Across Continents

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Supermarket sweep

I apologised to my fellow traveller. He was Italian, but, as far as I could understand, lived in Strasbourg. Something to do with supermarkets. I’d wrongly assumed Billa and Spar were German chains. No, he was quite emphatic, they were Italian. Aldi and Lidl were German. Seems the Italians were sneaking a march over their fellow Europeans, spreading into Eastern Europe. I’d frequented all of them, the endless search for cheap food.

On the bike I don’t have economies of scale. Can’t buy the big value packs. No space in the panniers. So it’s foraging, every day or so, and when riding I need to eat a lot. An awful lot. There’s about thirty kilograms – over sixty pounds – of kit, and the bike itself is an industrial expedition tourer, built to last. Shift that a hundred kilometres in a day, even on the flat, and you’ll soon feel peckish.

Prices have steadily decreased as I’ve headed east, probably quite cheap now by UK standards. But add in accommodation costs – even camping or budget hostels – and it’s a challenge to keep inside twenty pounds a day, even now. Doesn’t sound much? That’s six hundred pounds a month, more than I can sustain for four years. You just have to take a hit in Europe, hoping to recover the finances in Asia. Wild camping is tempting, but suitable sites are not as common as you might think. And there’s the dog walkers. Everywhere. The owners may not spot you in the failing light, but their pets will.

Eastern Europe has other compensations, not just a lower cost of living. Less temptation. Walking past alluring Bavarian eateries, their starters more than you could afford for a main course, is tough. Really tough. In the past I’d probably have dropped in. But not now. It’s not that there aren’t such places in the East, it’s still First World, even if their economies have a bit of catching up to do. Somehow it’s just a bit easier – meeting fellow travellers on similar meagre budgets is comforting, as is the slightly more austere feel to places.

Humour helps hugely. One evening, as I assembled my budget pasta and cheap carton of mashed tomatoes I joked I had a tin of dog food to add to the mix. Not the pork stew I’d expected, some sort of lentil mush with small cubes of meat. I think. Filling and nutritious you tell yourself. Acceptance counts for a lot. If you know you’re only shopping in the budget section you tend not to look at the nicer packaging elsewhere.

And shopping can still be fun. Tesco Global seems to have a real foothold in Slovakia and Hungary. Looks just like the branches at home, a slightly unsettling experience, and about a quarter of the stock is stuff you’d find on the shelves in the UK, English packaging. Not sure what the locals make of all this. I visit every aisle, helps me get a feel for a country and what ordinary people buy. Car tyres are big in Hungary.

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