What gets my attention about being home isn’t the milk aisle. You know, that old stereotype of encountering 10 brands of milk in 14 sizes and 23 flavors with something like 47 different percentages of milkfat, comparing it to that glorified mythical third-world country you used to live in, where you just bought “milk” and things made sense and nothing was ever wrong, and then having a breakdown right there on the tile floor you never even noticed the color of before under florescent lights and then oh look, it’s that girl who used to bully you in high school, and you swore you’d come back from Africa and, amongst other things, impress all the hometowners with your international poise and experience, but clearly that’s not going to happen because “Jenny” the grocery stock girl who used to throw spit-balls at you is now watching you hyperventilate on the floor because you held the fridge door open too long staring at milk labels and now you’re worried about wasting the electricity and making the power go out as the cold air rushes out into your face and then you remember that this is America the power doesn’t usually randomly go out in the grocery store like it did back home and good GOD is that air cold—
No, that hasn’t happened yet. Mostly because I haven’t bought any milk yet.
These days I’m more of a yogurt person.
So I went to the Hannaford supermarket the other day, to buy the food my mother didn’t know to buy for me because she hasn’t been in any way responsible for feeding me for a couple of years now, because I’ve been in Africa. It’s the same Hannaford supermarket, minus a few renovations and re-organizations and name-changes, that I’ve been going to since I was 10. The fruit section hit me first with a cold wet blast, like always, fresh Maine apples shoved in your face in front of the dwindling last dregs of the slightly unfresh summer berries. The vegetables were shoved against the wall where they couldn’t offend anybody, and the more pricey fruits were brightly lit on tables in the center, so that you could still feel confident that you were shopping in the “healthy” section when it suddenly turned into the bakery, cheese, and precooked meals area. Yes, I’m sure these donuts are better for you, because they’re fresh and next to the pineapples. The tempura sushi, rotisserie chickens, and mozzarella sticks are all in line with the bananas, which are all green and bizarrely huge, because they are easy foods to prepare, or not prepare, compared to the spinach which I eventually found huddled in the corner next to the kale and “organic” basil. As I would later remember, no one wants to buy food they have to cook.
But none of this got to me, because it’s all stuff I remember from my childhood, even if it is a bit strange and tilted now from this angle. What got to me was this:
None of this stuff was outside.
I mean, yes, Africa has an indoor supermarket, sometimes, and sometimes even more than one. Not so much in the Zambian villages where you’re lucky to find food if you actually go to a village tuck shop (like a city newspaper kiosk, except made of grass or mud-brick and mostly selling sweets, biscuits, cell phone minutes (called “talktime”), and little plastic bags of sugar to put in your opaque local beer), but in the towns there were general stores and butcher shops that occasionally had meat and cheese, and “specialty” general stores that sometimes had tuna or Pringles or, on one memorable occasion, olive oil. In towns with more than one paved road and a stoplight (like Kasama, where I spent my 3rd-year assignment) they actually have SHOPRITE, a South-African grocery store chain built in the style of any large chain supermarket anywhere in the world, and, like in America, these stores were very much inside.
Sure, the Kasama supermarket maybe wasn’t the grand amusement park of all supermarkets, it wasn’t a Wholefoods knockoff (you had to go to Lusaka for that) and it didn’t sell novelty items like nutella or Doritos (again, Lusaka), the milk was often sour when you bought it, the freezer section rarely sold anything but frozen whole fish, favorite items like icing sugar or olive oil or sweet chili sauce would suddenly and randomly be out of stock just when you needed them, and worst of all there were “novelty items,” things like feta cheese that would show up quite by accident through a delivery error and you’d be excited but no one else would know what to make of it so when the cheese ran out or expired it would never show up again and all your dreams of happiness would be dashed to smithereens…but it was still a supermarket. It still had aisles and carts and cash registers, and a donut section and those same little fruit islands cooling the entrance, and even florescent lighting when the electricity was working.
But the point is, in Zambia, in addition to the regular globalized supermarket model, there would be a more traditional market sprawling from the entrance out into the parking lot and down the paved streets. The brick outer walls would be lined with tables selling watches and second-hand shoes knock-off cell phones. Women with plastic baskets on their heads would hustle between the eager crowd of smiling taxi drivers loitering at the store entrance to show you their supply of carrots and avocados. Women would sit on mats and tables at the parking lot gates selling tomatoes, onions, potatoes, cabbage. There were bananas inside the supermarket, green and absurdly large on those familiar universal fruit islands, but there were also small local-variety bananas in bunches on the side of the road. There was a bakery at the back of the supermarket that never had any bread, because early every morning bread-sellers would swarm the supermarket, buy everything they had, and spend all day outside the supermarket door re-selling that same bread for 50 cents more. The supermarket was indoors, sure, but the food, the world, the people, the culture, was all swarmed around the outside, waiting for you when you got outside.
The difference isn’t that American has supermarkets and the African continent does not. The difference isn’t even that the supermarkets are that different—walk into a supermarket in Lusaka and you will not know what country you are in, it could be anywhere in the whole world. The difference is that, in America, supermarkets generally tend to stay inside the supermarket. In Zambia, the market stretches out the door, into a crowd of eager taxi drivers who hustle every emerging shopper into their dilapidated cars, women carrying small local bananas in baskets on their heads, teenagers selling cell phones from their coat pockets, fresh enormous avocados and smiling faces and bootleg copies of the latest films. In Zambia, there are people outside the supermarket; in Zambia, when you finish buying your food, the world is out there waiting for you.
I didn’t freak out in the supermarket. I didn’t do more than roll my eyes at the lengthy and illegible ingredients list (how many cranberry juices actually have cranberries in them?), was only slowed down marginally by the inundation of brands and choices (when did Wheat Thins start carrying so many different flavors? What is that about?), laughed at the familiar 5 brands of milk and scoffed at the 20 overpriced types of yogurt, cooed a little at the familiar characters on the breakfast cereals and actually danced up and down a little in the potato chip aisle, and almost forgot to pay because I was so busy gaping at the absurd headlines on the tabloids, and all in all my first trip inside an American grocery store went off without a hitch. It was actually very nice to be in this familiar place again, with my familiar poptarts and Ben&Jerry’s ice cream. And unlike in my Zambian supermarket, I knew here that I’d be able to find what I was looking for, that there would be no empty space on the shelves where the olive oil should be, that there was no need to walk into a grocery store anxious that something would be missing or out of stock. At least here I knew I’d be able to find what I was looking for inside the grocery store.
And then I went outside, where in the huge paved arena the honking chrome reigned supreme, and watched the people rushing between headlights and yellow lines with their purchases, felt the heavy silence as a black SUV communed in hand signals with a woman hurrying past with her daughter, saw the absence of smiling faces and thought of the oversized bananas and tiny avocados in my bag, looked at the American Supermarket Outdoors and felt all that was missing.