Occasionally I stop at Whole Foods on my way to work in the mornings. They are a convenient stop, they have good coffee and a cheap and delicious egg wrap (with spinach, feta and mushrooms) that hits the spot when my personal chef has been unavailable to me. I am usually one of the first shoppers, which affords me a view of the store that I cannot get at later times in the day when I am just one of the horde elbowing my way to the counter for tofu General Tso (or, "General Fo" as we like to call it).
This morning it was pristine, shiny, empty and absolutely beautiful. Everything lined up with army-like precision, floors spotless, glass counters sparkling, stacks and rows of products all neatly arranged and properly faced. My sense of order (can you tell I've got some serious German blood running through my veins?) sits up immediately and begins to tail wag and bark in that environment. So happy! I could have just stayed there all morning in appreciative wonderment.
I realized that I have a "thing" for grocery stores. When I travel, it is the one place I always need to stop. Especially in foreign countries. I love to wander the aisles, looking for similarities and differences, comparing and contrasting not only the different types of products, but the availability or lack thereof of certain things.
You can tell a lot about a community by sleuthing in it's markets or grocery shops.
I remember the first time I shopped in a market in France, not one of those stall markets, but an actual supermarche. I must have spent two hours picking out 20 items, only to have a stare down with the checkout girl after she was done because I didn't realize that I was responsible for bagging my own groceries and she was wondering what my problem was.
France had hypermarches (hyper-markets, which are like Sam's clubs or Costcos) long before we had them in this country and I just remember being staggered by the volume and variety.
I am drawn inevitably to the bath and beauty section. It can be a bit of a mystery, trying to figure out just what is in this tube or that. Is it toothpaste or is it hemorrhoid creme? If you don't speak the language, it can be a bit of a crap shoot (literally, I suppose), but it is always fun.
You can tell how wealthy a community is or is not by what you find in their aisles. You can tell what the cultural topography is. No Asian food in their store? No mystery there. It's an anthropological exploration that can be very entertaining.
That being said, there's a big difference between neighborhood markets like those found in Europe and the advent of the big box markets like Whole Foods. All the Whole Foods are pretty much the same, from community to community, which doesn't mean that the communities are all the same, necessarily, but I suppose their demographic, from a marketing standpoint, must be. In which case, there must be a whole platoon of middle-aged-late-to-workers who didn't have time to eat or brew coffee for themselves in this country, because we sure seem to be keeping that place in business!