I am not good at shopping for groceries. On the relatively rare occasions when I go to a grocery store in the United States, I wander the aisles in the disoriented manner of someone who cannot quite figure out why they are in this unusual setting. I don’t know where things are. Even my thorough list-making cannot rescue me from the craziness, which is probably magnified by the fact that I lack food preparation skills. The grocery store is probably the one place where I still consistently feel culture shock; I am overwhelmed by the size of the selection, the carts, the packages, the people.
Oddly enough, I love going into a grocery store in a different country. Somehow, the added strangeness turns my grocery disorientation into an adventure. I enjoy exploring what items are and are not available. I love the novel packaging, the unusual advertising choices, the challenge of figuring out what common good is being described in a language that I don’t know. Is this hair conditioner or body lotion or something very, very different?
While I am fairly accustomed to grocery shopping in Kenya at this point, it still presents these small adventures. Adding to the thrill of the hunt is the fact that an item that has consistently been stocked in the store may one day disappear completely. Diet soda? There will be none for at least two weeks. That cereal you used to buy every week? Never to be seen again. This creates an urgency that one must buy something if you see it and want it or ever might use it.
Random items will appear out of nowhere, never to make another appearance. Rice noodles? The double-sized espresso press? Belgian dark chocolate? Who knows how they arrived here, but it is almost guaranteed you will never see them again. Buy them now. Every expat that I know here has a story about the item-that-got-away. I still remember the time Philadelphia cream cheese suddenly appeared, triggering an expat community-wide phone chain and 24-hours of experimentation with making our own bagels.
Highlights from this week’s shopping trip in Eldoret….
Is this Sensodyne toothpaste? It resembles it, and the store’s display would indicate that it is, but I cannot read this writing. How willing am I to gamble on a type of toothpaste? (Very.)
I routinely buy this amaranth to mix with my morning oatmeal, but the package lists a host of outlandish claims. Will amaranth really cure herpes? Much myth-busting is needed here.
I seem to have developed a small addiction to pistachios. I thought this 6 weeks in Kenya would break that habit as I had not previously seen pistachios in any of the stores. Suddenly, they have pistachios available – but at a ridiculously high prices. The worst possible scenario for an addict…
I buy my fruits and vegetables at the open-air market, which is by far my favorite grocery-gathering spot. There is something about the colors and smells and the busyness of choosing and selling produce that makes me smile. I am also able to buy a ridiculous quantity of amazing fresh fruits for a very low price. This week, I took home 2 boxes of fruits and vegetables for under $30. How I love my mangoes… My housemates tease me about my ability to consume all of this produce before it goes bad (Until this week — see below — I could not refrigerate any of the produce, which is a challenge), but they marvel at my ability to come through week after week. With my limited cooking skills, the roasting of vegetables is my new area of expertise.
The thievery of olives. I did experience a sad first at the grocery store last week. One of my bags of groceries seems to have been stolen by one of the workers who helped me carry the groceries to the car. Sad, but true. I particularly mourned the loss of a jar of nice olives and a jar of almonds, both of which were treasures for which I paid dearly. I can only hope that he or his family enjoys them at least a little bit. Sigh.
This small sadness was much overwhelmed by the grocery news of the week at my house — we got a new, full-sized refrigerator!
I never knew that one could experience such refrigerator excitement, but after years of sharing a miniature refrigerator among 6-7 people, this radically changes one’s ability to store food. I bought 3 containers of yogurt in celebration! I might even be able to store a few produce items in the cooled interior. Yes, I was so inspired as to draft “An Ode to the Refrigerator”! (The mustaches are our magnets.)