“I want to go to Wal-Mart.”
That jaw-dropping response given to me by a bartender at a London hotel recently left me speechless and somewhat embarrassed.
My travelling companion and I were lingering over a pint of beer a few hours after we arrived in the royal city when we struck up a conversation with the 20-something fellow behind the bar. We learned that he was originally from South Africa, had never been to the U.S., but would love to travel here to “experience American culture.”
“And what is it you’d like to do when you get to America that will help you do that?” we asked.
“I want to go to Wal-Mart,” he replied with a faraway look in his eye and a smile. “I want to see Costco and all those giant containers I see on American television shows.”
Now, I’ve never been a “grass is greener on the other side” kind of gal. I love to travel, but the feeling I get when I hear “Welcome home” from an immigration officer when he stamps my passport upon my return to the U.S. is indescribable.
Yet, hearing that Wal-Mart and Costco are examples of American culture was not one of the top 10 proudest moments of my life.
What kind of message are we sending to the world if everyone thinks Wal-Mart represents American culture? I wondered. Is the world laughing behind our backs at our disposable, overfed, over-consuming, under-exercised society?
I wanted to grab my beer and hide under the nearest cocktail table.
Until I realized the young man didn’t mean it as an insult. He was simply looking forward to seeing something he didn’t have at home.
In many foreign countries, the concept of one-stop-shopping doesn’t exist. In Paris, for instance, a craving for wine, bread and cheese requires three stops. In South Florida, or anywhere in the U.S. for that matter, it requires three aisles in the same grocery store.
For me, stopping at three stores to buy three things was poignant and romantic. For my bartender friend, the concept of buying all three at one location was pure joy.
I was in his city to see Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and overlook the city atop the London Eye.
To him, Big Ben was just a clock, the palace was a big house and the London Eye was just another Ferris wheel. But 6,000 miles to the west lay Wal-Mart and Costco with their aisles full of treasures more priceless than the Crown Jewels.
“I want to go to Wal-Mart,” was one of the takeaway memories from my most recent trip. (That and running into Prince Harry on the street, but that’s another story). I will never be able to walk into another Wal-Mart or Costco without remembering that morning in London and the young man who gifted me with the memory.
It it, after all, the reason I love to travel — To remind me to appreciate what I have and that no matter how far I go, there’s no place like home.
That’s it for this month. I’m running low on a few things and want to get to Wal-Mart before dawn.