When most people travel, they open their guidebook and visit the major tourist spots listed. In Paris, we go to the Louvre and the Eiffel tower. In Amsterdam, we see the Van Gogh museum. In New York, Times Square. In Sydney, the Opera House. In Peru, Machu Picchu. In Bangkok, the Grand Palace. You get the idea. Now, big destinations are big for a reason. They are fantastic. They are beautiful. They inspire. They may be touristy and expensive, but they are worth the visit.
Whenever I visit someplace new, I tend to walk around a lot. A real lot. I wander streets and alleys and turn myself all around because you never know what you will find just around the next corner. One recent walking adventure brought me little girls singing Abba on the streets of Stockholm. Aimless wandering is a wonderful way to see locals and their daily lives away from all those tourist destinations.
Two often overlooked places that tell us about the lives of locals are supermarkets and malls. These are where the locals go to shop, spend an afternoon, relax, and do errands. In short, it’s everyday life. And sadly, most travelers rarely go there. Yet I think they are two of the best places to get a real look at the lives of the locals.
It may be hard to think of a mall as a cultural place, but let’s think outside the box for a moment. For starters, there are no tourists. In malls I go to, I still never see them, especially if I visit a mall outside the city center. The only reason I usually end up there is because I accompany my local friends on their errands.
Roaming malls can tell you a lot about the place you are visiting. What type of stores do they like? What fashions? What kind of fast food do they prefer? Do they like big box stores or small boutiques? Malls also give you an idea of cost of living because you can see how much goods cost. Once in Italy, I saw a sign that read “XXL Available- American size.” That told me two things about Italy: there was a clear perception that Americans were very fat, and that in Italy, fat wasn’t considered an Italian thing. Go shopping in Stockholm, and you’ll see a lot of trendy, high-end fashion. In Paris, you don’t see big Gaps and Abecrombies- you see top of the line fashion like Hermes, Prada, Gucci, and small boutique shops.
Malls give you a window into material lives of people and the material stuff they value. What value people place on “stuff” is as cultural as seeing the type of architecture in their buildings they enjoy.
Supermarkets are another amazing place to spot culture. How people eat, what they eat, and what they don’t eat tells much about how they view food, life, and health. In America, our emphasis on big, quick, and easy shows that we aren’t foodies as a culture. Food isn’t as important as speed. We eat a lot of fast food, prepared meals, and on the go food. In France, however, food quality is important. French citizens living in Brussels drive back to France to get good French food. Every other street has small food shops – little stores for fish, pastries, fruits, and bread. Food is consumed for taste not convenience.
Going to the supermarket answers a lot of questions. What kind of food do people like? What are the local delicacies? You see a lot of fish in Scandinavia, lots of different meats in Austria, packed shelves of wine in France, and a wide vegetable and cured meat section in Italy. In Bangkok, you see a lot of prepared meals. All around the world, the emphasis on food is different.
Food is such an integral part of culture that no visit to any country should be without a visit to a supermarket. I’m always blown away when I go to them because I learn more about how people live their lives and what they value than I learn from any trip to a monument.
Travelers always hit the obvious destinations, but malls and supermarkets offer you something different, unique, and local. If travel is about getting to know the places you go to and peering into the lives of its citizens, then watching people go about their daily lives at malls and supermarkets is a great way to do just that.