If I learned to love cooking while I was nannying in England, I also learned to hate grocery shopping. Since cooking and meal planning was all up to me, it was also my job to get everything necessary at the store. With a family of four, this meant I would spend at least two mornings a week at Tesco or some other godforsaken place. I’d come home with about fifteen overflowing bags in the trunk of my car that I then had to unpack and get sorted. This was huge downside to my newborn passion for food.
Grocery shopping sucks. It involves pretty much everything I detest: schlepping bags, pushing crowds, waiting in line. I can be in a great mood when entering a store, thinking I have all the time in the world and how nice to casually stroll around in such a sanctuary of fresh food. Then within minutes, somebody’s hit my Achilles’ tendon with their shopping cart, a kid is throwing a tantrum in the vegetable aisle and when I get to the check out, there’s only one line open and that one is not moving because the person first in line wants to pay with coins kept in his socks.
Like all chores, it’s also a Sisyphean task. You never ever get done. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve written your grocery list, that you sorted it according to the order of the store, how efficiently you collected your shopping and how structured you were when you packed your bags and how quickly you got out of there. A few days later, you have to do it all over again.
Grocery shopping in another country is even more challenging. You might think it’s just the same, but there are so many rules you can break and so many mistakes you can make. I’m used to placing my groceries on the conveyor belt one after another in a long line to facilitate for the cashier. (A friend who works in a store once said, with passion, “Whatever you do, don’t build mountains! We hate mountains!”) Then when you’re done, you put one of those plastic sticks after your last item to separate your shopping from the next customer’s. In England, I eventually learned, it’s the complete opposite. There, you should stack your groceries tightly together. Put them on top of each other and build enormous mountains if you have to, as long as there’s absolutely no space between your items. This is so that the person standing next in line can start building their tower as soon as possible.
One time when I was doing my weekly grocery shopping at Tesco, I forgot this, or maybe I didn’t know it yet, I don’t remember. Either way, I was soon to be aware. I was stressed and had a huge pile of dairy and diapers in my cart that I began to unload on the belt, not bothering to organize them but just putting them on there one after the other. Sweden style. This bothered the woman standing behind me so much she began to put her stuff on the belt as well.
“I’m not finished yet” I said, thinking she might have somehow missed my still almost full shopping cart.
She snorted and kept unpacking her cart so her groceries got mixed with mine. I got irritated and put them back on the side.
“Hey, I said I’m not finished yet!”
This gave red hot fuel to her fire and with the poshest accent I’ve heard and the most uptight look on her face I’ve seen, she gave me a whole go back to your country-speech:
“This is how we do it in England. You place your shopping neatly together on the conveyor belt as a courtesy to the next customer. You don’t just sloppily throw one item here and one there. You’re American. And you’re rude. In England, we don’t say Hey, you! My grandfather was American and he would have been appalled.”
My 20-year old immigrant mind was desperately trying to come up with a proper response to this unfair scolding. Me rude? How about her? Not waiting her turn, humiliating someone half her age just because she didn’t know the unspoken cultural rules?
“I … I … I’m not American!” I eventually blurted out, swiped my credit card and stormed out.
Sure showed her.