New Year’s Day the fair maiden and I were at a friend’s new house perched on a hill that overlooked the northern part of the San Francisco bay. (In truth: it was just over 2 weeks ago, but we agreed that it feels like ages have passed.) Even though it was intended as a New Year’s get together, a way for friends – some new and many old – to get together, enjoy each other’s company, and welcome the new year with snacks and mimosas.
I found myself in the kitchen – even in high school, I always found myself in the kitchen at parties – talking with another friend. I don’t see him often, but when I do, it’s always a good time. (We decided to get together in April once I’m back; I hope he remembers.) He offhandedly commented that the first thing he does whenever he goes to a new country is visit the grocery store.
I was kind of taken aback because I thought that that was, I guess, my thing. (I should have known better. When I was in Israel this past summer, I met several people who found the same type of enjoyment in supermarkets, and one who aimed first at the fruit in each country.) I think, instead, that I just gravitate towards or attract people who share this fascination.
You can learn a lot about a culture by their grocery store. For example, at my “friendly” neighborhood Safeway, produce is lodged back and to the left, half obscured by prepared foods – mostly fried chicken and potato wedges and quarts of creamy soups. The geometric middle is occupied by the frozen foods section: easy-bake pizzas, microwavable burritos, chicken nuggets, and quick-freeze fruits and vegetables. From there, grains and dairy by-products spiral outwards, punctuated by paper products, cleaning supplies, light bulbs, dog and cat food, candy.
When I go into my California grocery stores, I see avocados, watermelon, stacked plastic bags of sliced bread, salsas, bananas piled high, chips both potato and tortilla, and pizzas.
And the size. Americans, when we shop, shop for the week – maybe more. There are few times when I feel as satisfied as when I have completed a “holy trinity” (a grocery trip involving Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and a stop at our local co-op grocery store, Rainbow) and the fridge and pantry runneth over with bounty. This is probably a generally American value, I think. I mean, I’m not the only one who fills their fridge on a weekly or biweekly basis. It seems to point toward some need to be prepared, a just-in-case mentality that the history teacher in me can trace to colonial times.
In Finland, I found something different.
Our first day, we visited an Alepa market, a sort of mini-mart crossed with a bodega and a shrunken sort of a grocery store. The next day, with the help of of the Fulbright Teachers from Finland who just returned from Indiana (and who had visited my school in California), we visited one of the larger, more traditionally Finnish grocery stores – K. (The other major variety is S, and both come in a range of sizes, all the way up to something you can find in Finnish suburbs that’s roughly just shy of an American Target.)
And it was wonderful.
First of all, in both cases, it was impossible to find your way into the main aisles without first navigating the fruit and vegetables. In terms of varieties, I think Americans probably experience a far wider range of produce. But Finnish produce, especially green vegetables, seemed nearly farmer’s market fresh.
The breads are nearly all the dark Finnish rye that we have fallen in love with. (Not to be confused with the caraway rye for deli sandwiches that I was expecting. This denser, darker loaf is, apparently, one of the keys to the Nordic diet.) And the size was much smaller. The largest we could find was the equivalent of those half-loaves of wheat bread you can find in the states.
In fact, that was the dominant trend: size. There were metal shopping carts, but they were in use far less than the plastic baskets, and a sort of basket with wheels and a telescoping handle. The packages contained smaller portions and fewer of them. The impression I got was that, especially in the capital area in and around Helsinki, grocery shopping was a regular errand.
And of course this says something about the culture too. Using this as an example, the Finns seem to only purchase what you need to use. Use as much of a resource as you can. Avoid waste. And if there is waste, manage it. (This is reflected in the many ways in which trash and recycling are sorted.)
Okay, that’s enough reflection. Now, I’ll show you our haul.