I’m a Grocery Store Tourist

Photo credit: (vincent desjardins), CC BY 2.0.

My writing partner Scott and I were in London for a musical theater writing conference. The conference took place in Stratford, at a theater within walking distance of a shopping center. When we arrived, I turned to Scott and promised, “I’m going to take you to Lidl while we’re here.” My voice was full of the enthusiasm you might expect from someone promising a trip to Buckingham Palace. After a day-and-a-half of presentations, we needed a break. We trodded down a snowy hill to the shopping center and made our way to Lidl. As we entered the crowded grocery store with its sad industrial lighting, I turned to Scott, my eyes sparkling. His reaction was slightly less impressed as he asked me, “Is this it?”

I was disheartened but not surprised by his reaction. When I travel to a new city, I seek out grocery stores the way some people seek out Michelin-starred restaurants. I know that it may seem unbearably mundane, but to me a trip to a new grocery store is incredibly exciting. I love spotting the regional specialties: the pimento cheese at a Harris Teeter in Charleston, South Carolina; the butter section at a Carrefour in Paris; the hot cross bun ice cream at Lidl in London. I wander the stores wide-eyed and think about how lucky the people who shop here regularly are. New York City has notoriously underwhelming grocery stores, and I often marvel at the sprawling real estate that markets outside of NY occupy.

When I travel, I prefer to stay someplace with a kitchen or kitchenette so that I can eat some of my meals “at home.” (Last time I stayed someplace without a refrigerator I ended up eating an entire block of mature cheddar with a shoehorn so it wouldn’t go bad.) Part of this is for frugality’s sake, but the real reason I like doing this is because it lets me try on a different life while I’m traveling. I’m not Regular Dyan on vacation; instead, I can see what it would be like as Parisian Dyan or Greek Dyan or Charlestonian Dyan. “Look at me doing my grocery shop!” I exclaim, usually to myself, but sometimes out loud. I wonder if other shoppers think that I’m a local, as I nonchalantly add boxed milk to my shopping basket without blinking an eye.

These versions of myself sure know how to live. Greek Dyan takes time every morning to make a cup of coffee and a Greek yogurt (but Greek Dyan just calls it yogurt) to eat on the balcony. Regular Dyan doesn’t even have a balcony and even if she did, I doubt she’d take the time to enjoy breakfast on it every day. Parisian Dyan stops at the grocery store and the marche each day to do a small shop. She’d never dream of letting Fresh Direct select her produce for her. The vacation version of myself always has her reusable shopping bag with her, and she never walks home with the straps of plastic bags digging into her hands.

Wherever I am, my shopping basket tends to skew on the whimsical side. Just because it’s there, I feel obligated to pick up a tube of caramel beurre salé or a jar of Duke’s Mayonnaise. I’m known to make a meal out of several different types of jamón. And I always come back with every iteration of gummi candy that I can find. Okay, fine, this is just poor nutrition masquerading as whimsy, but going to a new grocery store introduces an element of fun to an everyday task that is easy to overdo.

Whenever I return from a trip, I usually come back with some obnoxious new culinary beliefs. I’ll try to buy a fresh baguette everyday, even though it’s both impractical and inconvenient in the U.S. Or if I’m grabbing a drink with my lunch I’ll say, “Gosh, I wish they sold Cheerwine up here,” even though I have drank Cheerwine soda exactly once in my life. I try to stay true to my vacation grocery shopper persona, but as I settle back into life in New York, within a few weeks I’m back to ordering my groceries on Fresh Direct and filling in the gaps with mealy produce from the C-Town. Even though I can’t recapture the magic of walking into that Lidl when I do my grocery shopping at home, hopefully my next travels — and my next whimsical grocery shop — aren’t far behind.

Dyan Flores is a musical theater writer and playwright who lives in New York City. Her all-time favorite grocery store is Mariano’s in Chicago. You can find her on Twitter.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Food Series.

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