I’ve talked before of my American expat buddy who has discussed with me the differences between American life and life in Europe (or the Netherlands specifically.) And how we’ve found that NOTHING is the same.
Well… she attended a party where the same person who challenged her to think about what IS the same… challenged her response of ‘nothing’ … to say… wait… we all get dressed, we all use an umbrella when it’s raining, we all go to the grocery store. We’re the same.
I want to Re-Challenge the Challenger after my visit today to a Belgian grocery store.
IF you could call it something as plebian as a ‘grocery store.’
I’m en route with my dads to their farm in the Belgian Ardennes forest… and as always, we stop to stock up for the weekend. We decide to try a new spot.
The Carrefour Planet in Liege.
My experience with grocery stores is limited to a few select sorts: those in South Africa where I was young and far more interested in the toy aisle than anything else and can only recommend that it would be blazingly hot in the parking lot if you wore no shoes; those in Amsterdam that are small and mostly stocked with fresh items versus frozen and has a slew of new things for me to try and attempt; and those in America that are massive and well-lit and have GIANT and snaking bread aisles (how can there be an entire aisle of something like bread that expires in a blink?) and cereal aisles with boxes so big that when I lived alone my cereal would more often go stale rather than go empty.
In American stores I knew how to navigate the frozen food aisles… whip through the potato chip aisle, and search for a few veggies. (When I was in San Diego in May I was shocked at the difference in price in a pound of Roma tomatoes versus the price of a frozen Hungry Man Meal. The frozen meal was cheaper. By a lot!)
The first time I stopped in a Belgian supermarket (grocery store) with my dads I was amazed – first… by the absence of frozen food (only ice cream and some frozen veggies like peas… pizza…) and by the absence of plastic bags and baggers. Things got loaded into cardboard boxes or re-usable shopping bags at the end of the visit. (Now, after 2 years of living in Europe.. I always have a bag with me in case I need to stop at the store unexpectedly!)
But I was also struck by the variety… not in the cereal aisle or the potato chip aisle or the tea aisle… but in fresh produce, fish, meat, and yumminesses like yogurts and cheese and escargots (Did you know you could buy those pre-seasoned and pop them in the oven for 15 minutes? Et voilá!)
It was magical and mystical.
Today’s shopping experience… bordered on the religious.
At first overwhelmed at the CostCo-esque size of the place, the low-muted lighting and the plastic shopping carts… we soon got our rhythm. We were dashing up and down aisles asking other “What is this?!?!” (a lot of things labeled in French) or “Did you see the price of…!?!?!” or “We need this, don’t we? I don’t know what it is but it looks so good! We need it!”
What a difference from the stores I know! In the entire massive place… there was only one small (short) aisle of frozen products… and the bulk of it was ice cream. In the entire massive place… there was choice after choice of fresh fish… different types of lamb, beef and pork… and vegetables that were the size of things you only dream about! Choices of cheeses…. bio herbs… freshly baked bread in every shape and size… an entire wall of different types of salmon and, and, and!
And we hadn’t even gotten to the wine department before the cart was full!
It tells me a lot about what people in America value… what people in the Netherlands value… and what the Belgians value. Here it’s about enjoying what you eat because it’s fresh, has rich flavor, and is part of the experience of the process of sitting down ‘à table’ with your friends, family and loved ones for several hours worth of companionship.
From what I’ve heard and from people I’ve talked to… apparently even the ‘average’ Belgian knows something about fine wine and gourmet food.
And not that those things are important… wine is lovely… food is great. But it does say something about our lifestyles and about what we find important to do with our day and our time.
We are not the same. Because in America my time was scheduled. A good meal was a cheap and fast meal. In Amsterdam… heck… there are limited places I want to eat at, but lots of ‘outside’ influences to enjoy.
But overall in Europe… there is much more care placed into things like food… into things that we put on our plates and into our bodies and souls.
And let me tell you… today’s shopping experience added quite a bit to the dinner that was a blessing to my soul :)