Culturally Discombobulated is the name of a blog written by a Brit transplanted to the States and dealing with the phenomenon of “Culture Shock.” Culture Shock is something experienced by everyone thrust into living in a foreign country as opposed to just visiting. The other day I remarked to a gringo neighbor that I haven’t been going through that here in Panama. I think it’s probably because I went through all the symptoms when I moved to France and now, here, when things don’t go as they would in the States I just shrug it off. Been there, done that. After all, I’m not in Kansas any more, Toto.
In Anthony Windram’s most recent post he writes about missing foods he grew up with that are either unavailable to him in the States or if they are to be found at “British” food stores they are only to be had at extortionate prices. I can attest to the culinary jonesing for comfort foods from my time in France.
Of course France is a gourmand’s delight, don’t get me wrong, and the food is one of the many things I actually miss about the country. There was, in Antibes, a “foreign” food store catering to us non-natives. Most of the store’s inventory catered to English, Irish and Australian tastes since they made up a large portion of the expat community there. There was a decent selection of American stuff, too. We were able to buy Old El Paso taco seasonings and taco shells and refried beans along with a limited choice of Chef Boyardee goods. Why anyone would want to buy a can of those soggy raviolis when made-fresh-daily ravioli with a fantastic assortment of fillings was available at several nearby charcuteries will forever remain a mystery. One item I found delightful at the store, having lived in New Orleans for so many years, was Dixie beer. Unfortunately in cans and not the beloved long-neck bottles.
When I left for France one thing I didn’t want to leave behind was my Crystal hot sauce…the only one to use on popcorn…so I packed away three of the largest bottles of the spicy red liquid I could find only to discover on my first visit to the local Carrefour grocery store that Crystal was prominently stocked on the shelves.
One thing I found rather disconcerting, though, was my craving for foods I rarely bothered with when living in the States. Worst among these was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. When one of my brothers asked me what I wanted for Christmas I told him Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Send me some of those chemical packets of cheese sauce. Keep the macaroni we had plenty of pasta in France. He and his wife sent me three dozen of the packets. I tried it and I was right…the stuff is horrid.
However, one of the bar maids at Chez Charlie’s Pub, a hangout for English speaking expats in Antibes, was a New Orleans native named Jane. Odd thing was when I was living there Jane and I used to go to the same music venues and when I went to the laundry as I’d be sitting outside reading a book while my clothes were being done if I looked up I looked at Jane’s front door though we wouldn’t meet until years later in France. Every now and again when paying up my bill at Charlie’s instead of leaving a cash tip for Jane I’d leave her a couple of Kraft cheese packets. She absolutely LOVED the stuff and appreciated it more than a few francs left on the counter.
Another odd phenomena happened when I returned to the States after a four year absence. I drank a bottle of root beer one afternoon and then I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. I went on a root beer binge that lasted for a couple of months after that first frosty glass.
Here in Panama, probably from its long association with the U.S. and the growing number of gringos choosing to spend their dotage here, lots of what we think of as “comfort” foods are available at the supermarkets. Yes, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is everywhere as are such staples as Jiff and Peter Pan peanut butter though you’d gasp at what they cost. I avoid most of it for locally produced stuff, but in some cases there aren’t acceptable substitutes as far as my pallet is concerned. I’m sorry, but Maggi tomato paste just doesn’t hold a candle to Hunts or Contadina.
One of the things I missed when I left France was the wonderful availability of fresh produce. After several years of buying top quality fruits and veggies at the open air market returning to Stateside supermarkets where the produce is all shrink wrapped in plastic it was a real bummer. Here in Panama while good produce is available in the supermarkets, and none of it shrink wrapped, the best stuff is to be found at roadside stands. Imagine a wonderfully ripe, succulent and fragrant pineapple for a buck each. Tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes. I’m eating good again.