Supermarket tourism—it’s one of the best ways to get the inside scoop on a culture. So make a visit to the supermarket one of your first stops on your trip abroad.
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I have a secret habit. Whenever I travel, I become a spy. I peek through doorways and into corners and peer into people’s faces—discretely, I hope—because I want to get inside the culture of the place as much as I possibly can. I want to see what is behind the touristic surface. Oh, I know I will never fully understand the intricacies of how the people of another country see the world. After living in Mexico for 17 years, there are still things about the culture here that baffle me. But I want to at least try.
And I have discovered one of the best ways to learn about a people and how they live, is to see how they eat and cook. And how they shop for food. That’s why I always try to make one of my first spy outings a visit to the supermarket or local grocery store.
The Grocery Store as a Window on Culture
It’s amazing what you can learn as a supermarket tourist in the local grocery store. What do the people like to eat here? When you walk into the biggest supermarket in my town of San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, and one of the largest sections of shelf space is taken up by dozens and dozens of brands of hot sauce and chiles, what does that tell you? Right, Mexicans like their food spicy.
The grocery store is where everyday life happens. The people are not there to serve you a meal, take your entrance ticket, tour-guide you through town. They just want to buy something for dinner. And while they do it, they are opening a window on the culture for you to look through. Do they have a wide variety of herbs and spices to choose from? Are there mountains of fresh fish for sale? How many fruits and vegetables can you find that you’ve never seen and can’t name? How many different brands of beer are lined up on the shelves? These are clues.
Supermarket tourism is also a fine way to discover unique souvenirs. My kitchen tells the stories of my travels in the speculaas cookie butter from Amsterdam, a bag of flavored salt from Tbilisi, in Georgia, pickled kelp from Alaska, and even the little orange ceramic pots I bought yogurt in from a neighborhood grocery store on the Île de la Cité in Paris.
I’m not alone in this quirk, I’ve discovered. I asked a number of travel blogger friends and regular traveling pals about the oddest, funniest, or just different things they have seen in a supermarket in their travels. More than 20 of them came up with an answer, so I’m sharing them all below.
Sightseeing in European Supermarkets
You’d think that European supermarkets would be quite similar to those in the U.S, and in many ways they are. But there are differences, subtle clues to the things that mark us as different from each other. For instance:
Dutch Licorice: “Drop” from the Netherlands, by Rachel at Rachels Ruminations
The Dutch are absolutely crazy about licorice, and in more variety than any non-Dutch person can imagine. Every supermarket in the Netherlands has multiple shelves of the stuff, called drop in Dutch, ranging from super-sweet to dubbelzout (double salt). It comes in all shapes and sizes too: cars and coins and objects of all sorts. Sometimes the licorice is combined with other flavors: half licorice, half some other chewy candy, much like gummy bears, in “fruit” flavor for the most part. Almost all of them have a hard, rubber-like texture: the kind of candy that sticks in your teeth and drives dentists to despair—though sugar-free varieties are also available.
I have a theory about the Dutch love for licorice. In this country where it can stay cloudy for weeks on end, parents give their children vitamin D drops every day from September until April. Newborns get the drops all year. My son’s exclusive diet for his first six months was a) breast milk and b) vitamin D drops. It’s not surprising, once you realize that the drops taste like licorice, that Dutch people love the stuff. It’s comfort food!
And while we are talking about licorice, it’s not just the Dutch who are crazy about it. The Swedes apparently love the black stuff too, so much so they even flavor their chips with it.
Salty Licorice Potato Chips from Sweden, by James Ian at Travel Collecting
Grocery stores are always an insight into local tastes and culinary culture. Before visiting Sweden, I had heard about their love of licorice. Especially salty licorice. There are hilarious videos on You Tube of Americans trying salty licorice for the first time. It doesn’t go well. I already knew I hated the taste of anise, so I was steering well clear of all things licorice when, while browsing the shelves of a grocery store in Stockholm, I saw something I had never imagined would exist—licorice flavored potato chips. I was intrigued—and fortunately my husband actually does like licorice—so we bought a packet. He ate the entire packet bar one chip. Yes, I tried them (it). Yes, it tasted like licorice. Yes, it was definitely out of my culinary comfort zone. Yes, one was most definitely enough. Nonetheless, it was fun to see the different things you can buy in a Swedish grocery store. And this is something that you will most assuredly not find in an American supermarket!
Plopp Ice Cream in Sweden, by Suzanne from Meandering Wild
In winter, in Sweden, in a blizzard, the best thing to do if you still need an adventure is to explore the warm supermarket. Even in a country very similar to your own, you can find unusual items, usually where translation really doesn’t work well. Browsing the ice creams for a treat to match the outside weather we came across Plopp. The name jumped out as we sauntered by. Amongst the strawberry ice creams and fruity ice lollies sat a box of chocolate Plopp. I am sure you can see why this had to be photographed and then tested. As an evaluation, I can confirm that these frozen ice creams taste far better than their name suggests even when consumed while walking across a parking lot in sub-zero temperatures. This really is a case of bad translation; anything other than Plopp would not have grabbed our attention or secured a purchase for the store.
Spanish Cold Meats, by Sabine de Gaspari of The Traveling Chilli
One of the things that intrigued me the first time I walked into a Spanish supermarket was the copious amounts of cold and cured meats on the shelves. In most countries, you can find a nice yet often modest selection of various cold meats, both local and international. In Spain however, looking at the almost infinitely long shelves filled with cold and cured meats, it seems like that is the daily staple food, which in fact, it almost is. Most cold meats, or embutidos as they are locally called, are served as tapas, appetizers or prepared in the main dish itself. Serving a meal of Spanish food without cold meats doesn’t happen very often.
The most popular and famous cold cuts are the Spanish ham and chorizo which are also sold internationally. However, the variation seems endless. You can buy thin sliced meats, from small to large cuts of sausages to whole pork legs of cured ham. On top of that, the quality of the cured meat in Spanish supermarkets is of very high standards and tastes just delicious. So next time you walk into a Spanish grocery store, look for the aisle with the cold meats, which is in fact very hard to miss.
And for some supermarket tourists, it’s about the stores themselves, not just what is in them.
SPARS stores in Vienna, by Gemma Armit from Two Scots Abroad
Spar brand stores in Vienna, Austria, could be confused for upmarket delis and off-off license shops. In contrast to Scotland’s Spars (and their equivalents) which stock beige food and cardboard boxes. The first time I stepped into a European Spar, not only could my eyes not believe what they were seeing but also my nose was surprised! The smell of fresh bread and pastries in contrast to the smell of, well, nothing because pantry goods found on Scotland’s shelves don’t tend to have a smell. Instead of the tinned peaches we are accustomed to in our corner shops, fresh fruit and vegetables! Forget stale bread in plastic bags, European Spars have baguettes, rolls, and deliciously sweet filled pastries.
Then there is the drink aisle, which admittedly Scotland does do well if you’re not too picky. Vienna has quality wine and craft beers as well as local schnapps. Avoid buying souvenirs at the airport; you can pick up Milka and Mozartkugel at most grocery shops too. So, when thinking about where to stay in Vienna, you might want to think about accommodations with a kitchen if you like to cook in and save money. You can just stock up at the nearest Spar.
Pork and Bacon Snacks in Denmark, by Lesley from Freedom 56 Travel
When it comes to eating pork, Danes eat more than any other country in the world per capita. As ardent pork and bacon lovers, Danish people have for years designed creative ways to prepare their favorite meat. Stegt Flæsk (fried pork belly with potatoes and parsley sauce), frikadeller (flat, pan-fried meatballs), flæskesteg (roast pork with crackling) and so many more are beloved pork dishes in Denmark that are regularly served at family meals and special occasions, particularly at holidays.
But, if you ever feel a craving for pork on a Danish afternoon and it’s hours until dinner, don’t worry—there’s a fast food waiting for you in the nearest grocery store or convenience store. Enter Bacon Snacks. I happened on these crispy pork confections during a holiday in Denmark and can’t get them out of my mind. Similar to pork rinds but fluffier, these delicious salty, porky snacks are as addictive as the best potato chips. Just don’t look at the calorie count. Try them on your next Danish shopping trip!
Binned Goods in Bulk in Tbilisi, Georgia, by Chris Backe from Worthy Go
Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is one of many Eastern European cities formerly under Soviet control. While few of these cities look to the past with any level of fondness, some cities have kept some of the Soviet traditions alive more than others. While I’m sure you’d see it elsewhere, the Carrefour inside the Karvasla mall (a few hundred meters southeast of Station Square) features large bins of staples like noodles, sugar, and so on, sold in bulk. Much as you would with fruits or vegetables, you fill a bag, then take it to be weighed.
I’m unsure if this was originally done as part of a rationing program, or if locals preferred it to get the exact amount of something they needed. You can always buy the standard sizes of things, but sometimes a holdover from the past still works for people today.
Hard-boiled Eggs in Switzerland, by Will from The Broke Backpacker
Swiss grocers uphold the positive cliché that many will recognize of the Swiss: dedication to organization and efficiency. These stores are best approached with a game plan. There is an obvious route that begins at the entrance, passes each aisle exactly once, and deposits the shopper at the register. On the way you’ll see an array of Ricola lozenges (a word I only learned upon seeing them here), mayonnaise and other pasty condiments in stiff metallic tubes, and racks upon racks of eggs decorated for Easter. Actually, it doesn’t matter what time of the year you visit; the eggs are always brightly colored. Half of them are, anyway.
These brightly colored half (never mixed with the other, unembellished ovals) are marked so peculiarly because they’ve been hard-boiled. For us egg lovers, this is a huge convenience. These eggs are ready-made to throw in salads. Plus, you’ll have no difficulty discerning bits of eggshell to pick out when they accidentally fall into your meal.
For more on Switzerland, check out TBB’s Switzerland Travel Guide
Supermarket Tourism in Asian Grocery Stores—Not for the Faint of Heart
Europe is easy; Asia and Africa can present a bit more…culture shock. Our blogger friends came up with some interesting finds from the shelves of Asian supermarkets they visited.
Horse Milk in Kazakhstan, by Ellis from Backpack Adventures
The oddest thing I have ever seen in a foreign grocery store was in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s culture is strongly influenced by its nomadic past on the steppes. Horses were and still are very important to Kazakh people and this is also clearly visible in the average Kazakh supermarket. Often there is a special section with horse meat. Horse sausages are popular and an integral part of Kazakh cuisine. The national dish of beshbarmak consists of noodles in a broth with horse meat on top.
If the horse meat section isn’t odd enough, there is also the dairy section where you will find Kazakh’s national drink. Kymyz is fermented horse milk. A less common variety is shubat or fermented camel’s milk. It is an acquired taste and not one that many foreigners appreciate. Still, if you are in Kazakhstan, it’s a must try and in the supermarket it is relatively cheap to buy kymyz and shubat.
Ramen-Tofu-Kimchi in South Korea, by Cal from Once In a Lifetime Journey
When I first landed in Korea, I was taken to a gigantic “Mart” to do my food shopping. This is actually one of the best things to see in Seoul. It’s a megastore several stories high with different departments on each level, food usually being in B1. I never knew you could get so many different types of tofu, some for stewing, some for frying, with different textures and packaging. There must have been 25 different brands and varieties. Then there was the ramen. Where I’m from, ramen is a snack for you don’t want to cook or can’t afford a proper meal, but in Korea ramen is a very competitive market. It ranges from sweet to spicy, from thick (udon) to thin (soba) to gourmet. I chose Mashitneun Ramen (맛있는라면 – Delicious Ramen) because it looked nice and I’ve never turned back.
After walking past the fishtanks with staff shouting all kinds of sales phrases I got to the kimchi section. Us Westerners who know only a little about kimchi, don’t understand how many types there are. There are, wait for it, over 100 types of kimchi. From bossam (rolled) to chinggak (young) to kkakduki (spicy), it takes a while deciding which you like best and which goes with what dish.
Probably the best things about shopping for food in Korea, other than the glorious product packaging, are the “events” and the free samples. Sometimes each aisle will have a free sample, from kimchi to fried sausage or spam. And the events are constant, we say “buy one get one free.” They say “1+1 Event”. I still find it difficult to get only one toothbrush at a time.
Beondegi (Silkworm Pupae) in South Korea, by Marie of Be Marie Korea
After living for a while in South Korea, I’m used to most of the food and find the cuisine quite delicious. There are only a couple of dishes that I really don’t like and will never eat. One of these is beondegi or boiled silkworm pupae. You’ll find this snack canned in local supermarkets as well as fresh at any street food market. To me it just smells and tastes really weird. I tried it when I first came to South Korea three years back, but I have never gotten used to it. Beondegi became popular in Korea during the 2nd World War as it has excellent nutritional value and was widely available when other food was scarce. A can of beondegi at a supermarket costs around 2000 krw, and it’s about the same at the Myeongdong street food and night market.
Coconut Worms in Vietnam, by Josh and Sarah from Veggie Vagabonds
For us, one of the highlights of adventuring to foreign lands is experiencing supermarkets and the bizarre products they have on the shelves. In Vietnam, you’re absolutely spoiled for choice. And this is in supermarkets; go to one of the local street markets and things get even more extreme. One of the things that really caught our eye was the first time we saw packaged coconut worms in the chilled section of a supermarket in Hanoi. A pack of them, wrapped in clingfilm and for a cheap price, right next to the regular meats.
If you’ve not seen coconut worms before, they’re a form of beetle larvae which look like huge maggots. Beetles lay their eggs inside coconuts and the larvae grow inside. They ruin the coconut, but the worms are a delicacy to the Vietnamese who eat them in a number of ways. They are becoming more popular with tourists. Sometimes they’re fried, sometimes fermented in stew and sometimes eaten raw. We’re vegan (here’s our Vegan in Vietnam Guide) so they weren’t appealing to us, but in Southern Vietnam they’re highly sought after as it’s believed they enhance men’s sexual abilities!
Snake Wine in Vietnam, by Ben at Horizon Unknown
Shopping in Vietnam can provide you with plenty of memorable sights, even at the local markets and grocery stores. While this tourist hotspot is known for many things, shopping was always interesting. That is especially true when you first encounter snake and scorpion wine, which I first encountered during a free walking tour of Hanoi. Clear glass bottles of these wines are for sale throughout the markets and grocery stores of Vietnam. Filling the gaps between the snake and scorpions is a white wine-type alcohol that soaks in the flavor, and there is usually some sort of spices added to the mix. While this drink is certainly unique, at least to an Australian like me, you can find it in many shops around the country.
A word of warning: if you want to try this beverage while in Vietnam, know that some of these wines can be watered down. This watering down lowers the alcohol percentage and won’t preserve the snakes and scorpions. This lack of preservation causes the animals to decompose—not great for drinking.
Fruit Syrups from India, by Somnath Roy from Travel Crusade
The most interesting items that stole my attention in foreign grocery stores was the syrups made of strawberry and green mango. They are stored and sold in glass containers capable of holding quantity up to 1 liter. These syrups are mostly available in the summer season as they are the perfect soothers and refreshers to keep us cool. They are normally mixed with water and one teaspoon of sugar. They have the real flavors of strawberry and green mango, which are perfect for mocktails to serve during the scorching summers.
The Tiny Grocery Shops of Kathmandu, Nepal, by Michelle from Full Time Explorer
Being an American, I’m used to going to the grocery store, buying a cart full of food, then heading home until next week. Something I found intriguing about living in Kathmandu, Nepal, is how every food item seems to have a separate store. Food shopping for one meal involves going to at least five different locations. We have a dairy store, a fish shop, a chicken butcher, a vegetable stand, a fruit stand, a tea shop, a spice shop, and more. I think Americans are often in a rush, so we demand convenience, but in Nepal everyone has a pretty laid-back attitude. One of the first phrases I learned to say was “Ke garne?” which means “What to do?” If something isn’t working or is inconvenient, the people just shrug and say “Ke garne?” and let it go.
Another interesting insight is that there aren’t many chain stores. Most of the shops are owned by families who live nearby, so you aren’t buying from a corporation. You’re buying from your neighbor. It’s something I admire despite the hassle of running to five different stores every day.
What Oddities Can You Find in an African Supermarket?
Biltong in South Africa, by Alya of Stingy Nomads
Biltong is South Africa’s favorite meat snack. I remember clearly the day my husband first placed this peculiar item in our shopping basket in a supermarket in Cape Town. It is made by cutting meat into strips, marinating it with rock salt, pepper, coarsely ground coriander, and vinegar and just hanging it out to dry. Popular biltong is made from game such as kudu, springbok, and wildebeest, but the most common biltong found in South African supermarkets is made from beef—usually fillet, sirloin, or silverside—due to its lower price and widespread availability.
These pieces of meat hung out to dry can be seen in most supermarkets, where you can choose a piece according to dryness and taste, specifying a “wet” (moist), “medium,” or “dry” piece. Fat content is another criteria used to choose biltong; some customers prefer it with a lot of fat, while others like it as lean as possible. Voortrekkers, the Dutch settlers in South Africa, preserved their meat in this way when they migrated away from British rule in Cape, because there were no refrigerators in those days. The word biltong comes from the Dutch bil (“buttock””) and tong (“strip” or “tongue”).
Soya Mince in Lesotho, by Wendy of The Nomadic Vegan
When traveling in Lesotho and in other southern African countries, I was surprised to see row upon row of boxed “soya mince” on the grocery store shelves. It’s a powdered soy product that, when mixed into a sauce, clumps together and resembles minced meat. Plant-based meat alternatives like this are becoming common in Western countries, because many in the West are adopting vegan or vegetarian diets or at least trying to cut down on their meat consumption. In Lesotho, on the other hand, the concepts of veganism and vegetarianism are virtually unheard of. So why are these products so popular? It was explained to me that soya mince is both cheaper and more practical than meat. It is shelf stable and doesn’t need to be refrigerated, which is a huge advantage for people living with a sporadic electricity supply, or perhaps no electricity at all.
As vegans traveling in Africa, my husband and I found our options for eating out were somewhat limited at times, so we decided to give the soya mince a try. We added it to a tomato-based sauce with beans and ate it over pasta. It was pretty tasty!
Braid Spray in Namibia, by Shara of SKJ Travel
When traveling in rural northern Namibia, I’ve noticed a paucity of hair care products. In America, it’s overwhelming the number of shampoos, conditioners, hairsprays, gels, coloring kits, etc. you see on the shelves, but not here. However, the one hair product on every shelf, even in the small convenience stores, is braid spray. I had to read the bottle to figure out what it was. I’d never heard of it. Simply enough, it’s a spray to condition the scalp and keep braids or hair extensions (and “all kinds of bonded hair”) soft and supple. In a region where so many of the women, and even men, wear their hair in elaborate braided styles, it makes perfect sense! It’s also an important part of the African Hair Salon.
Going into grocery stores in northwestern Namibia also happens to be one of my very favorite activities because they are a concentration of great diversity in a very small area. Nowhere else have I been where in one check-out line there can be people dressed in regular Western clothes (shorts, tee-shirts, flip-flops); women dressed in brightly colored, long hoop skirts with huge, puffy, fabric hats like bullhorns; men in “skirts” fashioned from two pieces of brightly printed fabric secured by a rope around their waist; and women in stiff cowhide skirts with bangles and jewelry, barefoot and completely topless. I laugh trying to imagine this in America!
South American Supermarkets: What’s Different?
An Eye-Opening Tea in Peru, by Carol Perehudoff from Wandering Carol
“Is this what I think it is?” I asked my friend, as we stared at a grocery store shelf in Lima, Peru. In front of us was a long row of packages of coca leaf tea. “Does coca leaf tea contain, like, cocaine?” Short answer, kind of. But you can’t equate the leaf with the drug. While you can’t make cocaine without coca leaves, the tea is such a mild stimulant that it’s more akin—as one Peruvian told me—to having a cup of coffee.
Said to quell hunger, quench thirst, and help with pain and fatigue, coca leaf tea is also widely used as a cure for altitude sickness. It’s especially popular in the Andes, and when I flew to Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, it was freely offered at the hotel I stayed at. This was a good thing as the altitude sickness hit me like a sledgehammer, and I’m always up for trying to stay healthy while traveling. After sipping a cup, I can’t say I felt any effects, but now, if I saw it in a grocery store, I wouldn’t blink an eye.
Dulce de Leche in Colombia, by the team at One Weird Globe
Strolling through the Colombian megasupermarket Éxito, past a dozen Fabuloso floor cleaner products decorating the aisle in more colors than a Pride Parade, and not far from the brick-like sugar called panela (coming in blocks ranging from paperweight to paving stone), you eventually come across arequipe. This Colombian delight is caramelized and goes by the names of dulce de leche and manjar in other regions of Latin America. Its uses are general, potentially replacing both chocolate and Nutella. In Colombia, you can find arequipe scattered about the grocery store, in tins beside the sweeteners, in plastic bags by the refrigerated dairy, in personal-sized tubs with the snacks, and in cookies in the bakery section. Mmmm…. alfajores.
Careful of those chips. Make sure they’re not dulce de leche flavored. And compare prices before you buy that manjar! Products can be more expensive when bought in bulk in Peru—due to the extra packaging, it was explained to me. If you end up in Juan Valdez (not Starbucks), snag one of those iced arequipe (not caramel) macchiatos. Here’s our list of Hostels in Medellin.
And Even in the Caribbean…Grocery Store Tourism Can be a Thing
Old Amsterdam Cheese in Aruba, the Dutch Caribbean, by Michele from A Taste for Travel
If you’re browsing the deli and dairy sections at a grocery store on the Caribbean island of Aruba, you’ll quickly notice that the aisles are packed with a vast assortment of Dutch goods including drop (licorice), cold cuts, and cheeses. The reason is that, along with the Netherlands, Curaçao, and Saint Maarten, Aruba is one of four countries that are members of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This Dutch influence, along with contributions from 90 other nationalities that have left their mark on the island’s culture and identity, have helped shape Aruba into one of the Caribbean’s most diverse culinary destinations.
While the glossy red rounds of Edam cheese you’ll see are a key ingredient in Aruba and Curacao’s national dish of Keshi Yena (a rind of Edam cheese stuffed with spiced meat), one of the most popular cheeses in grocery stores in Aruba is Old Amsterdam Aged Gouda Cheese. It comes available in sizes from bite size portions to huge pizza-sized wedges, designed as crowd-pleasers. Not only does it come wrapped in almost indestructible packaging that makes it very portable, the intense flavor of this yellow gouda is so full of character, it’s a popular food in Aruba for taking to parties and get togethers. For visitors, it makes a delicious and affordable snack to enjoy during Happy Hour at your condo rental or during a day at the beach. When your visit to Aruba is over, if you haven’t yet eaten your fill of Old Amsterdam Cheese, you can pick some up at the Queen Beatrix International Airport in Oranjestad. Make a stop in the Duty Free area where certain shops have whole sections devoted to Dutch cheeses and meats.
Being a Tourist in an American Supermarket
Of course, what travelers may find odd or funny in a foreign grocery store is not at all weird to the locals. It’s simply what they eat. And we should remember that things we find commonplace at home, might seem distinctly weird to a visitor from abroad. Do you wonder what things would jump out at a foreign visitor to the U.S.? Like how much people on the western side of the Atlantic like dry cereal!
Packaged Cereal in the USA, by Annick from The Common Traveler
Are you a breakfast eater? And when you eat breakfast, is it cereal that you’re eating? If you visit the United States of America, a walk into any grocery store reveals America’s fascination and love of all things cereal. When I was growing up in South America, we rarely ate cereal, and the cereal we ate was either Rice Krispies or Puffed Rice. But in America, you will find large aisles devoted to shelves upon shelves of any type of cereal you can imagine (and many you wouldn’t have dreamt of!)
Apparently, in the USA cereal is not just a breakfast food. Many people eat cereal for lunch or dinner, or even as a snack, with milk or dry. And there are multiple versions of some favorite cereals. For example, I counted 16 types of Cheerios on the supermarket shelves: Original, Honey Nut, Maple, Blueberries, Oat Crunch, Peach, Apple Cinnamon, Multi Grain, Chocolate, Fruity, Frosted, Banana Nut, Very Berry, Pumpkin Spice, Honey Nut Medley Crunch, and Chocolate Peanut Butter. And that’s just one type of cereal! Healthier, more conscious versions of cereal are available, or you can select from the opposite spectrum with a shameless version of cookies or candy bars in your cereal bowl. You won’t believe the cereal variety available in the U.S. compared to other countries!
There you have a taste of some of the things you might (or might not) find odd when you let yourself be a grocery store tourist while on your travels. Wherever you go, a trip to the supermarket can be an entertaining and culturally enlightening experience.
Have you come across some treasures of your own while on a grocery store tour? Tell us about it in the comments!