Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have struggled with what to post here, searching for topics which are funny, profound, and culturally relevant. But now the wait is over! The topic which fulfills all the above and more is…grocery shopping.
Never having been my forte at home (though I can buy a mean microwavable meal, let me tell you), shopping in England has been more than simply a sharp lesson in exchange rates. During my first few days in Oxford I went on a student-led walking tour called “The useful tour of Oxford.” Sadly the tour turned out to be mostly useless due to the five decibel volume of the leader’s voice. But more importantly, I realized that I was once again a cultural baby, having no knowledge of local stores.
“Right,” said our whispery guide. “There’s Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s down that street in the Westgate Shopping Center. And over there is Primark for when it gets cold or you forgot to pack something. And over there”–and here he pointed at what looked like a Disneyland castle–“is Debenaham’s and Waterstone’s and the art shop. Sorted!”
No, it was mostly certainly not sorted. After two days my stock of Trader Joe’s goodies ran dry and I was forced to venture into the cobbled city center to scavenge. I walked past bookstores and stationary shops and even somewhere selling pet toys, but still couldn’t find so much as a baked beans advert. But then! From around a corner a halo of light beckoned me through a tiny doorway into a magical (and cursed) realm called Sainsbury’s supermarket.
It was not super, it was tiny. This shouldn’t have surprised me since many thing in England are smaller than they are in the United States (e.g. muffins, showers, taxis), however navigating in the cramped isles was a challenge. I had time to put a single can of tomato soup into my basket before a prim and angry noise erupted to my left. It came from a gnarled woman, grimacing and clutching the handle of her GIGANTIC shopping cart which took up literally the entire isle.
“Sorry!” I blustered, and moved to the side. The woman glided past, glaring until she could no longer do so without walking into anything. After a moment I continued adding to my cart, but not two minutes later I felt a tingling at the back of my neck. I turned slowly and saw the woman there again with her massive cart, looking murderous with aubergine in hand.
“Is there no one in your world but you?” the woman rasped. Her eyes bulged a purpley bloodshot anger. Wordlessly I moved aside, and when the woman was past I fled that shop and never returned.
Another supermarket called Tesco’s has become my go-to choice since that fateful day. Here is a list of good things about Tesco’s:
1) Its isles are big enough for a tall man and a cart-wielding witch to co-exist.
2) There are loads of one pound items, for which you pay indirectly with the pain of eating them the same day before they expire.
3) The store has Tesco digestive biscuits, which you should avoid at all costs because they will soak up your money.
4) Self check-out.
Have you seen the episode of Sherlock where John says he has had a row with the chip and pin machine? Well now I understand why!
Imagine yourself in the checkout line. You have persevered through throngs of shoppers, through the Embarrassing Egg-Spilling Incident of Isle Three, and through finding detergent. Your basket arm aches from the weight of your many goodies. But hark! Ahead lies your salvation in the form of a glittering silver machine which promises to send you on your way as quickly as you came.
Folly. You approach the machine and cheerfully scan your items. Since you brought your own backpack you don’t need plastic bags, but the machine demands that you still put each item in the “bagging area.” This becomes difficult as the items mount into a health-and-safety-violating pyramid. You race to scan your items before the pyramid crushes you. But wait, apples are not a recognized item, you must wait for assistance. APPLES, TESCO, REALLY? You fling items across the scanner in a thrilling crescendo and toss them on the now overflowing bagging area. Bread! Cheese! More bread! The machine demands that you place items back into the bagging area. “I’m trying!” you gasp through your tears. Now passersby are throwing tomatoes at you as if you were in the medieval stocks, just for taking so long with the machine. Fumbling with your wallet, you beg the machine to take your money. It coldly accepts, demands a Tesco club card, and when you admit that you do not have one passively aggressively spits out your receipt. “Thank you for shopping at Tesco,” the machine giggles. “Have a lovely day.”
Deep breath. Collect yourself. You’ve made it, and you’re only twenty pounds ($33.72) poorer. Wipe your tears.
There’s always Tesco biscuits as a snack for the walk home.