Monday, May 10, 2010

My first trip to the grocery store

Europeans are used to shopping for food on a daily basis. Italians, French, Germans like their bread, vegetables and meats very fresh. They shop in small quantities and do not like to refrigerate or freeze their food. One of the reasons may be that their flats, refrigerators are small and it is not part of their culture to freeze food. For us, Eastern Europeans, it was not just a matter of apartments being small, many families did not own, or could not afford a refrigerator and a freezer was totally unheard of. Our refrigerator in winter time was the window ledge in the kitchen. In summer time, we chilled bottles and watermelons in the tub. The tub was not being used anyway since we did not have hot water in the summer. In winter time, the birds got clever and realized that we stored food on the window ledge and made pecking runs. Families who could afford a refrigerator, had a hard time paying for electricity or often had ruined food from the daily blackouts. Rationing of electricity was a common theme. Even western Europeans had issues with electricity - you could not run the drier and the microwave at the same time without causing a total shutdown of electricity for the entire complex of apartments. While in Italy, I often short-circuited the entire network while drying clothes and making tea in the microwave at the same time. They knew me as the "pazza americana."
My dad often joked that the reason we did not own a fridge was because we did not have enough food to put in it. He was right, but price was an issue too. It cost the salary for 3-4 months of an average worker. Being that we lived under communism, everyone was equally poor, with the exception of the ruling elite, a.k.a. communist party oligarchy.
Shopping or food was an endless line for bones, wilted or rotten veggies, and basic staples if you had enough rationing coupons. Every family was issued a limited amount of rationing coupons that looked like fiscal stamps - we clipped them for rice, sugar, cooking oil, butter, milk, flour, etc. Each family was entitled one kilogram of each per month, about 2 pounds. Once we ran out of rationing coupons, even though we had money to buy, nobody would sell unless we had coupons. This created a thriving black market full of cheats, stealing from work, bartering what they stole for something else stolen that was in short supply, thus enabling people to survive. If you worked in a wine factory, you would trade stolen bottles of wine with a butcher who stole meat from the state run butcher shop, etc. Occasionally black market racketeers, who would steal rationing coupons, would sell food bought in stores for ten times the price they paid. The ruling elite was insulated from such practices or from standing in 3-4 hour lines for bananas, toilette paper, or whatever one needed because they had their own private stores where ordinary citizens were not allowed to enter or shop.
As for my family, I was glad when we could find even shriveled potatoes because it meant sustenance as opposed to starvation. I was often sad when I came back from school and I could not even find shriveled potatoes to bake them or make fries. We did not have school breakfasts or lunches, if we ate anything during school, we brought from home. Food was scarce in general and I did not know of any obese people, we were all underweight and not necessarily healthy. Fruits and veggies could be found only in season. Sometimes in winter time my dad would disappear all day and bring home some shriveled grapes, almost raisins, a few dry apples, or fruit compote, and he had this wonderful grin on his face that he could bring his little girl a special treat when she was sick with the flu or bronchitis. I adored my dad and fully appreciated the sacrifices he had to make in order to feed us.
The food lines usually stretched for a mile or two, winding around the blocks. It was common occurence for people passing by to join a line before they even knew what the store was selling. We knew instinctively that, whatever it was, toilette paper, soap, cooking oil, shampoo, vitamins, cotton, we needed it. Everyone was in stock up mode, carried collapsible shopping bags, and lots of cash in case the need arose. People were robbed often since writing checks or credit cards did not exist in a communist regime. There was one central bank that allowed citizens to have savings accounts or specialized accounts for purchasing cars as it took years for deliveries to be made and the purchaser had to have the entire amount in a car savings account before they could register their name on the production/purchase list.
My first grocery trip was at Horn's Big Star in Houston, MS. This was certainly not a supermarket since the town of Houston only had 3,000 inhabitants and a little over 50,000 people in the county. But to me, it might as well have been Harrod's of London or Gallerie Lafayette in Paris. I was speechless at the rows and rows of packaged, frozen, and fresh food. The bright light was dazzling, the polite staff, the immaculate floors, shelves, and the lack of lines were stunning. Bill was laughing at my shocked demeanor - I could not fathom were all this fresh food had come from. The packaging was so colorful and beautiful, it appeared as a work of art to me. I was filling my grocery cart as if there was going to be a 50 year famine. I did not know what to choose, I felt like a child in a candy store with a myriad of choices. I could picture myself as a chicken who, when presented with an endless supply of food, gorged so much that it eventually died of overeating.
Needless to say, I became Horn's Big Star frequent customer, relishing in the ability to buy fresh fruit any time I wanted. The apples were plump and fresh, coming in many varieties, ruby red, yellow, green, rosy, sweet, tart, etc. No more shriveled up or wormy fruits in summer time. I could eat apples or any fruits year round. I felt the luckiest girl in the world! I had tears in my eyes and I still do when I think of the experience and how I was explaining it to my mom and dad on the phone. To say that they were incredulous is an understatement. Only in heaven would people have such an abundance of food - endless rows of choices, cheap prices, attractive packaging, and free samples to boot.

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