Broadening the mind
Updated: Mar 25
Confession first. This blog entry was going to be about international prices. Instead it turns out to be about international exchange rates.
Some background. I’ve been travelling a fair bit lately in four countries: France, Britain, Australia and Singapore. I kept all our credit card receipts for the last few months with the idea of comparing prices in different countries. Much good that did me.
So let’s set a few rules. I will focus on three types of supplier: supermarkets, petrol stations and restaurants. I’ll convert all prices to US dollars. That means at today’s exchange rates one British pound is worth US$1.22, one Australian dollar is worth 66 US cents, one Euro is worth US$1.07 and one Singapore dollar is worth 75 US cents. It wasn’t always like this. When we lived in London 15 years ago we would roughly convert Singapore dollars to sterling by dividing by three: S$3 = £1. Today, post Brexit and other assorted horrors, it’s significantly worse than S$2 = £1.
How do the four countries compare? For me, on anecdotal evidence, I’d say the answer is this: Australia and Singapore are horribly expensive, Britain is fairly expensive but cheaper than Australia and Singapore, and France isn’t too bad, all things considered.
In Australia my most expensive meal was at Bathers, a smart and fashionable restaurant overlooking Sydney Harbour at Balmoral Beach. For an excellent lunch for two I paid AU$399 (US$272). I don’t have details of what we ate and drank.
However I do have details for a less fashionable restaurant Plonk, also overlooking the harbour and not far away from Bathers. The total cost of lunch for two was AU$309.22 (US$211,28) This bought us:
2 x Margarita AU$39.60 US$27.07
1 x scallops $26.40 $18.03
1 x coco prawns $27.50 $18.79
1 x bottle OK white $66.00 $45.06
2 x fish of the day $83.60 $57.09
1 x ice cream $16.50 $11.27
1 x crème brulée $16.50 $11.27
1 x mineral water $12.00 $8.19
1 x liqueur coffee $16.50 $11.27
1 x long black $4.62 $3.15
The best value we had in Sydney was a Greek restaurant called Kazzi, more or less over the road from Bathers and also with harbour views. Delicious lunch for two cost AU$122.70 (US$83.62). The most expensive item on the bill was a bottle of imported Greek retsina at AU$32 (US$ 21.82).
We didn’t eat out in Singapore. However we did in the UK. Two places at the top and bottom of the price range are worth mentioning. In south east London four of us ate magnificently at a Georgian (ie Russian/Ukrainian) restaurant called Kartuli for £129.83 (US$156.83), while in Plymouth four of us ate well if unspectacularly at fashionable Fletcher’s for £236.25 (US$285.28).
France? It’s a shame to even ask. Last Friday we ate at Medo, a middle-range Oléron restaurant catering mostly to office workers at lunch time. Dinner cost two of us 116.40€ (US$123.68) and for this we had a drink each before we ate, and shared a bottle of good red wine to accompany the meal plus a glass of rosé for Roslyn. We had a shared platter as a starter, followed by two substantial main courses (mine was a 350g/13oz entrecote steak grilled medium rare — or à point, as the French would say — while my wife had coquilles St Jacques). We finished with a shared cheese plate and a dessert each, followed by coffee for two.
At 116.40€ this was expensive by Medo standards. They have a superb set menu at lunch time at 11.90€ (US$12.65) for two courses and 13.90€ (US$14.77) for three courses. If you don’t go mad with the booze, two people can eat well for about 60€ (US$63.78). The food is good, by the way.
Of course France can disappoint too. After a certain amount of prodding from the Guide Michelin we decided to try La Mediteranée in Paris’s 6th arrondissment. The review read: “In this restaurant, opposite the Odéon theatre, the wall paintings evoque the Mediterranean while the largely fish menu speaks with a strong South of France accent. Great care is taken over the choice of ingredients, as it is with the specialities of the restaurant: bouillabaisse, carpaccio of sea bass, snapper steeped in honey.” Here’s what we ate, and what it cost.
2 x house cocktails 28€.00¢
2 x mackerel (starters) 26€.00¢
1 x bouillabaisse 38€.00¢
1 x coquilles St Jacques 38€.00¢
1 x île flottant 12€.00¢
1 x tarte poire 14€.00¢
1 x glass of Bandol rosé 12€.00¢
1 x glass of Viognier white 14€.00¢
1 x 75 cl Evian water 8€.00¢
2 x coffee 10€.00¢
The whole meal cost 196€ (US$206.92) which is right up in Plonk country, and certainly no better. For ambiance, I’d prefer to look at Sydney Harbour than to have an uninterrupted view of the Odéon cinema.
Now if the good people of Singapore feel short-changed after being slagged off for living in an expensive city, let me give an example. Confession first. This trip we never got beyond Changi Airport. Nevertheless on the way back to France my wife remembered two young kids who would need a gift on our return. She bought two fun plastic and empty pencil cases at a Changi Airport newsagent. The price? S$38.80 each, or US$56.62 for two empty plastic pencil cases. Say no more!
Except it doesn’t end there. Roslyn also bought a 180 gram (6.3 ozs) mixed packet of strawberry and raspberry cookies. This was a sentimental buy: our precocious children, having once travelled with us to Australia, would endlessly ask to be brought back cookies from Singapore airport. Roslyn’s minuscule pack cost S$19.90, or US$14.81. Wow!
We rented no fewer than four cars in Australia, two in Sydney, one in Perth and one in Broome. I mention this because Sydney is in the state of New South Wales and Perth and Broome are in Western Australia. This matters because the various Australian states set their own sales tax, and the price of petrol varies from state to state. I usually take my Prius to the UK and I usually fill the tank at least once when I’m there. So Australian, French and UK prices are based on recent personal experience. The French price is incredibly low because a grade of petrol rated as E85 is now widely available here. You’ve probably come across E5 and E10, petrol with 5% and 10% ethanol respectively. So E85 presumably has something like 85% ethanol, which makes it very cheap. All petrol in France and the UK is unleaded, and 95 octane and 98 octane petrol in France are about twice as expensive as E85. France is now slightly cheaper than the UK for ordinary unleaded. Singapore? I had to trust the internet. Here’s the comparison. All prices are per litre:
Sydney AU$1.66 US$1.13
Perth AU$1.96 US$1.34
Broome AU$2.33 US$1.59
UK £1.55 US$1.86
France 1€.9¢ US$1.15
Singapore S$2.65 US$1.98
By the way, if you can’t handle litres and need to think in gallons instead, you can get the price of a US gallon of petrol at these various places by multiplying the litre price by 3.78. Also BTW, see what I mean about Singapore prices? Taxis used to be cheap in Singapore. Not any more, thanks to the price of petrol!
It’s hard to know how to do this, because we use supermarkets in different ways in different countries. In Australia and the UK we sometimes are self-catering and buy food to eat in the normal way, and sometimes buy stuff we can’t get in France to take home. So in the UK we buy ginger beer and — believe it or not — Dijon mustard (France ran out late last year). In Australia we buy Vegemite and Hoadley’s Violet Crumble Bars, a childhood confectionary passion. For one reason or another, I’ve found common ground in three items: orange juice, fizzy water and limes. Once again, I’ve relied on the internet for Singapore prices in the Giant supermarket chain (the biggest supermarket chain in Singapore). Let’s compare:
Australia UK France Singapore
AU$7.45* (US $2.48/L ) £1.30/L (US$1.59) 1€,49/L (US$1.60/L) S$1.10/L US$0.82
Sparkling mineral water
Australia UK France Singapore
AU$2.14/L (US $1.42) £0.30/L (37c/L) 1€.30/L (1.40/L) S$0.75 (50c)
Australia UK France Singapore
AU$1.33 each (US88c) 19p each (23c) 37¢ ea (42c) S$1.00 (66c)
*This two-litre bottle of orange juice was bought at Richies supermarket in Spit Junction, Sydney on 17 January 2023. The price is a bit high, but I wrote to Richies at their contact e-mail address on 23 March 2023, suggesting they tell me about a cheaper alternative on sale in their chain. So far, no reply.
What can we conclude from all this? Not much about prices, I fear. The Australian dollar has collapsed alongside the UK pound while the Singapore dollar has reached for the sky, as has the US dollar. So what used to be cheap in Singapore isn’t any more. And what used to seem cheap in Australia looks bad now after inflation has had its wicked way. That’s about it, except to say I was relieved to see France’s clear lead in the other two categories wasn’t repeated in the supermarkets. and Singapore's supermarket prices compared well with the others No bias or fake news here, happily.
Finally, and without any comparisons, we caught the bus home from Surgères railway station to St Pierre d'Oléron bus station, a distance of about 75km. The journey takes about 90 minutes, and for this we paid 2€ 30 (US$2.48) each. As they say in America, I've got the receipts.
Meanwhile … enjoy your international shopping! And eating. And driving. But watch your wallet!