When I am travelling abroad, one of my favorite stops is always the markets and food shopping districts of towns and districts. Everything about an area, its geography, its demographics, its climate, and its economic life is in context. Children run and play, or pull their favorite adult towards the treat spot, whether it is a cart, a kiosk, or a stall. Some sellers look stressed while others smile and nod. Some even invite in a stranger like me and show off their wares and their produce. These experiences give me great pause and cause for reflection.
…Then the opposite happened. I was standing with my wife at my favorite butcher’s counter in the Italian Market in the Bronx, when the tour bus came through. I do not get many opportunities to visit my butcher in any given month and when I do make the trip, I stock up. I had a stack of chickens, cuts of beef, and a lamb shoulder all being wrapped in brown butcher paper as we waited patiently on the other side of the shoulder-high refrigerated cases with a scale perched on top.
In this great hall, the deli had a long line and no empty seats. The bar, with its long tables, was packed. The vegetable vendor was grabbing bags to weigh with blinding speed and there was a line to buy the freshly hand-rolled cigars. The place was full of happy noise. In the midst of this bustling cacophony, a bus-full of tourists came bursting in to watch and to learn.
“Huh,” I said to my wife. “So, this is what it looks like when we travel.”
At first, I was envious. I wanted to be the traveler, the one experiencing a different culture and a different people. Their questing eyes and curious looks made me look at the counters and the tables with fresh eyes, and appreciate the layers of peoples, communities, and culture that were woven into the fabric of the stalls, their employees, and their wares. After all, this is not some chichi Food Hall in Manhattan, but a neighborhood shopping district in the north Bronx.
Their guide was impatient to begin his spiel. He was waving his arms, motioning his charges to gather around and listen. I paid my bill. Picking up my heavy bags, I smiled and nodded hello, and added an “excuse me” or two as I maneuvered around the gathering without whacking anyone with my bags.
We still needed a couple of bottles of wine and my wife and I had agreed to indulge in a couple pastries. Then there was the pizza pan on display in the window and a question of whether we should buy a new one now or replace it later. The sun was bright and people were sitting outside enjoying the afternoon.
The visitors got a taste of an old neighborhood shopping district in the Bronx, which I thought was an excellent excursion. Still, their trip was just a taste because the cheese monger is a tiny storefront and there are at least a half dozen pastry shops and bakeries within two blocks of each other – and pizza, and bareks, and oysters on the half shell and a couple of decent expresso joints, and, and.
I suppose my travels abroad have helped me to appreciate what I have near to home. Even more, I have learned that there are a lot of people across the globe like me, who want to step into the day-to-day lives and cultures of other countries and just breath in the smells and sample the tastes. I may be imagining or embellishing, but when I visit such touchstones, everything seems to be delicious and worth savoring.
It was a good day.