On supermarkets

Here is a snapshot of reverse culture shock, a postcard if you will:

The setting is an H-E-B, the largest chain of supermarkets/grocery stores in Texas. This particular store is fairly large, even to Texan standards. The time is late afternoon.Enter: me. This is the first time since moving back to Texas that I’ve gone to H-E-B, and I’m doing it alone.

The last five years I have bought my groceries from Tesco Metro or Morrisons in a small town in Scotland. How small was our small town? Let’s just say that the surrounding villages didn’t even¬†have grocery stores; they had to come “into town” to go to ours. I’m fairly certain the H-E-B I went to could have fit at least two Morrisons inside it, if not half a dozen Tesco Metros. I’m used to, oh, three or four fruits to choose from, five or so vegetables, and only one or two brands of everything else, with “everything else” being quite a limited selection.

Armed with my list, I went up and down the aisles and around and around the produce section and was successful at getting everything I needed. I asked for directions twice. I did have to compromise on some items. No Edam cheese, so I got Jarlsberg. No frozen raspberries, so I got frozen strawberries and peaches instead. There was only one size of baguette, so that’s the kind I got. When going to get a tins of kidney beans, I was faced with at least a dozen different brands to choose from, so I all but grabbed the first one that looked the cheapest and fled. Things like that.

One thing I got that wasn’t on my list was a bottle of cider. The whole experience in the store was overwhelming… and when I went to the alcohol section to get a bottle of gin to make a much-deserved G&T when I got home, there was none to be found. Apparently grocery stores in the U.S. are licensed to sell mostly only beer and wine? I never noticed before, having spent most of my drinking-age years abroad. I found the one brand of cider they sold, singly in bottles, and added one to my cart.

I drank that bottle of cider almost immediately after getting home. That wasn’t enough to recover from the H-E-B experience though, so later on I took a long hot soak with a cup of herbal tea, some chocolate, and a book.

It might seem silly or strange to anyone who has never spent a long time living and adapting to another culture. A supermarket is a supermarket, right? For the most part, yes — a supermarket will sell food in almost any country that has one — but what you find inside, what kinds of food, how the store is organised, the size and level of choice, that will vary from country to country, even from region to region within the same country. Even though this is my hometown and the H-E-B is one I’ve been to countless times before, I am still encountering a “new” culture. I have been away for half a decade; I have adapted and changed to a different culture which, right now, is more familiar to me than the one I grew up in. My tastes have changed dramatically from when I last lived in the U.S., so now I am left going up and down the aisles, looking for anything familiar, for food that I know that I like and will eat, and again, learning to adapt to what my new culture has to offer — this time in reverse.

Egg cups for expats

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I arrived back in Texas exactly a week ago. I would have posted earlier, but I got a (mild) concussion my first full day back in the U.S. and since then my friend and fellow reverse-expat Lola has been visiting. It’s been good to have her here while I adjust to being back in the U.S. Over the last week I have found myself missing the following:

  • E45 lotion (it’s very dry here in a semi-desert);
  • sparkling water;
  • ¬£1 coins (or at least wishing $1 coins were more widely used);
  • egg cups.

Both my British and German/Austrian housemates got me into the habit of eating soft-boiled eggs. Not many Americans do this, at least, the only Americans I’ve met who have eaten soft-boiled eggs have had some European connection. Naturally, my parents’ kitchen does not have any egg cups. That is where improvisation comes in: a narrow jar serves nicely, until I can buy some egg cups of my own.

As for sparkling water, imagine my surprise and delight when at my parents’ favourite steak house the restaurant actually had San Pellegrino! Sparkling water never tasted so good.

We’ve been eating out a lot, so I am definitely getting my fill of Tex-Mex. Though, food here is a lot heavier than I am used to eating. I haven’t yet ventured out on my own to the grocery store to see what I can find — no driving yet, thanks to the concussion — but I hope that the wider options available to me in a big city supermarket will inspire me to get back into cooking.

It is warm here, though, and I am so glad to be able to wear a t-shirt and skirt and ballet flats instead of wearing at least three layers and then my wool winter coat just to go outside. And I saw a hummingbird at the hummingbird feeder — a hummingbird, for the first time in over five years! I wonder what else I will rediscover while I am here.

Interlude

The high today was 77 F/24 C. Bright sunshine without a cloud in sight. The sun rose at 7.30am and set at 6pm, giving us almost eleven hours of daylight. For lunch, Kelly and I sat outside eating tacos and quesadillas, basking in sunlight.

The sun shines harsher in the desert. Here, it is dry and dusty, the trees hunched over scrubby brush and the dry gold and brown grass. The beauty is unique. You learn to appreciate the varying shades of brown, of rock and dirt and hard ground. Despite the dusty green and gnarled brown trees, a pale blue sky, dry grass, you can have a tree full of birds: swallows, mockingbirds, blue jays, a cardinal flashing red. It defies all logic, but the sky is bigger in Texas. One has space to breathe, to stretch out one’s limbs, to look far and wide, and relax.

It is good to be home.

Caught between worlds

It’s my fifth Fourth of July overseas. This one comes as I’ve thought about my visa and possibly-most-likely moving back to the U.S. in 2014. The good thing about the Affordable Care Act being ruled constitutional is that that it will be put into effect in 2014, and I will not be denied health coverage for any of my pre-existing conditions (and I have a few) if/when I move back.

It’s strange, thinking about moving back. It isn’t what I’d expected to be doing after my PhD, but it that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad thing. Regardless of where I move to, I’ll be closer in time and space to several friends and my family. The Internet, especially email and Skype, is a godsend, but a part of me actually looks forward to being able to strengthen those relationships by being physically nearer, present.

Even as I think these thoughts, I walk home from work via the sea, take a walk up part of the coastal path, looking back over my current home and being struck by the beauty of the fading light on the waves, on the sailboats in the bay, of this town. I’m not going anywhere yet. I want to live intentionally, here, now, not taking for granted my remaining year and a bit here.

In another way I am also caught between worlds: with my writing. Sometime during June I got derailed from editing The Faerie King and in a month I am supposed to start novel planning for the new Orion. Already the characters and world of Orion are waking from their long sleep. The statement ‘It’s always easier to edit than to write’ is false: for me, the act of creating, of writing, is the most enjoyable part of writing a novel. Editing is sticky. Especially when I have no idea how to make it better, only that something needs doing. It comes as no surprise, to me at least, that I am eager to turn my mind to something else, to something new, to creating Orion.

Should I try to edit The Faerie King again during July? How can I motivate myself to stick with it?

Hippo hooray!

In less than 15 min from now in San Antonio Zoo, two of my childhood friends will be getting married. My friends Lydia and Drew are having their ceremony witnessed by the hippos, and though I wish I could be there in person, they’ve arranged their ceremony to stream live. It’s nearly midnight here, but it’s as close as I can get.

There was a group of nine of us: the Fun Day Group, a name that stuck after Marianne and I planned ‘fun days’ for our friends. None of us really fit in with the other cliques at school, and some how or another we ended up together. Although the group of us was scattered across five different high schools, we arranged ‘fun days’ at least once a month, oftener once we had cars, fewer once we entered university. Some I’ve kept up with better than others, but we all watch each other and keep tabs via facebook, at the very least. I’ve been to Joel’s wedding and to Danielle’s, and well, Lydia and Drew are next, and they’re marrying each other.

With the hippos!

Confessions

  • I am still a youngest / pseudo-only child. I do not like to share.*
  • Also, I want my way.
  • I do not like conversation or groups consisting of more than three people.
  • I’d rather be writing fiction.
  • I really want fajitas and tortillas from Taco Cabana. I could eat fajitas every day.
  • I want to be warm.
  • One of my alternate lives would be to be an anthropologist in Latin America.

* I amend this statement to be: Sometimes I really do not like sharing, but actually I don’t mind it most of the time.

A godless country

One of my former history professors and I were chatting about my future in academia during one of the coffee breaks at the conference today. He asked where I was from in the States and said, ‘Oh yes, San Antonio. The Riverwalk. I’ve been there.’ Everyone who’s visited San Antonio has. I told him that the Riverwalk had been expanded, mentioning offhand that my church used to be at the end of the Riverwalk but isn’t anymore.

‘Americans take religion much more seriously than we do,’ he said. ‘I expect that Americans find Britain to be a very godless country.’

Occasionally I speak my observations even when doing so is treading onto dangerous ground—hoping that objective truth will save me, and if not, the stereotype of the ignorant (and/or arrogant) American. I said, ‘I wonder if it has something to do with Britain having a state church. When you have to choose to have a church, you take it more seriously.’

‘Yes. It is a classic example for not to have an established religion,’ he answered.

It was time to go back into the conference room then, so I didn’t have a chance to remind him that freedom from a state church was one of the foremost reasons people crossed the terrible, wide sea to a new world.

As for whether I find it ‘very godless’—I suspect Britain is no more and no less godless than the U.S., or any other country on this earth.