Living Expat – Large Grocery Stores

Standing in the aisle of a large grocery store, liberally spraying air freshener, I am again reminded of different the most simple activities are when you live middle class expat in a small town in the Middle East. Shopping here is far more interactive than the USA. You want to know what a soap, air freshener, shaving cream, scented talc or body wash smells like? Open it! Take a sniff – spray some around. No problem.

And of course you are buying air fresheners because you need them. Old air conditioners, colleagues who smoke, overuse of cleaning products – the only defense is finding a good water-based, pump-spray air freshener. The culture in general is ‘scent based’ as all men and women leave the house wearing either perfume/ cologne or clothes which have been ‘smoked’ with scented incense. During one visit to my Omani neighbor, we tried out a selection of 15 different incenses, small chips of wood infused with scented oils which are placed on a small piece of smokeless charcoal to produce great wafts of perfumed smoke. This is not a culture for people with allergies!

In most large grocery stores, the aisle with cheap ($3-$10) bottles of perfume is located near the entrance and you walk up, grab a bottle off the shelves, or open a package to try a perfume not on display, spray yourself liberally, then start your shopping.

Next to the perfumes are the ‘personal products’ which is always fun. Men do most of the shopping so you will often see guys standing in front of the female deodorant or hair coloring sections picking up an item with one hand and talking loudly into a cell phone with the other. Men will sometimes take photos of several face creams, send them off and then wait for the answering message about which one to buy. As I am looking at shower gel, there is often a man standing disconsolately by the hair conditioners and body scrubs, waiting for instructions.

There are products you learn to avoid. Never buy anything by the company “American Garden” which is supposedly located in New York, New York but everything tastes like, to mix metaphors, something made by HAL for Major Tom. Everything is in the correctly-shaped bottle with the right color and consistency but the mustard/ mayonnaise/ tomato sauce tastes like the makers saw people using the sauce in a movie but have no idea what the flavor should be. I think they have one non-toxic substance and when it is dehydrated and dyed taupe/beige/brown it is bread crumbs and when it is mixed with water and red dye it is ketchup, etc.

It’s also best to avoid the ice cream section all together. No use to make yourself sad looking at the vast, delicious selection – all the ice cream has freezer burn. Whatever you buy, when you dig a spoon into it, you can hear the ice crystals cracking. No one here complains because they have never had normal ice cream – they think it’s supposed to have that consistency.  Of course with a company called “London Dairy,’ you aren’t much tempted anyways; the idea of cows in London producing yummy ice cream does not compute. The Americans sigh at the cute little Ben & Jerry containers with mournful faces, tears glistening in the corners of our eyes, but we don’t dare take the plunge.

The vegetable section is pretty safe – you can pick your own produce or ask one of the helpers: just point and say how much you want in, all measurements in kilos. Some people make a huge fuss – bossing around the clerks, “No, not THAT watermelon, THIS watermelon.” I want to kick them in the shins. Sometimes what’s on display is not fresh, so if you ask for some, for example, apples, they will disappear into the back to get you apples from the most recent delivery.

You can find the basics for Indian and Middle Eastern cooking: garlic, green peppers, limes, okra, ginger, chilies, fresh coconut and eggplant but things like carrots or large potatoes come and go. You can usually not find large onions (only shallots) but there are some new discoveries: jackfruit (yuck), that little fruit with black wiry hairs growing out of it which gives me nightmares, fresh lemongrass tired into bundles, various ‘gourds,’ bumpy cucumbers, locky (?) and aravi (?).

But despite the plethora of new and interesting vegetables and fruits, the biggest difference for me about shopping here is that it is very interactive. First, you need to check each product for the expiration date. I have bought all sorts of things from vinegar to sunflower oil to cake mixes to Pepsi, which were past the sell-by date. Things are put on the shelf and left until they sell. Sometimes in October you can find Valentine’s hearts the candy aisle.

Secondly, even if you only need two or three things, you should walk every aisle in the store as what’s on the shelves changes all time. You simply don’t know what will show up (garden gloves, windshield de-icer, hoisin sauce, mint plants) or what will disappear for months at a time (French’s mustard, Diet Coke, croutons, Swiss cheese). Suddenly all the stores will carry El Almendro products, absolutely fabulous almond candy from Spain, and then it will be gone forever. Also, given that few people who work in the store speak English, they can’t help you find things and will sometimes shelf things in odd places. No one knows the word ‘popcorn’ so you are on your own for finding that; when salsa appeared on the shelves a few years ago, it was usually mixed in with the spaghetti sauce. Ice tea mix is next to Tang, not in the tea aisle, and coconut milk is next to the salt.

So, although you might only need milk and eggs, it’s good to stroll around and see what’s new: did vanilla show up? Is there cranberry juice again? Has cheddar cheese arrived? You can’t rely on that what you saw before will ever be there again.

The constant flux has two effects. One is stockpiling. I make it a rule to never take ALL of anything, but I have been known to horde 10 cans of black beans and take most of the Bitter Lemons. The second is that over time you get a sense of what your friends like so there is a fair amount of calling and messaging friends to let X know that there’s root beer, Y know that there’s cherry yoghurt, Z know that there’s spelt bread and Christian expats are in contact (it’s all rather first cuckoo sighting for the Times) about when candy canes show up in December.