Taking a drastic pay cut is a fascinating exercise on all fronts - especially when you’ve long been accustomed to certain careless luxuries - but the supermarket is for me the most challenging one. Suddenly, you can’t just fling things into the cart, a bit of Austrian goat cheese here, a spot of organic Darjeeling tea there, a bushel of Californian oranges, never knowing how much they cost, let alone counting that cost. In fact, you don’t have a cart at all, because you’re taking the train, not a cab, and can only carry one basketful at a time.
You’re that lady who looks at the price tags in the vegetable aisle. You’re that person who buys the milk that’s on promotion for 50 cents less – that’s a good portion of your train fare and you’ve learnt from experience that it’s not to be despised, especially in the last week of the month. You’re the crazy one who knows exactly how much small change you have at any given time. (You’re also the near-mythical being in the Ikea checkout line with just one thing in your hand.)
In doing so, I’ve discovered that responsible or healthy or just flavourful eating is expensive. Lean meat, wild-caught fish, cold-pressed oils, pure juices, the better kind of fruit and vegetable, whole grains, fresh herbs, low-fat dairy – they all cost significantly more than the other kind. Pretty much anything that’s organic or without additives is out of reach. This is wrong, but apparently it’s the way the world works. Something ought to be done, but I don’t know what.
Now I’m in Vietnam for three months, I’m rich again – but I’m staying in a hotel and don’t have the pleasure of buying groceries. On the other hand, the food is good everywhere. Vegetables and fruits taste like they've just been brought in from the farm. The seafood is fresh, the meat is tender. Every sprig of coriander, each quarter of lime and sliver of lemongrass is a burst of exuberant flavour. The very salt on the table seems youthful and sparkling. I've eaten food of this quality before - in the sort of restaurant where you pay fortunes for it. Here it's on every street corner for a few dollars. I think the reason the Vietnamese are generally in a good mood is because of their food.
(My boss here is going to Singapore for a few days and I suddenly felt homesickness for my flat. I miss my kitchen, my study, my lake and my 1000-thread-count cotton sheets. It's my two-week marker, it always happens on every long trip. From here on, I will drift steadily away from the old and when the time comes to leave, they'll have to drag me kicking and screaming to the airport.)
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