Travelling is all about throwing yourself into a new culture, right?
These days though I think with all our Internet and travel guides and iPhones it’s easy to never really lose touch with your world, in order to enter the new one you’re supposed to be exploring. And fair enough too, it’s a much nicer prospect staying safely within your comfort zone. Stepping outside that… well it can be scary, humiliating, frustrating or flat out boring.
One super easy, always entertaining way I’ve found to get a sense of day-to-day life in a new place is simply to head to the local supermarket. Granted, it doesn’t sound like the wildest excursion, but it guarantees great people watching, very stimulating browsing, and possibly a few encounters with friendly locals who can help interpret ambiguous packaging.
Case in point: Denmark. We rolled up hoping to buy some salad and fish to make a tasty dinner. Not so fast! The supermarket we picked was like a huge ‘everything-you-will-ever-need’ wonderland. First you wander through a clothing/sundries area full of nice cheap thrills. One pair of black shower thongs (flip flops for Brits/Americans) added to my basket. Next, you go through a nifty entertainment section. Here are all your camera batteries, DVDs, picnic ware and a few handy home appliances. Add one pair of fuchsia pink grabby ‘hand’ tongs and a curling iron to basket. I’m in heaven!
Round the corner you start the serious grocery item bonanza, which is what sheds some light on the country you’re visiting. Ie, in Denmark, delicious smoked fish is a staple item. It’s super affordable, even in these expensive Scando parts. Also, there is a different system here to buy those salad ingredients I was talking about. You grab your greens, take them to a scale station, punch in the right code, the machine spits out a label with the price on it, you stick it on your bag-o-greens, et voila! It does get a bit tricky though when you don’t know what chives, tomatoes or lettuce is in Danish however.
Rolling on towards the cash register, more discoveries pop up. Haribo appears to be the market leader in the Danish confectionary biz, with a whole aisle dedicated to its jube-y wonders. Instead of labrador puppies, Danes are lulled into choosing toilet paper with soft white lambs on the packaging. And their breakfast cereals come with personality – each muesli brand quirkily proclaiming its ‘super goodness’ in a funny, tongue-in-cheek way that exactly matches the Scando sense of humour. One last treat before we leave? Spotting Inspector Barnaby from Midsomer Murders hanging out by the checkout.
Don’t even get me started on Japanese or Italian supermarkets. No, we’ll save that for another day. But if you do want to break out of the Lonely Planet bubble, you could also go see a movie in the local language or follow a local to their morning coffee spot, grab a seat early and watch the parade of people come through as they pop in on their way to work. Try to order in the local language, you might have a fun exchange, or it might be awfully awkward, but either way you’re trying something new, and that’s what really counts.