The Tour of a Touring Store Cupboard

To venture into a supermarket in a foreign country is not the tedious flog round that doing Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Morrison’s is at home in the UK [or Walmart, Intermarché, Netto or Dia for citizens whose countries sport those stores]. It is more an exploration of unknown territory and requires a little bravado, some imagination and a leap of faith.

I suppose every nation must have store cupboard items without which life would become sad. Do the Germans take sauerkraut wherever they travel? Must the Spanish transport a large, cured ham with them? Perhaps the French stow away a stash of truffles? Who knows? I can only let you into the secrets of the travelling British; the food and drink necessities without which we would feel impoverished:

  • Of course! We are British! Decent tea is impossible to buy abroad. I’m sorry, European neighbours-but ‘Liptons’ does NOT cut it. We take a huge supply of strong, ‘Yorkshire’ tea bags; 2 cups every morning=bliss! We drink it with a little milk. No other nation understands this.
  • Tomato ketchup. It is relatively easy to get this in most countries-but I like to be sure. A bacon butty is a camp-site morning staple.
  • English mustard-hot and strong. Great for sandwiches or cooking. Foreign mustards can be good but are not the same as English.
  • Mixed herbs. They are versatile. You can’t take every individual herb in a camper-van. There are space constraints, likewise-
  • Curry powder
  • Tomato puree
  • Garlic paste
  • Stock cubes. I take beef Oxo, chicken Oxo and vegetable cubes, plus Bisto and flour.
  • A variety of tins, including tomatoes, peas, lentils, sweet corn. These must be replenished during trips although substitutes often become necessary.

Armed with these items we must then plunge into the mysterious world of whichever grocery store has us at their mercy. Meat or fish is required, plus vegetables-fresh if possible. In Scandinavia we are able to recognise some of the meat by various methods but not the names. ‘Skingke’ sounds like some kind of primeval eel-shaped fish, but turns out to be ham. Pork looks familiar, as does chicken. A pack of beef is easily identified by being roughly the price of a small car and also called ‘biff’. There is chicken [‘kykling’] but since we don’t transport a chest freezer around with us for bulk buys it isn’t an option. We can purchase two pork chops from the meat counter. Hooray! Pork it is then.

I’ve gained a new respect for fresh, British fruit and vegetables now I’ve seen the price of cabbage or lettuce in Scandinavia. We are cautious, reigning in our usual gung-ho approach to greengrocery buying and becoming selective. We’ve seen enough burgers, pizzas and hot dogs during the last three weeks in Northern Europe to supply the fast food joints of Disneyland for several years.

Check This Out!

It would be an understatement to say I flounder in the waves of new technology. No sooner do you begin to get a grip on some gadget, software or device then some new upstart replacement arrives and you must begin again. Nevertheless there is the odd innovation that I do, after some tuition and practice start to get the hang of-even derive some satisfaction from and appreciate.

Take automatic check-outs. At last, after studious avoidance, suspicion, trial, many failed attempts, instruction and practice I am able to process my shopping through the complicated business of self-check-out totally unaided [sometimes]; I am able to bag things without the strident voice admonishing ‘unauthorised item in the bagging area!’ I can manage to tell it I have my own bags and collect the points on my loyalty card. Even so there are blips, like this morning’s debacle of the machine refusing to acknowledge my bananas.

I can see the benefits of self-check-outs. They cut down queues, take up less space and time and negate the need to engage with real people. Wonderful! But actually I am getting to an age where I’ve begun to enjoy those mini conversations, those minor snippets of small talk-with the person queuing in front of me or behind me; with the baby sitting in the trolley, with the person sitting behind the check-out or the boy scouts helping to pack the stuff. And if those of us who have company at home want to speak to others-what of those who lead solitary lives, these moments of minimal chit-chat the only conversational encounters in their day?

And what will those check-out workers do when the machines finally edge them out of employment? Nobody wants to be labelled a Luddite or to stand in the middle of the road of progress, but what are the employment options for manual workers whose occupations are being usurped by machines?

The Japanese [who else?] have designed and manufactured a ‘drone waiter’; a flying tray that delivers meals to diners. I don’t know if it is programmed to intone ‘Enjoy your meal’ or ‘have a nice day’ or to return and ask ‘is everything all right for you?’ but I doubt if it can process the reply. What if your steak is underdone, your side salad hasn’t appeared or the wine is corked? What on Earth are all the resting actors to do to support themselves in between roles, if waiting at tables becomes a redundant job?

Technology has come a long way, no more so than in the field of communication; but the future holds a bizarre vision. Silent people queueing to commune with machines, restaurants full of silent customers jabbing at screens. Will we lose the power of speech and the ability to look anyone in the eye? Perhaps our personal machines can take on our communication for us? Why not? Get your mobile device to speak to your friend’s mobile device. Get it to select and order your meal-why stop there? Get it to eat the meal, tip the drone waiter, call the driverless cab and go home. Who needs people anyway?

Wandering around in the bagging area.

                I gather that ‘Morrisons’ is losing out in the supermarket race because they have no online shopping capacity. I understand very well that bookshops, electrical stores, music stores and, to a certain extent, clothing outlets might lose out to internet shopping, but not supermarkets. Why? Because the supermarket is always busy. The car park is always full, the shop is always heaving with people and the checkouts always boast queues. At weekends, particularly people like to make a family outing of it. Mothers, fathers and children will be there, arguing, shouting, crying, threatening, larking about, getting irritated. Why? Why do entire families go? Why do they not divide the tasks of childcare and shopping and save everyone from supermarket purgatory?

On the other hand, supermarket delivery vans are constantly buzzing around the streets so presumably someone is clicking away in the virtual food aisles-but who?

                I can see the appeal of online grocery shopping, and have attempted it myself, in a former life as a proper working person. I registered, got my puny brain round the method, selected my items, selected my favoured delivery slot and paid. Bingo! I could come straight home and collapse into my usual heap without the added stress of hunting down a parking space, flogging up and down the aisles with a trolley, queuing to pay, unloading it all onto the conveyor belt, packing it all into bags, trundling it to the car, unloading, getting home, unloading again and then stowing it-[of course that still had to be done]. I felt smug. The van came at the appointed time, the bags were brought in and the driver left. Lovely. I delved into my shopping.

It had not been a success. This must have been someone else’s order, I thought, as it was not recognisable as our familiar, monotonous food purchases. Somehow I’d managed to buy five large bags of pears, four, miniscule, wafer-thin slices of salami, three potatoes and a number of items I’d never heard of and had no clue what to do with. There was wrapped, sliced, white, blotting paper bread-the type we consider an abomination-and a packet of sliced, processed cheese. The pre-packed meats were clearly the packets that had been rejected by real, not virtual shoppers since they contained tawdry, fat and gristle encrusted scraps. Who had ordered these things? I rushed to the computer to find the answer: It was me.

Having ascertained that my knowledge of weights, measures, food descriptions and names was inadequate for such a quest I returned to manual shopping. Nowadays I am at liberty to undertake this task at whatever time of day suits me. Although a casual inquiry at the shop as to which times of day are the quietest will elicit the reply, ‘2.00am’, I find that by avoiding early evenings and weekends the mission can be accomplished without too much stress and I can trundle up and down whilst making a simultaneous, covert study of my fellow shoppers and their habits.

Of course it can be tricky in these straightened times, working out whether twenty washing capsules for £6.25 is cheaper than BOGOF of own brand, or if 89p per pound is a better deal than 60p per packet in point something of a kilo, and one thing we are all sure of is that the price of everything is never going to come down, but I still prefer to get inspiration from the shelves, to poke about, to select or reject-[but not on bank holiday weekends!].