Standing in the aisle of a large grocery store, liberally spraying air freshener, I am reminded of how different activities are when you live as a middle class expat in the Middle East. Shopping here is very interactive. 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 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 an Omani neighbor, we tried out a selection of 15 different ouds, 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 are always fun. Men often do the shopping so you will see guys standing in front of the female deodorant or hair coloring sections picking up an item with one hand and talking 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.
It’s best to avoid the ice cream section all together. No use to make yourself sad looking at the vast, delicious selection – the ice cream usually has freezer burn. Whatever you buy, when you dig a spoon into it, you can hear the ice crystals cracking. Some people think it’s supposed to have that consistency. Of course with an ice cream company called ‘London Dairy,’ you can resist temptation; the idea of cows in London producing yummy ice cream does not compute.
The fruit and vegetable section is very 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.
You can find the basics for Indian and Middle Eastern cooking: garlic, green peppers, limes, okra, ginger, chilies, fresh coconut and eggplant. Things like shallots or large potatoes are sometimes there, sometimes not, but there are always 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, which were past the sell-by date. Often items are put on the shelf and left until they sell so you can find Valentine’s hearts in August and chocolate rabbits in October.
And 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, stuffing). Suddenly all the stores will carry El Almendro (absolutely fabulous almond candy from Spain) or Almond Roca (absolutely fabulous almond candy) and then it will be gone forever. So, although you might only need milk and eggs, it’s good to stroll around and see what’s new: did vanilla flavoring show up? Is there cranberry juice again? Has fresh mozzarella cheese arrived? You can’t rely that what you saw before will ever be there again. Plus, what you are looking for might not be where you think it is. Ice tea mix is next to Tang, not in the tea aisle; coconut milk is next to the salt.
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 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 yogurt, Z know that there’s spelt bread and Christian expats are in contact (rather like the first cuckoo sighting for the Times) when candy canes show up in December.