Lessons in Immersion: The Importance of the Market

Julia Child had the right idea. When she and her husband, Paul Child, moved to Paris in the 1950s she had never been to France and did not speak the language. Undeterred, she set about immersing herself in the culture, trying to make friends with locals as well as the expat crowd and, most importantly, making frequent trips to the market.

“I had worked on my French diligently, and was able to read better and say a little more every day,” Child wrote in her memoir, My Life in France. “At first my communications in the market had consisted of little more than finger-pointing and simplistic grunts: “Bon! Ca! Bon!” Now when I went to L’Olivier, the olive-oilery on the Rue de Rivoli—a small shop filled with crocks of olives and bottles of olive oil—I could actually carry on a lengthy conversation with the jolly olive man. My tastes were growing bolder too.”

Reading these words on the eve of my departure for a new life in a foreign land, Julia Child—not for the first time—taught me a valuable lesson. And I vowed that once in Israel I would try my darndest to fully embrace the local culture, starting with the market. Lucky for me, Israel has a vibrant market (called a shuk) in every city, with the most sensational pomegranates, olives, dates, and other culinary delights I’ve ever seen.

The best part is that this lesson is highly transferable. Whether on vacation or moving to a new destination, there’s no better place to get a taste for local flavor—literally—than at the market. And almost everywhere in the world there’s a market to be found, from the bazaars of Cairo to the farmers’ markets of New York.

Still not convinced? Here, the top five reasons to get to a market next time you travel.

  1. Learn the Language: Visiting local markets is an instant language lesson. Like Child, I started out pointing at vegetables and saying the few words I knew in Hebrew. Shopping at the shuk has done more to help me learn the numbers than anything else, including my intensive Hebrew class. Finding out how to say “what is this?” is helpful as well as the vendors slowly teach you the names for your favorite fruits and vegetables.
  2. Become Familiar with Local Customs: Nowhere have I learned more about local customs then at the shuk. I have learned not to get angry when someone firmly pushes past me and have come to understand that just because people are yelling at each other does not mean they are fighting. I have seen firsthand that while Israelis come off as aggressive, they can also be the warmest, most helpful people on the planet.
  3. Get a Taste for Local Flavors: I might be biased as a food writer, but I truly believe the best way to experience any place is through its food. What better place to get a sense for the local flavor than the market? There you can see what fruits and vegetables are local and in season, experience new flavors and spices, and start to become bolder in your tastes.
  4. Feel Part of a Community: Even if you are just a visitor passing through, you can’t help but get a sense of community from the market. Regular customers interact with the vendors, people shop for their daily lives, everyone comes together over food, the way it should be. Often the markets are the primary place where different cultures overlap, as in the Iraqi Jewish section of the Mechane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, or the intersection of Arabs, Bedoins, and Jews who are prominent fixtures at my local shuk in Be’er Sheva.
  5. Gain Motivation: Every time I visit the shuk I feel more immersed and confident in my new surroundings, but also feel motivated to work even harder. I want to get to the point in my Hebrew when I can chat with the vendors, and I want to try every unfamiliar ingredient I can.
A native New Yorker through and through, Katherine is a food writer with a serious itch for travel. So when her husband had the opportunity to attend medical school in Israel, she knew they had to take the plunge. Having never been to Israel, Katherine quit her job, packed her bags, and set off on her latest adventure. She’s happily settled into life in the Middle East and is busy freelance writing, learning Hebrew, discovering the local markets, deciphering what makes up Israeli cuisine, and cooking up a storm. She’s excited to travel around Israel (a country the size of New Jersey with, well, more to see) and use it as her jumping off point to explore the world. Katherine also writes about what she’s cooking and eating at

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    1. The only German I managed to acquire that’s stuck with me is what I learned at the local market…the vendors loved it every time I asked what something was and could remember it the next time. Great article!

    2. Such wise and applicable suggestions no matter whether you are far from home or around the block.

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