I was in the grocery store a few days ago and this tiny elderly woman came up to me and started talking. I told her in French, “I’m sorry, but my French isn’t very good…” She stopped a minute — I could tell she was trying to recall her English — and said, “I’m little.” I smiled at that, and then she said, “I can’t reach the…” and she pointed upward. I said, of course (bien sur!) and helped her get a package of laundry detergent from a high shelf.
(Fortunately, she didn’t ask me to pay for it and then ask me home… see this post for details.)
I love to grocery shop because it puts me in the middle of the every-day world of the place I’m visiting.
In Medellin, the grocery checkers engaged customers in small talk, a lovely gesture, but difficult when you don’t know the language. In Paris, after the obligatory bonjour they work quickly to check your groceries. The few times the checker has asked something: did I need a bag? did I have something smaller? — I’d given her a 50€ note— I understood and could respond.
Look at these white eggplants from the supermarket:
I had heard of them, but hadn’t seen one. But I intended to make baba ganoush — a Middle Eastern eggplant spread — and so bought eggplants like the ones on the bottom. Later, I will buy the white ones to slice and cook to see if they have a different taste.
I’ve now shopped in several different grocery stores. In the one closest to the apartment you put the fruits and vegetables into separate paper bags (no plastic anywhere) and the checker weighs it for you. But in the other (and larger) one down the street the customers put them on a scale, punch a button and stick the price tag that prints out onto the package, like the process used in Finland.
For me, I feel like I’m at home while traveling if I have a kitchen. But in some countries (including France) sometimes the kitchens don’t have ovens. If they do, it’s called cuisine américaine “American kitchen.” Most of the French buy fresh bread. Bakeries are on every street corner, like Starbucks in American cities. Unfortunately, this apartment doesn’t have an oven.
For my upcoming residency in Morocco, the Hospitality Director helped me find a place with an American kitchen. (Unlike the Finland residency, we have to arrange our own housing.) Having an oven is rare there because almost everyone bakes in a shared neighborhood oven. I hope I get a chance to see what that looks like.
Cooking at home is also an economic necessity. I couldn’t afford to travel for long periods of time if I had to eat out every meal. By the time I return to teaching in August, I will have been on the road 14 weeks.
It’s early Sunday morning as I write this, and I’m having coffee and later I’ll have eggs, baguette and butter. Will I get tired of baguette? Not likely. The bakery makes them throughout the day so they’re still warm when I bring them home. Half the time the loaf doesn’t make it to my front door without a corner (or two) torn off and eaten on the way. A baguette costs 1,35€ ($1.52 USD.)
Lastly, I can feel like I’m at home because I’m not in a sterile hotel room. That would drive me crazy. Here, I can work at a desk or while sitting up in bed. I can read on the sofa, I can go into the kitchen to fix myself a snack (like spreading leftover baba ganoush on baguette.)
A few mornings ago, it was raining and cold outside. After Bill finished the dishes I wrote while he continued reading Richard Ford’s latest novel, Let Me Be Frank With You. We enjoy the quiet time alongside sightseeing and museum-going. By spacing events, I’m able to reflect and sometimes write about them.
But now I’m alone — Bill only had one week of vacation left and flew back to California. I remain here for another three weeks. This afternoon I’m attending a writers workshop that brings together English-speaking writers. It takes place upstairs at Shakespeare & Co., a bookshop owned by an American that’s been around since 1950.
Bill’s nephew’s girlfriend Wanda just flew to Paris on business, and she and I are having dinner together Thursday night. (We met in Washington, D.C. a few years ago.) I’m trying to make sure I don’t get too isolated. Feeling lonely is the fastest way I know to start feeling homesick, which I can’t allow myself to do.
I’ve discovered that living inside a culture (to the extent possible) is the ideal approach to travel. Does this at-home time match that of the Parisians next door? Probably not, but it’s as close as I can get.