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Jul 30

Why I love foreign supermarkets

Foreign supermarkets are one of the small pleasures of travelling. What I like, I think, is the sight of familiar, everyday products filtered through another country’s culture. The effect is kind of like going food shopping in a dream, where everything is familiar and yet very alien at the same time. Like being in a David Lynch film but with fewer imperilled women, dwarves or red velvet curtains.

I was reminded of this feeling while shopping in Albert Heijn, a Dutch supermarket that has free tea and coffee in every store. Nobody seems to drink the stuff but I love the fact it’s there. Little details like that make shopping in unfamiliar supermarkets strangely pleasurable. But that’s not what set me thinking about the small joys of visiting supermarkets overseas. No, that was just a taster ahead of the main event.

The main event was…eggs. But not as we know them.

I’ve bought eggs hundreds of times but until this week was constrained by the packaging. Six or 12, that was my choice. Until Albert Heijn. As everyone skips to the pictures first it’ll come as no surprise to you – but a great deal to me at the time – that in Albert Heijn you can buy seven eggs.

Look at them, all neatly packed up in the round. Why? I had no idea. To be honest, I’ve never felt limited by the choice of six or 12 available in British supermarkets. But after seeing seven eggs, I needed seven eggs. Having cooked five of them this morning – scrambled – I can say the eggs are good but in the end…unremarkable. They’re just eggs in a fancy box.

Except they’re not. They actually are remarkable.

For these aren’t battery-farmed or even free range eggs. They come from a Roundel. You see, the Dutch looked at existing hen husbandry systems and didn’t like what they saw. So they set about trying to change things, rethinking all aspects of the process to create a system that met the needs of farmers, consumers and – most importantly – hens.

The Roundel – shown in the embedded YouTube video – was their solution. And this was no mere prototype or ideas exercise. They’ve built these things. And now sell the resulting eggs seven at a time, one for every day of the week, in a round, biodegradable box for €1.99.

To belatedly return to my original point, this is why I love overseas supermarkets. Because the feeling that everything is familiar but slightly warped out of shape – literally in the egg box case – stems from being exposed to the thinking of another culture. And through this exposure you can, in a small way, gain a little insight into the country.

Perhaps the resonance of what, after all, is just an egg box comes from the having spent the past week in Hoofddorp, a weirdly perfect model community. Both, it seems to me, stem from a culture that’s capable and willing to completely deconstruct flawed systems and put them back together in a way that better suits everyone who interacts with them.

Or perhaps I’m reading too much into an egg box.

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