Happiness lies beyond these glass walls (Photo: Getty Images)
Happiness lies beyond these glass walls (Photo: Getty Images)

KaiJanuary 4, 2020

From 7/11s to supermarchés: The true essence of travel is at the corner store

Happiness lies beyond these glass walls (Photo: Getty Images)
Happiness lies beyond these glass walls (Photo: Getty Images)

Summer Journeys: After touring the world with his band The Phoenix Foundation, Samuel Flynn Scott has figured out the real reason we travel – to nosy around where humans buy snacks.

The Spinoff Summer Journey series is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism, click here.

We travel the world to experience something new, to get a sense that humanity and nature are bigger and more incredible than we have yet been privileged to experience. We pretend that we do this in the marble painting graveyards, and bridges that were once for transport but now exist for photo opportunities. We tell ourselves (and our friends, too, frequently) that the music and art, the architecture and geography of our recent visitations has widened our senses and blown our minds. 

But that is obviously bullshit. The reason we travel is in consumerist pilgrimage to the diaspora of supermarkets and corner stores the world over. It’s the incidental everyday life experiences that you stumble through that leave a lasting impression. It’s the small differences that lie within the familiar that expose how similar and different we all are. 

Photo: Getty Images

Supermarkets are where we reveal our pretentions, our taste and our mundane routines. They make us vulnerable and zombified and then take all our money. Corner stores/drug stores/delis/tabacs whatever you call them are the wonky cousins that keep us alive. They support many of our addictions, legal and occasionally illicit. 

Exploring where humans choose to buy bread and milk is for me the essence of travel. 

Most of my travel has been in bands, staying in the shittiest places, travelling in the cramped smelly squalor of the ubiquitous UK “splitter vans”. Not even the dignity of a tour bus in which to hide weed from the Swiss border patrol, but plenty of opportunity to visit fantastically boring shops. Trying to make sandwiches from a rural German Aldi (very successful) to nearly running out of gas on M7 in the north of England because you just can’t stop at a motorway services that doesn’t have an M&S Simply Food.

The Phoenix Foundation’s Luke Buda searching for Chocomel at any given rest stop (Photo: Supplied)

Paris, the guide books won’t tell you, is a bit shit. After queuing for several hours to stand behind a hundred people taking photos of a Monet you end up spending €20 on a putrid Kronenbourg from a charming and terrible Paris bistro. What the Japanese call pari shōkōgun, the discombobulating feeling that the city of your dreams turns out to be a real asshole, can be solved very quickly by bypassing the tourist spots and hitting up a supermarché. 

Of course Paris isn’t shit: think of it like China Miéville’s novel The City and The City. Two  completely different worlds, residing side by side, using all their willpower to ignore each other. In Paris, the split is between Parisian locals who know where to get the best food and wine on Earth, who know about the best music venues outside the ring road. The other is the world of the 18 million people who visit every year. That city is a picture-perfect bistro on the Rue Saint Germain serving low-grade meat, cooked raw (out of spite for les Anglais) with a rotten salad on the side and a complimentary glass of toxic grape extract for €50. 

The real city is a market selling excellent wine for a couple of bucks, great bread and cheese and servicing locals instead of tourists. Get a bottle of wine to go and drink it on the banks of the Canal St Martin and that pari shōkōgun will float away like magic.

Boursin: the Chesdale of France (Photo: Supplied)

The thing I found the most remarkable about Paris’s supermarkets: Boursin is to France what Chesdale is to New Zealand (or maybe what it was to NZ in the 80s). Boursin, the soft, garlicky mush of cheesiness, so expensive at Moore Wilson’s, such a decadent treat, is in fact made for school lunches, not cheese boards. WE HAVE ALL BEEN LIVING A LIE! 

French service stations are pretty weird. Really expensive, disgusting hot meals or super-cheap fantastic French bread and soft cheeses. And all the chips are paprika flavoured. The Palace of Versailles holds few surprises, it looks just like the pictures, but no one tells you that all French servo crisps are paprika flavoured. Like, all of them. It’s OK but not that great a flavour. France, the centre of world gastronomy? If their chip seasonings are anything to go by then je ne pense pas! 

British service stations are another matter. The famed “services”. Touring bands will exchange hot tips on the best services that pepper the UK roading network. An infinity of chip flavours; from the populist Marmite, prawn cocktail and full English to elitist combos like Stilton and corniche night. 

Berlin: beer mountains and too much Rittersport (Photos: Supplied)

The Phoenix Foundation once stumbled upon the Heston Blumenthal “Little Chef”, the three-Michelin-starred chef’s roadside diner serving his version of egg and chips. Alas, we were late for Glastonbury and no one would let me order any food. Now they have shut forever. Biggest regret of my life? Yes. 

Better than Heston, though, is the sandwich wars raging between Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. Waitrose is the rarer bird, the poshest food you will ever find in a servo, but the more middle class M&S is really just as good. The New Zealand version might be Wishbone, but whereas Wishbone is the worst food in the world, an M&S BLT is fantastic. Even Tesco Express is better than Wishbone. The English are by their nature a pallid, tasteless nation, so how come their sandwiches are so much better than ours? Is this why they won the Cricket World Cup? Was it the sandwiches? 

One of the finest convenience store quirks I happened upon was free beer merch in Taiwanese 7/11s. Buy a six pack of Asahi (for about $8NZD) and get a free singlet. Buy a 24 pack and get a bluetooth speaker. They seemed to be giving away items far more valuable than the beer. I was also slightly fond of the Taiwanese iced green tea that claimed it would make your boobs grow bigger. Amazing what you can get for a couple of bucks.

Samuel with TPF bandmate Tom Callwood in a feeding frenzy after raiding a Brighton corner shop of its supply of Scotland’s finest snack, Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, and Sam’s son Ralph blown away by the variety of KitKats in Japan (Photos: Supplied)

Japan, though, is a paradise unto its own. Lawson, Family Mart, 7/11. Everyone has their favourite but whichever one, they shit all over our weak Four Square rubbish. Lawson’s onigiri might be the best-priced snack on planet earth. Healthy, delicious, cheap. The full triangle of wonder. Then there are the sandos. Bread so soft it’s almost creepy. There is much debate as to whether an egg sando from Lawson is a work of minimalist culinary genius or just a piece of trash, but for me it’s perfection. 

Japanese supermarkets are even more ridiculous. The supermarket in the bustling, hip Tokyo neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa is one floor of regular shopping stuff (albeit Japanese, so completely different and fascinating to this gaijin) and then a floor of ready meals and hot food. But imagine the best sashimi you have had in New Zealand; now imagine it’s slightly better and costs about $5 and comes from the top floor of a supermarket. 

One of my strangest and in many ways most wonderful supermarket experiences was on the streets of Kreuzberg in Berlin. I was there with my family on a break between touring. Our boy Ralph was one at the time. He needed food, he needed nappies, it was 6am. We set off on our short walk to the Rewe with no bags, no stroller, nothing. In a daze I loaded up on mysterious pot-set yoghurts on choco-muesli (weirdly hard to find any cereal that’s not muesli and muesli that isn’t rammed with chocolate), German-made compostable nappies and probably a few bottles of Augustiner-Bräu Helles for later. 

TPF sound guy Bernie and percussionist Will completely unaware of the wall because they are so desperate for a Bionade from the bio mart (Photo: Samuel Flynn Scott)

We are used to the bring-your-bags rule in NZ now, but this was a different time. I was so confused, and I still had to carry this baby several city blocks back to our Airbnb. The only thing I could do was roll all my shopping into the front of my T-shirt, hoist up Ralph and stumble back as the sun rose over Görlitzer park. My exposed belly and smiling baby brought delight to the old drunks arriving at the Rewe to feed the hipsters’ discarded beer and Club-Maté bottles into the recycling machine (which, incidentally, looks rather like the Noo-Noo creature/vacuum thing from the Teletubbies). 

The old dudes knew the local ways; young people drink and smoke weed in Görli park, they don’t put their bottles in the bin but leave them out so that those in need can collect them early, essentially tidying up, in exchange for fairly decent money so as to start their day with a fresh packet of fags, a couple of cans of Becks and maybe even some choco-muesli. 

There was so much to learn in that one brief trip to the shops. Mostly I learnt never to leave your reusable shopping bag at home (we’ve all learnt that now, right?). But seeing life carry on in those little different ways allows you to slot into the rhythm of a new city. It allows you to imagine that you aren’t like all the other tourists, you could live here no problem. After all, you know where to get bread and milk.

The Spinoff Summer Journey series is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism, click here.

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