Consumer Conundrums

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It all started so well. When the parcel containing my new, cotton and linen mesh produce bags arrived I was thrilled with them; a set of six assorted sizes with drawstrings, that I would be able to use for loose vegetables and/or fruit in the supermarket. The bags even came in their own, cute and beautiful bag!

Armed with these and my usual eclectic mix of shopping bags-for-life from an assortment of supermarkets in various countries I set off to Tesco, which serves our grocery needs on a weekly basis.

Taking my usual route through the store I come to vegetables first. I ignore the pre-wrapped, bagged and boxed veg to head for the loose items. I can select broccoli, leeks, onions, courgettes, carrots, peppers and potatoes. Very good. I choose broccoli, carrots and potatoes, although the loose new potatoes, partially concealed behind a mountain of slickly and thickly bagged ‘Charlotte’ ones are somewhat beaten up and greenish. I do my best. Then I move on to the remainder of the shopping.

This is an eye-opener. We are hosting a BBQ and I want burgers, sausages, mushrooms, salad, tomato sauce and desert, besides the usual household stuff such as cleaning materials. It transpires that not one single item is plastic-free. The cucumber and the lettuce are vacuum wrapped, the burgers and sausages are in black plastic trays with plastic over the top, the sauce in a plastic bottle, the desert in a cardboard box [good] with a plastic window [bad]. The mushrooms are also plastic boxed, as is the sweet corn.

I wend my way to the checkout, where I explain to the kindly, smiling woman behind the counter that I have my vegetable bags and I hope this is ok. She continues to smile as she proceeds to empty the vegetables out of their bags for weighing and I beg her to stop! The bags weigh next to nothing and are mesh, for the contents to be visible. She is still smiling. ‘You’ve saved six bags’ she says, and I tell her that all I’ve learned is that everything is encased in plastic and we, the customers are impotent to solve the problem.

The interest of a young man working at the next-door checkout is aroused and I explain that a plastic-free shop is impossible here. ‘It’s the suppliers’ he tells me.

As I wheel my plastic filled trolley out to the car park I’m thinking this problem is bigger than all of us. Maybe you have a lovely, shiny ‘eco-shop’ in your neighbourhood where you can take your bags and containers and buy your [undoubtedly very expensive] groceries. We don’t. Our nearest refill, plastic-free store is in Dorchester, 34.2 miles away. We have supermarkets. Not everyone has access to fill-your-own shops. And not everyone can afford to shop in one.

In time, perhaps supermarket Waitrose, a five minute walk away will roll out their refill project in all their stores. Until then I can only do my best to reduce our plastic-wrapped purchases.

So I saved six bags.

Bajan Escape

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The elderly [even to us] occupants 0f the rooms either side of ours are happy enough with the hotel, modest though it is. Mike and Linda [to the left on our ground floor terrace] are heavy smokers-a surprise given that they are liberal, forward thinking Canadians-as are most of the residents. Mike, squat, chunky and clad in long shorts and vest, cups his cigarette angled towards his palm and almost hidden behind his back in apologetic discomforture.

They are all enthusiastic advice givers and we the [relatively] younger newcomers. On our right, Tom and Francine express shock at our nine-hour flight.

By morning the rigours and frustrations of the long flight have dissipated, erased by solid sleep uninterrupted even by the Canadians’ loud, evening conversations and coughing. The walls are thin though and when I wake during the hours of darkness I’m treated to all manner of sounds; the vibrant chirping of miniscule tree frogs that punctuates Bajan nights, trickling water from surrounding rooms, vague traffic hum and exuberant taxi horns.

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We wake to sun, cloud, a garden view of palms and flowers. Either the room smells less musty or we’ve grown used to it already. The steady breeze blows warm as we sit on the tiny patio to drink the coffee that Husband has managed to coax from a machine in our tiny kitchenette. We are equipped with the basics, [though not a kettle] giving us options to concoct, re-heat, eat out or get take-out.

Since our arrival in the early evening we’ve found 3 ATM machines, 2 supermarkets, an express shop, several bars and the nearest beach, which held an alluring promise in the warm, balmy darkness-a small, palm-fringed bay overlooking moored fishing boats and dotted with pastel bungalows, bars and modest apartments. There is nothing high-rise here in Worthing-no gargantuan piles of corporate resorts.

We set off to the larger supermarket, Massy’s, where Waitrose products at inflated prices nestle smugly amongst the local stock. We are spoilt for choice and select chicken and salad for our evening meal, corned beef in a tin with a key! [a throwback to my childhood] and ‘Banks’ beers. The corned beef is welcome after the lacklustre hotel breakfast offering-a couple of pieces of watermelon plus 2 miniature slices of toast and some rough coffee.

Later we wander along to the beach with towels and books to while away a few hours beneath a palm tree while Henny-Penny and her two small chicks scratch in the sand around and beneath the sun loungers.

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A cockney middle-aged couple manhandle a wheelchair across the white sand, its passenger a very elderly woman, in all likelihood an aged parent. They settle next to a geriatric gent carrying a portable oxygen tank from which a tube leads to his nostrils. Nevertheless he gamely sets up his towel and prepares for some sun. Maybe Husband and I are not so infirm after all…

Francine’s brother, Bruce has a room a few doors along from ours. He is a small, neat, dapper man in pristine shirt and gabardine shorts-slow to smile or respond, unlike brother-in-law Tom, whose large, blousy exterior matches his expansive personality. Tom tells us his brother-in-law was widowed only a year ago and has the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. A flimsy bamboo screen separates our tiny patio from theirs, making eavesdropping inevitable. Tom asks Bruce what arrangements he’s made for his funeral; ‘where does he want to be interred?’

‘They can do what they want with me!’ Bruce spits back. ‘Throw me in the lake!’ The reply is inaudible. Later, as I lie waiting for sleep I hear Francine making placatory noises as Bruce’s voice is raised, ‘I worked hard all my life-gave it 100%!’ His sister murmurs, ‘Shut up Bruce, shut up’…

Bajan escape continues next week.

Housekeeping Secrets along the Road

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           Any lengthy foray into Europe requires aspects of domestic life to be undertaken; there is no getting away from it. Laundry, cleaning, shopping and [depending on circumstances] a degree of food preparation and cooking are all part of an extended expedition.
Luckily most sites offer the necessary facilities for such mundane household tasks as washing clothes and bed linen, with washing machines and driers commonplace-for a price. In spite of this we travel with spares for bedding and towels. We also have a line, clothes drier, pegs, washing capsules and hand-wash detergent. How organised we are!
Vans are equipped with fridges [ours will function perfectly well for a couple of days without electric hook-up] although they are seldom as large as in the average kitchen, so we supplement it with a cold box and aim to shop every 3 or 4 days, which often, though not always coincides with moving from one destination to another.
We don’t leave home without a basic ‘store-cupboard’ of ingredients; mine include: mixed herbs, English mustard powder, Oxo cubes, peppercorns, gravy powder, olive oil, cornflour, tomato puree, tinned vegetables, pasta and rice. We take industrial quantities of tea bags owing to the poor quality of ‘Liptons’ from which 2 bags are necessary to make one, weak cup of tea. Anything else is widely available in the supermarche.
Wandering around a French supermarket doesn’t feel too much of a chore as long as certain aspects are understood. A trolley needs a euro coin to be released; we are fortunate to possess 2 plastic, pretend euros that for some inexplicable reason we call ‘sniglets’, given to us at ‘La Chaumiere’, a Flanders site that is unique for a number of reasons. The supermarket car park must be accessible by van [ie no height barrier] and must have enough space. We look for an area where other vans are parked. Then we ascertain whether fruit and vegetables must be weighed and labelled before the checkout, as nobody wants to arrive with half a trolley-load unprepared.

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Larger ‘hypermarkets’ will often have large vats of delicious concoctions such as paella that can be bought and re-heated. There will also be huge fish counters with mountains of mussels, melancholy crabs and lugubrious lobsters as well as acres of assorted cheeses. So there is never any need to go hungry-

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At the boulangerie a modicum of restraint is always required. Some days we allow ourselves a pastry. I attempt to confine myself to croissants but am inclined to succumb to the pleasures of ‘pain au raisins’ or ‘pain au chocolat’ [Husband’s favourite] on occasion. The French have a proud tradition of ‘artisan’ bread and the array of different types of baguettes or grands pains can be confusing.
Last [but not least] is the beer and wine supply. I confess to being a lightweight these days and may choose a single bottle of white for myself. Husband favours ‘Leffe’ beer and red wine. In these alcohol-enlightened times, even in France the supermarkets are beginning to offer ‘sans alcool’ varieties, which can be very good.
Intermarché, Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefor, Super-U and the ubiquitous Lidl. We wonder what their British equivalents might be? Leclerc would seem to be the equivalent of Sainsbury’s, Super-U more of a Tesco?
For many the demands of shopping and preparing meals while away would not constitute a holiday, but they have not sat outside on warm, light September evenings with beautiful views, sampling the produce that is on offer. And when we feel like it-and the location provides a choice of venues [as last night] we dine out.

Plastic Angst

I am ancient enough to remember Bakelite. It had been around for a while before the 50s but by the time I’d emerged it had become commonplace around the house, used for radios, toys and homeware.
A little later there was Melamine and its spin-off ‘Melaware’. My father took to these products with enthusiasm because at the time, light, unbreakable Melaware was a marvellous replacement for many of the metal and enamel items he packed into our modest, family car to go camping. Plastic was a wonder material. Homeware, toys, implements, storage boxes [‘Tupperware’], games and upholstery and much more besides were all reproduced in plastic. But back then we still had recyclable containers. We used glass milk bottles, glass soda bottles [which we children could capitalise on by returning them], glass jars, tins. We bought fish and chips wrapped in paper [newspaper on the outside], food items in waxed paper or paper bags.
Fifty years on and plastic has become the devil; the demon we must eradicate from our lives. To be precise it is single use plastic we must reject. Having been in love with the wonder product plastic for over a hundred years we are now faced with a monster of our own making. Plastic is overrunning the world, forming gigantic, unwanted islands in our oceans and lying suspended in our seas ready to ensnare fish and mammals; or clogging up our beaches, rivers and countryside, filtering itself into systems by breaking down into minute particles that can be detected even in the expensive water that people are foolish enough to buy in our supermarkets [packaged in single-use plastic bottles].
Faced with all this, plus the fact that China no longer wishes to accept our garbage, what are we to do? We are willing to change, yes. We would like to reduce our single-use plastic waste. But how can we do it? Plastic packaging abounds in the supermarkets. Unlike trendy London liberal-land we don’t have innovative green stores flogging organic turnips wrapped in jute. There are no entrepreneurial milkmen trundling round at five o’clock in the morning. As far as I can see the supermarket does not stock milk in glass bottles either.
And even if all these anti-plastic alternatives were available here in the provinces everyone would need a six-figure salary to avail themselves of their facilities. Going plastic-free does not come cheap. Some years ago a forward-thinking initiative opened stores called ‘Weigh and Save’, selling dry goods loose for customers to fill their own containers but they closed, perhaps due to public distaste for contamination from grubby fingers. It can’t, however be beyond the wit of designers to prevent direct access to dispensing machines.
We do our best. On the rare occasions when we buy a ‘takeaway’ meal we re-use the containers. We don’t buy take away coffees, preferring to sit down in a coffee shop with a china cup. We dutifully sort our waste, recycle, re-use. But expecting us to go single-use plastic free really is beyond us [for now].

What not to Eat [clue: anything]

OK. New government health advice. We eat too much [we know this]. We must restrict our intake to 1,800 calories per day. The recommendation is 400 at breakfast, 600 at lunch and 600 at dinner. Great.
I watched the ‘experts’ on a daytime news programme showing us how this looks in terms of meals. Breakfast was a child’s bowl with porridge and a few blueberries. Lunch was two miniscule ‘spinach’ muffins and some tiny, doll’s house dishes with miniature tomatoes and a strawberry. Dinner was another child’s bowl with some chicken risotto. The expert generously suggested that the risotto could be accompanied by a small side salad. There, readers. Don’t eat it all at once.
Here at Lessageing Manor we don’t actually do breakfast, which leaves us a whole 400 extra calories to have at lunch! Whoopee!
It is certainly true that Husband and I have consumed too much during the winter and have been attempting to correct the ensuing spare flesh by cutting down on carbs and so on. But I can’t help feeling that these suggestions of tiny, dolly-sized helpings are not going to convert the mountainous, British obese into svelte, MacDonald and KFC refuseniks.
In other, dangerous-food-related news there was a long, detailed item on the subject of that most lethal of breakfast staples: BACON.
Some time ago the demon bacon was heralded as the greatest poison known to man and the consumption of it foremost in the list of behaviours most likely to cause bowel cancer. Like many such revelations this is not a happy discovery for those who’ve based a lifetime of breakfast experiences upon it. This bacon scare, having frightened devotees of the ‘Full English’ enough to prompt a boycott of the sausage/ham/cured meats aisle then appeared to die away and bacon consumers resumed their perilous habit, returning to Greggs for their bacon rolls and Burger King for their additive rashers.
Now however the bacon threat is re-awakened. This is not due to bacon itself, or any other treated meats, but the mass-production technique of adding nitrates to them.                Following advice, I prowled the aisles of Waitrose in pursuit of nitrate-free bacon and ham, with limited results.
Every day, it seems another food aisle is closed off. Don’t go near biscuits! Keep away from crisps! Touch fizzy drinks at your peril! Don’t touch fruit juice with a barge pole!
It’s no to alcohol, bacon, carbohydrates [especially evil sugar], processed foods, red meat and fruit! Fruit, apparently will not only make you fat but will simultaneously rot all of your teeth. This is the single most depressing news amongst all of it.
Perhaps the simplest approach would be for our health gurus to suggest what would be acceptable for us to eat and drink. What would they say was alright? I’m guessing kale, lettuce, lentils and beans washed down with water would be the answer. Am I right?

 

Beware Scooters!!!

Nobody can deny that those with a disability get a raw deal from society. For most, employment, income, social life and travel are all sources of difficulty. So it can only be a good thing if practical improvements such as public toilet upgrades become the norm. I read that the mum of a disabled child has produced a toilet-selfie advent calendar as part of a campaign to improve public toilet facilities for the disabled, a cause I wholeheartedly endorse. No one should have to lie on a filthy toilet floor to have their needs attended to!
And then there are mobility issues. Of course we must provide parking for those who need it. We should be making access to buildings easier and simpler for wheelchair users and making space for them at concerts and sports fixtures. No one can argue with any of this.
Mobility scooters, however are becoming ubiquitous; so much so that a miniscule fibre of doubt has begun to pervade my thoughts over whether the vast number of mobility scooter users are really, really in need of their machines. Is there a chance, perhaps that some may be merely obese and that walking on their feet might be just the activity they need to be able to dispense with the contraption altogether? Worse-there are some monster machines for couples, like tandems, which are larger than ever and cause even more mayhem.
Here, where I live mobility scooters are everywhere. A quick excursion to the supermarket becomes a hair-raising exercise much like attempting to cross a dodgem ride at the funfair wheeling a shopping trolley whilst it is in action. Two scooters in an aisle effectively blocks it for all other shoppers. Twin this with the supermarket staff members busily plucking items for their delivery vans and you may as well go home and get a takeaway.
But the issue that bothers me is not the existence of mobility scooters. It is the speed at which those on them travel. Couple this with a sense of entitlement and you have a recipe for many disasters-especially as the Christmas shopping shindig cranks up to a frenzy. A short walk down the street on the pavement from my house to the town in the company of a small child becomes an anxious dodge as one scooter after another looms up behind us, veers around us or hurtles towards us with no mind for the safety of a tiny child. I’ve taken to calling after them to slow down, a plea that is only ever a lost cause.
Many will, I know be affronted and take this to be a rant against the disabled. I have to stress that it is NOT a criticism of those who genuinely are in need of help with mobility. I would just like motorised scooters to be regulated and to be given a speed restriction when using pedestrian areas. Is it too much to ask that they be limited to pedestrian pace? What say you?

The Loneliness of the Self-Scanner

Been to a supermarket lately? Noticed anything?

Those of us in the UK who don’t have our groceries delivered [and I have penned a blog post about this in the past: Wandering Around in the Bagging Area] and who frequent supermarkets are being subjected to an offensive regarding the way we gather our comestibles etc.

It goes like this: A number of members of staff are allocated to diverting we unwary shoppers into the self-checkout tills, or worse, into the scan-as-you-go system.

From the shop’s point of view, I suppose the aim is ultimately to cut out manned check-outs altogether, chopping their wages bills and perhaps maximising shop floor space.

A quick glance around the store tells me I’m not alone in being unenthusiastic about the automisation of the shopping experience. For a start, it’s not like I haven’t tried it; it’s just that they are never fully automated, are they? Something always goes wrong. A number of people have to be employed simply to sort the glitches which renders the machines pointless-

Then there’s the term ‘self-check-out’. It’s a little too uncomfortable for those in later life. Myself, I’m not ready to ‘check-out’ yet.

Scan-as-you-go may well be the answer to the supermarkets’ prayers but it has no appeal for me.  We have grown used to weighing and labelling our fruit and vegetables in French supermarchés, however I’ve no desire to scan each and every thing I want to toss into my trolley. I want a carefree wander among the aisles, browsing and speculating.

Our nearest grocer is an upmarket, dearer one and dominated by older, retiree shoppers. Some of them are very elderly, shuffling around in slippers and comfort clothing, dependent on the trolley for support. In my younger, more ignorant, more impatient, time-poor days I’d castigate the elderly shoppers, fumbling for their purses, dropping things, peering with rheumy eyes at the card reader, but as one whose hands are no longer entirely at their owner’s bidding I have more sympathy for the slow, muddled, dithering old folks as they dawdle up and down deliberating at the freezers and pondering over the bread.

For a number of the lonely elderly a chat with a checkout operator may well be the only small piece of human contact they’ll get that day. If the human interaction element of the shopping experience is denied them they’ll be deprived of an essential bit of contact. I too want this minute bit of engagement. I want to be greeted, to be asked how I am, to have a snippet of conversation about the loaf I’ve selected or how beautiful the apples look. Maybe when I worked all day [talking] and only wanted to lie down in a dark room when I got home I’d have relished the thought of completing the shopping quickly and in solitary silence but I’m not sure that becoming fully automated is such an advantageous initiative.

There are already threads in the media over our screen use; how we choose to peer at tiny screens instead of conversing, how we’d prefer to play solitary screen games rather than engage with other humans. What effect is all this solitary behaviour going to have on us in the future? Answers on a virtual postcard…