about sustainability? In many Northern countries, plastic shopping bags come with a (albeit arbitrary) charge. But in almost every developing country I've ever been to, things are bagged and double bagged and bagged again - plastic is still a way of life. 

    So supermarkets are generally quite boring and we can shake our fists at them all we want.  But, sometimes, they are in fact the perfect place for a culture trip, a view into another society or a food safari...
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