Culture shock may be the teacher of life’s best lessons. In my case, the lesson learned was that simple abundance is available close to home, even right in your back yard. The critical elements to this discovery were friends and an openness to explore life’s bounty available to all of us.

When I moved to Switzerland 12 years ago, my first trip to the grocery store was an awakening. I was on foot, pushing a baby carriage, with a large canvas bag over my shoulder. Gas was expensive. The standard question that we’re accustomed to in U.S. grocery stores – “Paper or plastic?” – didn’t exist, and neither did the friendly grocery bagger. Sturdy paper bags with handles were available at the checkout, but they came with a price of roughly 25 cents a piece. Needless to say, the Swiss spared that expense and brought their own bags.

Indeed, there was a lot for me to learn walking to the grocery store. Life was different there. Along the way to the store, I passed a variety of housing. Apartment buildings, flats, and densely packed single family homes all had lush plants in window boxes, balconys and yards, both front and back. There were functional, vertical kitchen gardens with exciting elements that maximized every inch of space. Spiral stakes had tomatoes cascading over onions, and pole beans provided privacy between neighbors.

The produce section in the grocery store was different, too. There were no displays of picture-perfect, robust shining fruit, nor was there a wide selection. It was slim pickings in the produce/fruit section. I noted people buying case lots of plums, cherries and peaches when the fruit was in season, and I wondered why. I learned that they were brought home and preserved for the winter months in various forms: frozen, canned, dried or fermented – these would become jellies and schnapps.

The produce section of the Swiss grocery store gave me a greater appreciation of food and the consequences of food choices. We had made the decision to sacrifice my career so that my husband could experience a two-year job assignment in Switzerland. With two young children and a salary cut in half, we were living in a country that cost more and we wanted to travel. I returned from the grocery store and offered my husband a choice – stay home and eat meat, or become vegetarians so we can afford to travel.

We opted for vegetables. While we did travel a lot, full immersion in the Swiss culture was a journey in itself, and we didn’t need to travel far to see so much. My eyes were opened wide to this very different lifestyle, embracing the total Swiss experience. From baking bread to canning, we ate what was in season, because seasonal eating meant lower prices, and it also supported the local farmers, from whom we purchased eggs, milk and cheese.

The Swiss wouldn’t think of buying grapes from Chili or oranges from California. And that’s why produce prices were low. Glowing robust fruit often meant chemicals, and that was another no-no. The first carrot I ate there was an experience. It was a wimpy little thing, crooked and covered with dirt. I brought it home, washed and ate it, and my taste buds went nuts. I had forgotten what home-grown carrots tasted like. Carrots and cabbage became staples at our dinner table.

Of course, I couldn’t live there and not have plants hanging off my balcony, too. I started growing vegetables in pots. When you grow them yourself, and engage your children in the process, they taste so much better. When we returned home, my yard at Higgins Beach expanded. Today, there’s a lot going on in my back yard complete with four compost bins – influenced by the Swiss experience. But 10 years has passed and bit by bit, I found myself moving away from the culture that brought me not only close to the earth, but also close to neighbors and friends.

This changed last Sunday. Scarborough native Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, designated a special day, the fourth Sunday in August, to inspire kitchen gardening. International Kitchen Gardener Day is three years old, and is gaining momentum. I went to the celebration and was thoroughly inspired. Touring gardens in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood, gardeners exchanged ideas. The Pleasant Hill school also has created a kitchen garden, and there were several proud children on the tour as well.

According to Doiron, the average bite of food in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles from farm to fork. By growing more food locally, and inspiring more kitchen gardens, food costs less and is healthier, with still more benefits. The neighborhood came together, shared in the bounty and exchanged gardening ideas. It’s ironic that sometimes the greatest treasures exist in your hometown and even your back yard, but you don’t notice. Like the vegetables that we so commonly eat, I traveled a great distance to live in Switzerland to come to appreciate what Doiron is promoting here in Scarborough.

Anyone interested in learning more about Kitchen Gardeners International can visit Doiron will be speaking to Scarborough Rotary Club on Sept. 11. Guests are welcome. Call 883-4715

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