If you want to be technical about it, I’m already back in the U.S. My European adventures have ended, but I’m going to talk about them anyway because now I’m home and I truly have no more obligations anymore for the next couple of weeks of my break. I don’t even have to leave the house and that’s partly true because my driver’s license and the other contents of my wallet are lying in a random street in Istanbul.
On my flight back to JFK, I was particularly excited to receive my complimentary cup of soda because I had caught a glimpse of a bottle of Fanta standing happily next to the typical offerrings of Coke, Sprite, and juice. European Fanta is delicious. With 12% orange juice and real sugar, it’s refreshing and sweet enough to let you know that yes, you are still drinking soda, but not sweet enough to make you slightly nauseous. From afar, I could see the sunny orange liquid being poured into plastic cups. One last sip of fantastic soda before I landed in the States. That sounded good to me.
When the flight attendant asked for my order, I asked for no ice. Perhaps I should have because in the guise of doing me a favor, she gave me a refrigerated can and went merrily on her way. I opened the can and poured the contents out into the cup she handed me and the liquid that poured out was the bright, unnatural neon orange that could only mean one thing: American Fanta, which has no juice whatsoever, high-fructose corn syrup as its second ingredient, and scary ingredients like “brominated vegetable oil.” My spell-check has underlined “brominated” in red, so it shouldn’t even be a word! It’s banned in the EU, probably for good reason. And think about it: why would you want vegetable oil in your fruity soft drink?
I drank the soda because I was thirsty, but it was one of the more disappointing soda consumption experiences in my life. In general, I felt a little sad to be leaving grocery stores and supermarkets in Europe, which are smaller in scale and sells excellent produce. Perhaps I need to pick better stores at home, but the produce sections of Franxprix or Monorprix were always my favorite places to browse. They were small, only two displays of produce organized in baskets and boxes, but all the vegetables and fruits were bright greens and reds. The carrots had bright orange skins, and the top green parts had been kept to make them look extra idyllic. My benchmark for determining great produce sections were tomatoes. Tomatoes spoil quickly once they’re ripe. The tomatoes in Paris always look as if they’ve been picked at the peak of perfection. Sometimes, there are squishy ones in the pile. Of course, you don’t buy squishy vegetables to take home, but their existence seemed to reassure me that the tomatoes had been picked when they were more or less ripe and transported quickly to the store and then to my kitchen. It’s probably an idealistic view, seeing as I know nothing about agricultural distribution in France, but in comparison to how tomatoes are sold at my local Shoprite, it was a marked improvement. At home, tomatoes are kept in a giant bin that a small toddler could use as a bathtub. The tomatoes are larger but they’re a pale, anemic red that comes from being ripened after being picked rather than ripened and then picked. Tomatoes in Paris looked like jewels in comparison. And best of all, they tasted like tomatoes! Even in the autumn when they weren’t in season, they were still red with a distinctive tomato taste. Shoprite tomatoes in the winter kind of taste like nothing. You just get the tomato texture with none of the tomato taste, which is vaguely unpleasant if you want to eat it raw.
Because so many artificial ingredients and preservatives are banned in the EU, especially in comparison to the United States, and the only corn product that is popularly available in a European store is corn, everything seems to taste better, even your cheap, store-brand packaged snacks. I’m going to miss food shopping in Paris, not only because they package their eggs in six instead of twelve and sell UHT milk in convenient cartons that do not need to be refrigerated for months if unopened, but also because the stuff you’re eating is not as processed.
Case in point: Fanta. If you tried to sell American Fanta, people in Europe would revolt. In Germany, birthplace of Fanta, the bottle proudly displayed that there was real orange juice. The American product proudly proclaims that it contains only “natural flavors” and no caffeine, as if that’s all you need to have a great product. While on the plane, I stared at the softly glowing orange liquid in my cup that claimed to be Fanta and then took a perfunctory sip to be polite. If only that were true.