The following is a guest post.
“Is this dearth of decent supermarkets exclusively a New York problem?”
Ruth Margolis, of the BBC America’s Mind The Gap blog, asked this question in a recent post as she pondered the seemingly vast differences between grocery shopping cultures (yes—apparently this is a thing now) in England and America.
As a native New Yorker and current expat based in London, I can understand, and even sympathize with, the frustrations of grocery shopping.
Just this afternoon as I made my regular walk up to Sainsbury and Waitrose—because, strangely, I need to visit both stores to find everything I need—it was a lovely Friday afternoon and I was ready to stock up on all my essentials.
By the time I left the second store with my eco-friendly, sustainable, reusable, and recyclable bags full of English delights though, I was met with a rather angry downpour and the arduous task of trekking back in the rain.
Ah London, you and your volatile weather.
But in any case, I digress.
Ms. Margolis describes entering the New York grocery-shopping scene to find a “substandard shopping experience.” Her description of which left even me, a jaded New Yorker and now Londoner, a bit frightened.
There was talk of parking lot road rage between customers, crumbling store walls and steroids injected in everything one might consider purchasing and consuming. I was ready to shout “oh my!” as if on cue from The Wizard of Oz.
It can often take 20 minutes to get out of the car park at Sainsburys © David Holt London on FlickrIn part, Ms. Margolis is correct. There are stores that fit this very description, and I’ve visited them several times. I may have even been engaged in a heated argument over the claiming of a parking space outside of Whole Foods, but that is another story entirely.
The niggling issue I have, though, is that I’ve found places like these in New York and London alike. Be warned, aspiring expats and those interested in a bit of English culture—the shopping experience some native English shoppers might have you anticipating is considerably less idyllic when it comes time to push your “buggy” around the store.
This afternoon, for example, I was stuck at a rather annoying impasse in the bread aisle. You see the bread—which is delightfully free of preservatives, steroids, and is perhaps even baked by cheerful elves—was rock hard. Each loaf of “fresh” bread I picked up, hoping to bring home and turn into toast with jam, was worse than the one before.
It would have been more effective to use as a piece of sporting equipment or as a small weapon than it would have been to eat. But each time I looked down at the sell by date, and the best by date, which was three days later, it happened to conveniently have a day left on the shelf. Surely, it was just a fluke.
Well, if a fluke happens every other shopping trip and at multiple chain stores in London then, yes, it was a fluke. But, anyway, who needs their bread to last longer than three days after a visit to the store?
As Ms. Margolis so helpfully points out, we Americans love to “stock up on lackluster carbohydrates,” so eating an entire loaf of bread in three days—albeit, a stale loaf—should be no issue.
A great deal on bread at Tescos. Carb loading anyone? © Which Home on FlickrHardened by my New York shopping experiences, I soldiered on in search of the “luscious[ly] fun,” shopping experience Ms. Margolis promises. I fear that even after wandering through my second store (Waitrose, which I do think is lovely), I failed to find anything that would mark the experience better than that of my American compatriots.
And, if the smell of American grocery stores, which Ms. Margolis describes as “rotting turnips,” is in fact rotting turnips, I also fear that I am going to have to be the bearer of bad news: rotting turnips have crossed the raging seas and infiltrated English grocery stores.
Admittedly I do not spend long periods of time sniffing and contemplating the smells of grocery stores, but the ones I have visited in London smell suspiciously like their American counterparts. And the one pungent smell I did happen across as I passed the special, on-sale veggies was most certainly not coming from a case of Waitrose’s lovely chamomile scented ironing water. Yes, they sell scented water for your ironing needs. But again, I digress.
At the end of her grocery shopping musings, Ms. Margolis asks what expats might suggest to improve their American grocery store experiences. Comments were varied, both sides seeming to stick fiercely with their own as the great debate carried on.
But as I sat down at my desk, enjoying the sound of the rain pattering against the London sidewalk, eating a delicious Sainsbury chocolate biscuit and drinking tea out of my beloved, chipped I-heart-New York mug, I began to wonder if perhaps when we move from one country to another, effectively adopting a new culture as our own, we expect too much?
We expect things to feel familiar, to smell and look the way we are used to, and sometimes take small comfort in pointing out the flaws of our new worlds that seem so strange and different. Holding onto and seeking out what we are used to is just another way we hold onto pieces of home, even when it comes to something that seems so trite.
Ms. Margolis or my English acquaintances might say that my brain has simply been turned upside-down by all those steroids and preservatives I ingested before coming to England, but I’d wager that when it comes down to it, a harried shopping trip on a Friday evening, after a long day, in a store with long lines, you would be hard pressed to find real differences between a store settled somewhere in America and the bustling Waitrose I have grown to love.
Ultimately, we all want the same thing: short lines, reasonable prices, and a full stock of our favorite cookies (or, biscuits).
Danielle is an American student currently studying for a Masters degree in London. She has an affinity for most things British, including: tea, crowns, Shakespeare and even the Tube.