My friend, Meagan, asked me to write her an “Australian Grocery Store Memoir.” Here’s my confession:
I prowl the aisles of a new supermarket, slightly overwhelmed.
I’ve been here before, these same aisles of this same Woolworths, but every time something else seems to jump out—I’m new to you!
And what are you? I respond by picking it up.
Feta and beet puree? And this, a pumpkin and cashew dip?
I hold one in each hand marveling.
I love beets. Vibrant. Robbins claimed them as Rasputin’s favourite. Why are beets so uncommon in my grocery store back home, treated like the awkward stepsister of root veg? And pumpkin (!), usually a sign of autumn, a seasonal treat, now so commonplace. How did it make it here, next to your average hummus or tzatziki? Does it not deserve special attention?
I give it the moment of significance it deserves, and then a minute more. I scan the ingredients, the nutrient content, scrutinize the advertising on the container and the tree logo. Mmm, looks delicious. This beet one would be especially good on a veggie sandwich. Where are they made? Here, well, Victoria. Made in Australia.
I turn them over, idly soaking them in. I should try making this at home sometime.
Then slide them back into the cooler.
You know, just looking things over. Perusing. Window shopping for condiments and cereal the way some people try on shoes.
Next aisle, artichoke hearts.
Try this one on for size, it says.
I stack it back on the shelf.
Maybe next time, if I’m feeling sassy. That’s a game-changer. Like the shoes that make an outfit, that ingredient makes a whole meal.
I pick a tin. Herring, product of Canada. For a moment I’m proud to be.
People don’t often browse in grocery stores. You’re supposed to go in with a purpose, breakfast, lunch, dinner or a weekly list, get the goods—bread, eggs, milk, chicken thighs, pasta sauce—scan which checkout line is the shortest, wonder WHY you ended up behind the lady with 20 different tins of cat food and if the guy behind you is having a party, making his girlfriend dinner or if he always eats such a fancy selection of cheese and olives (if so, we should be friends). You pass an eye over the tabloids, pay by credit, realize you forgot your bags but refuse both paper and plastic disposable ones, and so, armed with celery in one hand and an onion in each pocket, you juggle the rest of your food while walking to the car, remembering your keys are under the cans of chick peas which are under the loose apples all in a mess weighing down your purse. After spilling the armload onto the backseat—you’re homeward bound! to throw something together, or make a mess, either or both.
Well, that’s how I shop.
But I also browse.
I go up each aisle with at least one item in my basket to avoid suspicion, but not heavy things because I might be in here for a while and I want my hands free. I leave canned goods for the end. Lettuce and a box of crackers fit nicely.
I wander, reaching for items I have no intention of buying, cornering myself against the shelf so that buggies can roll by, and peer down at the treasure in hand. Pickled pork spread? What’s in here?! Is it actually pork? What do you eat this with? Where is this from? Why is it so expensive? The label gives me half the information I want, but I dream up answers to the rest of my questions. Ah, it’s probably a delicacy from France made from only the finest slice of pork. I roll the jar over. Oh, wait. First ingredient: Pork product. No organic back bacon here, it’s probably just the inner scrapings of pigs’ ears.
A shadow blocks the light as someone reaches for the peanut butter above me. (Because where else would pickled pork be but in the spread section?)
Oops, I apologize and shelve the item. Finished with this aisle, I turn to the next.
Browsing while traveling is especially satisfying. I travel the world through super markets. There I discover what makes the place run, literally, what these people fuel themselves on.
In Greece, the selection of olives and the enormous jugs of olive oil or blocks of feta you could buy in bulk; in Germany, the butcher and juice with spruedel—“schorle” and the fresh bread and bakeries; in SoCal, hot sauce and corn tortillas and the plethora of frozen yogurt cafes; in Costa Rica, the tropical fruit, the pre-packaged cookies and squeaky cheese; in Belgium, the waffles with chocolate and fries with mayo; in Nicaragua, the street food of plantain chips and fried chicken, or sugar-drinks, all of these served in plastic bags.
The food in Australia is not a far-stretch from Canadian mainstream but there is still a variety of new products for me to ogle.
And sometimes it’s not a new product but the amount of a particular product they keep in stock, whether in abundance or not at all.
Sour cream, for example. I like sour cream with perogies and sometimes nachos, but if I purchase sour cream more than twice a year, it’s an occasion. Here the sour cream shelf rivals the milk selection. But a sighting of squash, acorn or spaghetti, has yet to be recorded. Lemons are more than a dollar each and a single avocado will run you three times that.
Passionfruit and pavlova are prevalent but I have yet to see a pie that isn’t made with meat.
In addition to new foods, I’m learning to rename the food I already know.
Capsicum, coriander, bikkies, bangers, chook, tomato sauce, sultanas and lollies are replacing my association with red peppers, ketchup and raisins.
Yams, I say.
What? They question. Oh! Sweet potatoes.
Oh, come now. Po-tay-to. Po-tah-to.
One name I like in particular is Cos Lettuce. For North Americans, Romaine, here, Cos.
And I like it just ‘cos.
‘Cos so many people feel the need to justify eating healthy: to lose weight, my mom said so, it looks pretty, it makes me feel better about myself, kale is the new carb and e’erybody’s doin’ it.
Why do you eat greens? Just ‘cos. ‘Cos I do. Nothing pretentious.
I don’t often eat Cos lettuce, even though it has more iron in it than regular red or green-leaf varieties, but today I put it in my basket, alongside my lemon and a bag of carrots, basil, spring onions, trail mix, muesli, almond milk, a six pack of free-range eggs (the regular ones have CAGED HENS printed in bold on them which seems to be a brilliant deterrent), … and maybe I’ll grab a chocolate bar.
Now my basket requires both hands. Combined with what I have at home, this will make a meal or two. If not, I can come back and browse for more. It’s best done in smaller stints anyways. Like shoe shopping, so many outfits and endless possibilities, but when are you really ever going to eat that?
I look at the checkout lines.
Self checkout. I like the Aussie-lady voice that talks to me from the machine. I’m starting to get used to the accent.
I pay in cash, the money here is so pretty.
No bag. I shove everything into the cloth sack hanging from my right shoulder. Food mixed with my wet beach towel and my book, which is now looking a little sad and soggy. Oops.
Out the door, crossing the parking lot, breathing fresh air and sun. One thing that’s always the same: supermarkets have terrible florescent lighting.
Today is the first Advent, the first of four Sundays before Christmas, and this year it’s also the first day of the month—December! Which is strange to think about as I’m going into summer down here in the Southern hemisphere.
But at home my parents will be lighting the first out of four candles on the Advent wreath. They’ll be enjoying tea and cookies and warming their feet by the fire, surrounded by the smells of wet and fog and kindling crackle and cinnamon and cloves and days ending early. Philo will sniffle around, happy that everyone is inside and in one place, wondering if anyone has a free hand to stroke his nose or, better yet, his belly. And Dad will choose some beautiful music, maybe a classical piano concerto by Mozart or Beethoven. And after his cup has been filled and emptied a few times he might be inspired to pick up his guitar and sing a tune that speaks to him (Ma Solitude by Georges Moustaki?) or pick away at a song of his own. Sometimes he does that when he’s in a relaxed after-noon-state-of-mind. At this time, Mom will have taken up something to read. She has this wonderous knack of finding really obscure stories and she shares them aloud to the audience in front of her. ”Oh!” She says. She exclaims this often, but pay attention as each of her “Oh!”s is different. It could be drawn out if she’s entertained or shortly gasped if her mind jumps, turning to make some connection to another one of her collected intrigues. After you’ve heard it many times, you’ll be able to hear her eyes roll or her brain click by the sound of that one syllable. More cookies, always more tea. Cradled in these sounds and smells, the candle wax drips while the fire burns lower.
I know this because that’s how we celebrated Advent, each one leading up to Christmas, while growing up.
And then my Mom wrote me this note the other day:
"The first Lebkuchen parcel arrived and we are enjoying teatime whenever possible! yumyum… the Christmas sales are on and I will find the time to make our Adventkranz. Here is something I found recently:
The Advent, meaning ‘coming’, traditionally speaks to the time before the holidays and end of year passing—however you might celebrate it. The lighting of four Advent candles, one on each of the four Sundays preceding the end of the year, is sometimes attributed to the following symbolism:
“The first light of Advent is the light of stone–
Stones that live in crystals, seashells, and bones.
The second light of Advent is the light of plants–
Plants that reach up to the sun and in the breezes dance.
The third light of Advent is the light of beasts–
All await the new beginning, from the greatest and in least.
The fourth light of Advent is the light of humankind–
The light of hope that we may learn to love and understand.”
Thought you might like that…”
Isn’t that lovely?
I can almost hear her voice vibrate, see my Dad nod in acknowledgement—listening but still playing, taste the spiced chocolate, and feel that warm hearth.
Thanks Mom, I do like it. A whole lot.
Happy December everyone, happy erster (first) Advent.
I had a meeting with the sea this morning.
“You’re late,” I scolded.
“Have patience,” she said.
“You’re too impulsive,” I lamented.
“Life is full of surprises,” she laughed.
“You’re unreliable,” I protested.
“Not everything will go your way,” she put forth.
“You’re selfish,” I whined.
“You have to find joy in yourself to see it in others,” she waylaid.
“You’re so particular,” I argued.
“You have to know what you want,” she acknowledged.
Then she held my gaze for a moment and smiled.
“Thank you,” I sighed.
And she was gone.
I visited the Crystal Castle outside of Bangalow yesterday, and read this, it was posted on a plaque outside the main building. As I read, two people, a man and a woman, were discussing it behind me—
"Same-old, there’s nothing new here..," said the woman, wondering why they would post this in such prominent display. "Ugh, it’s hard to always listen to the same thing all the time.”
"But, it’s true," replied the man.
I turned and suggested this, “It’s well-written.”
But I should have questioned her further.
Her response bothered me, because what’s written there is true, why isn’t that enough? I wanted to ask her how else are we going to make people listen, how can we instil action for change? Do we have to say things in a fancy, new way, to find the tipping point? Must we dress up an apple in caramel just to make sure people will get their dose of vitamin C? Doesn’t that somehow defeat the purpose? We’re talking truths here—how many ways does one have to say hello before getting a greeting in return? How many times do you knock on the door before it opens?
Or are we all out of town?
Oh, haaai friends!
Smells like fall! (today is the 20th anniversary of the release of In Utero, didya know?!)
This visit to the island has been a little mind-boggling. Seeing so many friendly, familiar faces is a kind of mix between amazing and exhausting.
After a year apart, there’s so much to catch up on, but replaying your own stories is never as interesting as hearing new tales. I’m eager to hear the news from my friends but they want mine. And so we sit there, battling out who asks what, darting around answering before responding with a question back.
But I’m the one who’s been away, so I dutifully repeat my story, and it changes a little each time, but generally runs the same gauntlet.
This past year—and I keep calling it a year but really the time is stretching past that—has been, for lack of a better term in mind, full-on.
And a simple question carries so much forward in my mind. And hearing myself try to bring these people with me on my journeys has been good and bad.
Bad because I can’t quite explain what’s happened, what I’ve learned or how I’ve changed, though I’m sure the latter is more obvious to them than it is to me. And I want, so badly, to bring them to these places I’ve visited, and show them—no, introduce them to the people I’ve met, but words fail to make them as vivid as I know them.
So when people ask, “How’s Halifax? Do you like it there?” I nod and emphasize YES. “How was California? How was your trip?” GREAT, I grin.
One-word answers because attempting more is overwhelming.
How there were times when I was so lonely, and even knowing the loneliness would pass didn’t help exhaust the feeling of emotional destitution. How I struggled through the silliest episodes that, at the time, sent my day into trauma. And how many days passed where I just wanted to have a really good friend there, one I didn’t have to make any effort with, one who just let me be grumpy or happy or quirky without asking why or what or who?
But also how I met the most amazing people who welcomed me into their lives. And that I almost embraced this life they invited me into as my own, forever, not looking back. I’ve shared a living or temporary sleeping space, I’ve made coffee, broken bread or split a grocery list, and travelled roads, for hours and days, with people that are so close and dear in my memory and heart that mentioning them in a few words only amplifies the geographical distance between the people I’m now explaining them to.
But, it’s also good. Because it reminds me that I’m still journeying. And that I’m a lucky, lucky girl. Because I have people like you in my life now.
And it’s good because hearing myself say these things out loud helps me remember that they happened, and that they will happen again. And that means I have so much to look forward to.
Here’s a note to say helloooo, and we’ve made it to August.