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Tout de Sweet

As an expat American teen growing up in foreign lands, Gillian Telling learned just about everything she needed to know about the ways of the world by eating candy. Lots of candy.

Photography Ellie Clayman

The flag of Finland, home of salmiakki salty licorice

IN 1990, WHEN I WAS 13, my dad’s company transferred him to its office in Brussels, Belgium.
My parents were thrilled about the move, partly because they saw it as a great opportunity to raise their four daughters overseas and introduce us to the world in all its cultural complexity. They thought living abroad might teach us something about life that our suburban existence in Louisville, Kentucky, never could. And they were right—though not in quite the way they’d hoped.

For instance, during our first year abroad, my sister Mary and I took a train to Vienna, Austria, to compete in a swim championship with our new school. When we arrived, our coach gave us three hours to explore the city before meeting up with our host families. Groups of excited kids ran off to check out the churches, giggle at boys and buy postcards of the Alps. Not Mary and me. We had something a bit more appetizing in mind. Looking around the grand central square, we simultaneously spotted the only thing in this beautiful baroque city that held the slightest allure: a candy shop. I grabbed my sister by the hand and we ran for it, scattering pigeons along the way.

It was like stepping into a miniature Willy Wonka factory. Everywhere I looked were bins brimming with multicolored gummies of all shapes and species, boxes of chocolate truffles, crates of Kinder Eggs, and— joy of joys!—an entire corner devoted to black licorice of every variety, including my very favorite kind: a super-salty concoction called salmiakki, which I’d seen only once, on a trip to Helsinki, Finland, the year before.

I placed every Austrian schilling I had on the counter and walked out with a huge cone-shaped bag full of licorice, chocolates, gummies and oversize Toblerone bars. (Back then, Toblerones were the ultimate “I’ve been traveling through the Alps!” souvenir; now a smaller, demystified version is discounted at nearly every big-box store in America.)

While my classmates tromped through the tourist sites, my sister and I sat on a bench outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where Mozart was married. (But who cared about Mozart? Was he sweet and edible? Nope.) We ate rhapsodically, our young bloodstreams humming with a dangerous concentration of cane sugar and cacao.

Vienna, we concluded, was awesome.

MY NAME IS GILLIAN, and I am an international candy freak. I have been for as long as I can remember. While most tourists like to experience a city by seeing the sights, eating the signature native dishes or meeting the locals, I go straight for the confections. Every town I visit, in every state, district and province in every country, I make a beeline for the sweet stuff. I’m living proof that it’s possible (though perhaps not recommended) to view the world through lollipop lenses.

As for the cultural stuff that my parents hoped would transform me, like Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina, into a worldly sophisticate, I was always fairly indifferent. During our seven years in Brussels, we visited Germany, Switzerland, France, Holland, Greece, Austria, England and (all too often) the seemingly pointless country of Luxembourg. We saw castle after castle, trudged through museums large and small, and attended workshops about various local customs, such as how the weavers in Bruges made their lace. Those musty-smelling tapestries and gloomy cathedrals? Ugh.

Nonetheless, we quickly mastered a crucial equation about tourism that made such trips tolerable: Sightseeing means gift shops, and gift shops equal candy. Whether we were sitting through the hellish three hours of Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London or watching my parents snap infinite photos of apses and Annunciations, we could generally count on getting a treat to compensate us for our hardship. On a visit to the Louvre, we bolted for the gift shop and loaded up on Stimorol chewing gum, lemon Tic-Tacs and gummies.

“What did you think of the museum?” Mom asked on the drive home.

“Great!” we exclaimed. “They had the coolest frogs!”

Haribo Gummy Frogs represent the summit of my candy obsession, the item against which all other candies are compared. (Once spotted mainly in France and Germany, these lovable amphibians have now, like Toblerone, colonized the States) They are probably also the main culprit in my tooth decay. Every year we lived abroad, we made a summer trip to the States, where our dentist lay in wait with his whirring drill. At last count, I have nearly as many fillings as I have teeth.

We also roamed beyond Europe— broadening our sweets horizon to include even more inscrutable confections. My dad often did business in Africa, so during school breaks we went with him on work trips to places like Egypt, Zimbabwe and Kenya. I’ll never forget visiting the pyramids, but what I remember most clearly about Egypt is the mysterious Arabic scrawl on the M&Ms bags I found in a dusty market in Cairo. I can still practically taste the Chiclets I bought in little packets from kids who swarmed us on the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe, and the intriguing Chupa Chup flavor, chocovanilla, that I spotted in a gas station in Kenya.

When I was 14, we moved to Tokyo and spent a month living out of a hotel, which meant ready access to a gift shop. Tokyo added a whole new twist to my sweets obsession. To start with, Japan is the world capital of strange candy. My sisters and I puzzled over the selections for hours. Was that Sweet Tart–like object a steering wheel or a space ship? A horse or race car? Japanese confectioners are fond of hilarious marketing schemes and seem to possess questionable transliteration skills, so it was often hard to know exactly what we were getting. But who could resist a package proclaiming “Happy Good Choco Fun!” with a koala on the wrapper? Some local flavors (sour plum, for instance, and milk) were too odd even for me. Among my favorites: creamy Chelsea toffees, grape Hi-chews, green tea, cola, lychee and melon gummies, and a sugarcane hard candy that tasted exactly like hardened Karo’s corn syrup.

I’m a grown woman now, and though I can easily purchase all the candy I could choke down, my tastes, thankfully, have matured. I’ve come to learn that we live in a world of consequences—Type 2 diabetes, for instance, and candy-induced obesity, and my own mouthful of vintage fillings that sparkle like tiny metal bonbons when I open wide. My obsessions these days lean toward snowboarding and mountain biking. Occasionally, I’ll indulge my old habits at home or work, but now mostly I’m only tempted when traveling—the cravings perhaps triggered as much by nostalgia as appetite.

Early last summer, my boyfriend and I went to a wedding in a quaint seaside town in Somerset, England. When he suggested we have tea, I spied a candy shop and, almost by reflex, cried, “Scones can wait!” Within minutes, I was dipping a black licorice stick into a tube of tangy sherbet powder and licking the end. In a Proustian flash, I was transported back to a class trip to London when I was a girl, licking the same sherbet powder off the same black licorice stick. Sweet!

I’m often teased about my habit, but I don’t mind. Shopping for local sweets still somehow brings me a more intimate understanding of a foreign place than anything else. There’s something deeply primal about a nation’s confections. They offer clues about the psychology of a place, its particular notions of pleasure and joy and fun. More important, perhaps, is the way such simple indulgences transcend politics and borders. Sweets are universal. Come to think of it, some candy diplomacy might be just the balm for the various conflicts bedeviling the world these days. Anyway, just something to chew on…

A contributor to Rolling Stone, Maxim and Details, Gillian Telling currently owes her dentist $4,000.

2 Responses to “Tout de Sweet”

  1. Leah Says:
    May 3rd, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    So true! My personal favorite – still hard to get in the U.S. – from Austria was Mozart chocolate… the domed chocolates with an internal dome layer of pistachio and cherry, so good! Mmmm.

    My other favorite is the very best chocolate from Switzerland: not any of the expensive name brands that most people know about (in my year there I tried all of those, I assure you!) but the Coop grocery store brand of champagne truffles. Oh that was heaven. Mmmmmmmmm.

  2. Doug Willens Says:
    May 5th, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    I agree with Gillian, while I did not travel the world until I was an adult myself and my four siblings were great connoisseurs of candy. Not only that but our Father was a dentist!! We were never denied candy, except as a punishment and never had an above average amount of cavities.

    But as an adult I have discovered a country that has the most sweets ever and this country is the last place one would think of as having a large variety, it is India. One evening about 10 years ago I ate dinner at a great Indian restaurant in Los Angeles called India's Oven (this was prior to the LA riots). After dinner we were outside of the restaurant and we noticed an Indian sweet shop next door. Neither of us were familiar with this concept. So, we went in and asked what are Indian sweets? OMG! I thought the owner was going to kiss me; he had the biggest grin on his face. I was then given every child’s dream, A TASTE OF EVERYTHING IN THE SHOP! He explained and I quote “There are over 5,000 different kinds of sweets in India”! Well, he had me sold. I tried about 25 different kinds of sweets and while they all were not what one would call candy, I was not about to split hairs here. But, there was a tray on the top of one of the counters that he did not give me a sample of and of course I asked what is that? He replied “Oh, that is sweeter than sweet”. It was to become my favorite Indian Sweet called “jalaibi”.

    So, if you like sweets and I hope that Gillian reads this; you need to explore the strange and immense world of Indian sweets.