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supermarket aislesWe all know you can learn a lot about a person from his work desk, her reading list or even their medicine cabinet. But can you apply similar rules to a country and its people?

Sure. Just check out the extensive frozen food aisles in most U.S. supermarkets, and you’ll quickly realize how much most Americans love to save time by relying on easy, convenient, premade food. So what can supermarkets tell you about people in other countries?

Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic and frequent contributor to IndependentTraveler.com, was surprised to learn that not all Italians spend hours making pasta by hand.

“The vast array of premade pasta at a Tuscany co-op certainly disabused us of the notion that all Italian hand-make theirs,” she wrote on IndependentTraveler.com’s Facebook page.

Eating Well and Staying Active While Traveling

I discovered that Romanians are not above making fun of their vampiric association when I found a potato chip dipping sauce called “Let’s Dip Dracula.”

When we asked our readers on Facebook what they’ve learned about a country on their foreign supermarket forays, people were quick to chime in.

Sheila of Sheila’s Travel Page had a similar epiphany to Brown’s. “I assumed that everywhere tropical used fresh squeezed juice, but in the grocery store there was a whole aisle of Tetra Pak juice. People living in the tropics don’t have time to squeeze juice, just like me!”

How to Save Money on Food When You Travel

And Tamara M. Goldstein wrote that visiting supermarkets abroad reminds her that most people in the world don’t have huge refrigerators. “In the USA we have so many sizes of one product; however, in most European countries there is one, maybe two sizes of a product,” she wrote. “They don’t have gigantic refrigerators like we have nor do they have walls filled with cupboards.”

Do you visit supermarkets in the countries you visit? What have you noticed?

— written by Dori Saltzman

airport shoppingPeople who discover that I travel often, long-haul mostly and for weeks at a time, say, sagely, during cocktail chat, “You must be a genius at packing.” Actually … no. I’m a graduate of the school of “But what if I need…”

As a packer, I’ve cut back on the books, thanks first to Kindle and now to iPad, though not so much when it comes to movies (Netflix doesn’t transfer out-of-country). Fashion-wise, I have found ways to maximize variety while minimizing outfits. But I’ll confess: Give me too much time in an airport and all hell breaks loose.

On a recent vacation jaunt from Newark to Helsinki, which took a whopping 22 hours thanks to late departures and missed connections, my most egregious problem was neither sleep deprivation nor travel annoyance. It was the extra time for shopping.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Once I got bored with sitting in the Newark lounge, it occurred to me that I could buy presents. In the airport’s expansive mall, I found a slinky New York-themed T-shirt for my teenage niece, a Big Apple-decorated onesie for the latest addition to my spouse’s Finnish family, and a couple (okay, a bulky wodge) of magazines to support me through the three-week-long English-language desert that is a vacation in Finland.

And that was just Newark. Once we arrived in Frankfurt, where we’d just missed our connecting flight and had four bleary hours to kill, the airport’s liquor stores offered quite the bargain-hunger’s justification. Finland’s taxes on alcohol make otherwise reasonable prices for wine, vodka and Champagne ridiculously expensive, so we loaded up. My husband’s impulse purchase of German sparkling wine put us over the top.

The Ultimate Travel Packing Guide

Suddenly, we were carting seven bags of carry-on stuff onto an airplane (these in addition to the two very chunky suitcases, full of American gourmet items, DVD’s and other necessities, that we’d already checked). Boarding the two-hour flight from Frankfurt to Helsinki, I felt like — to paraphrase my Finnish husband’s charming interpretation of American aphorisms — one of the “Beverly Hilly-Billies.”

So no, I am not a great packer. I will invariably have too much of one thing and not enough of another. But I can offer one silver lining: the things you scramble to buy because you don’t pack well will be the souvenirs you remember the most.

— written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

morocco medina marketEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

For some travelers, haggling is a fine art, honed over years of delicate negotiations and represented by a cabinet full of souvenirs purchased for a song. But for the rest of us — well, sometimes the rest of us could use a little haggling help.

If you often find yourself spending more than you intended, either because you’re afraid to offend a merchant or because you simply covet that hand-carved Buddha statue too much to let it go, you might want to try the following clever trick, taken from our Shopping Abroad: A Traveler’s Guide:

“If you’re paying in cash, set aside the money that you’re prepared to spend and keep it in your wallet; move the rest of your bills elsewhere. This serves two purposes. You can give the merchant visual evidence that this amount is the most you can possibly pay (‘See? This is all I have!’), and it also helps prevent you from going over your own self-imposed price limit.”

First, of course, you need to decide what amount you’re willing to spend. Shop around for a few days before committing to buy; this will give you a sense of the average going rate for the item you’re looking to purchase. Then take a hard look at your budget and set your limit. The final piece of the puzzle: Always be willing to walk away.

What’s your best haggling trick?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

The Mall of America is the largest shopping and entertainment complex in the U.S. It spans some 4.2 million square feet, and is big enough to house 258 Statues of Liberty, 37 Boeing 747′s, seven baseball stadiums — and a theme park. Forty million shoppers descend on the place annually — enough travelers to fill the more than 50 hotels that ring its perimeter.

mall of america

You’d think that something this massive has to include anything you can imagine. Right? Well, almost. On a recent visit to the Mall of America, it was indeed comprehensive. Beyond the usual suspects — stores, restaurants and a food court featuring every fried food under the sun — there’s also a flight simulator, mini-golf course and mirror maze. And the mall is home to Herobot 9000, a 34-foot-tall LEGO robot that holds the record for the world’s largest LEGO sculpture.

Bloomington, Minnesota’s mega-mall is more mid-size town than shopping center, with movie theaters, an aquarium, a comedy club, an amusement park and even a police station with its own K-9 unit. You can get married at the mall. You can go to school at the mall. And somewhere in between your high school graduation and the happiest day of your life, you can shop for new kicks at Lady Foot Locker or purchase “pajama jeans” in the As Seen on T.V. store.

Herobot 9000

More than 5,000 weddings have taken place at the Mall of America’s Chapel of Love, a one-stop shop that sells affordable wedding attire, photography services and flowers.

Minnesota students can earn their high school degrees at the Metropolitan Learning Alliance, a campus neatly tucked next to Dollar Tree. The high school accepts students from several local school districts and offers business-oriented learning programs including, fittingly, retail management. One wonders if M.L.A. students bother to hang out at the mall on weekends like typical Midwestern teenagers.

Basically, all this arena needs is a funeral home and some kind of elementary school program, and a dedicated mall rat could live his entire life within its wide walls.

And get this: Such a scenario isn’t a pipe dream. The mall is expanding to nearly double its current size in approximately 10 years, increasing its area by 5.6 million square feet. In addition to more shops, restaurants and theaters, the extra space will make room for the Mayo Clinic Health Experience, an interactive wellness center that will offer educational classes on fitness (slated to open July 2011).

Nevertheless, I think the mall may be missing a thing or two. Here at IndependentTraveler.com, we’ve debated the pros and cons of features like a clown college and Venetian-style canals (with gondolas a la Las Vegas). Wouldn’t it be nice if you could drop Sir Barksalot off at an in-mall pet obedience school and shop while he’s put through the paces? And we can’t really think of a store it’s missing — aside from Wal-Mart.

You tell us: What would be your must-haves at your ideal mall?

— written by Caroline Costello