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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Living in Baku: Grocery Shopping

My life overseas, ninety-five percent of the time, is very similar to my life in the US.  I make dinner, wash laundry, take care of children, clean up messes, and break up fights.  A lot of fights.

One thing that does change from country to country, however, is how I get food.  When talk with friends about living in various countries - which ones have good weather and which ones have nice housing and which ones have good travel opportunities - one of the first things I think about when I think of living in another country is what kind of food I can get there.

When my friend moved to Zimbabwe, I immediately wondered what kind of dairy products were available.  Egypt was a produce paradise, but without the commissary, pork was difficult and expensive to get.  When my parents moved to Bogota, one of my first thoughts was that they were going to get fresh mangoes and I was very very jealous.  When you have to produce three meals a day, you end up fixating on food a lot.

Here in Baku, you have a lot of options for how to get your food.  If you want fresh meat, there are butcher 'shops' everywhere.  While I was driving home recently, I saw a truck drop off supplies for the local shop - cows in the bottom of the truck, sheep on top.  Kathleen keeps hoping that something will be slaughtered when we drive by so she can see how all of the insides look.

All of the labels say "ready to be slaughtered"
I found this picture today.  Looks like she knows where meat comes from.  But I'm not so sure about lion.  I think it might be a little tough.

If you are looking for fruits and vegetables, there are myriad small fruit stands everywhere.  They range from little country ladies that don't even use recognizable numbers (that's what fingers are for) who have driven into town to sell their strawberries by the metro to people with stands to shops that sell fruits and vegetables and of course bazaars that have twenty people selling the same thing.

There are also lots of smaller markets that sell non-perishables and various other sundries, but I've never gone in because then somebody would ask me what I needed and then I would have to look at them with the blank look that says 'look how stupid I am.  I don't understand a single word of what you're saying.  Even if you try it in Russian.  Or louder.'

Thankfully there is an option that combines all of my needs - the supermarket.  Thank heaven.  It even has (sort of) a parking lot.  So once a week I take Kathleen or Sophia or both with me to the local Bizim to load up on the week's supplies.  I haven't even thought of taking all four in at once since Joseph's car seat would take up the entire regular-sized shopping cart and then where would I put the food?  The few times I've had to go in for a few quick things, I may or may not have taken advantage of living in a foreign country and just locked the children in the car.  It's one of those licenses that I may or may not occasionally take - along with not putting my children in car seats while getting rides with friends.  Just don't have CPS meet me at the border, okay?

Kathleen and Sophia love coming with me because they get to push mini-sized shopping carts.  Brandon told me about babushkas pushing two-foot shopping carts around the stores in Ukraine, but I didn't believe it until I got here and saw women in three-inch stilettos hunched over teeny-tiny child-sized carts.  However, they're perfect for little girls, and I'm glad to have them along so that I can actually fit all of the food I need for a week into our carts as I would be hard-pressed to fit it into the 'regular' sized carts.

Unlike everyone else in this country I only shop once a week, and I shop for six people who eat a lot of food and drink a lot of milk, which takes up a lot of room in very small shopping carts especially when all of the milk comes in one-liter bottles.  Add ten liters of milk, two pounds of cheese, forty-five eggs, juice, soda, other dairy products, pasta, beans, and produce together and there may not be enough room for the ten-kilo bag of flour I need too.  I never realized how much I missed those enormous Costco carts until I moved here.  Of course even if I had one, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't actually fit through the aisles.

So after sideways-sliding through the store, down ramps, up ramps, over ramps, I finish my trip at the checkout aisle.  Everything in the grocery stores is smaller here - the produce section is about ten square feet.  The refrigerator and freezer case takes up one wall.  The candy and cookie section is larger than the baking and dried goods section combined.  The ceilings are even shorter.  And so of course the checkout aisle has a belt that is about two and a half feet long with a bagging area that might be pushing two if you were generous.  Normally this is not a problem if you shop like a local - several times a week if not every day, or maybe going to various shops for various things.  But I'm not and I don't.  And so when I unload my cart, there is not even remotely enough room for everything.  Combined with the small bagging area that is manned by me - no baggers here, and if you're lucky the cashier might open one of the plastic bags that are devilishly hard to open - it makes for a very hectic checkout experience.

Put milk on the conveyer - pack carrots into the bag - put three flats of plastic-bagged eggs on the conveyer - squeeze Sophia by the cart - put milk in the bag - put bag in the cart - put canned corn on the belt - make sure the produce is on the top so the strawberries don't get squashed like they did last time - unload the last of the cart - put another bag in the cart - pay the cashier - finish bagging while the next person in line pushes my cart out of the way so they can pay for their three purchases - put all of the bags into the cart - scoop up the change - make a hasty exit before I drop dead from dirty looks - push the cart up the steep hill, over the rutted parking lot, and finally load everything into the car.

Then eat up all of the food so that you can repeat the next week.  Oh how I miss the Commissary.  It might not have had fresh local produce, but it had baggers.  Not only did they bag your food, but then they put it in your car.  I suppose we never appreciate the small luxuries until they're gone.


Z. Marie said...

As I was walking home from a shopping trip today, I was contemplating a "Why that woman who works at Carrefour Express hates me" blog post. It includes some of these things, although I tend to buy milk four liters at a time even though I go to the store several times a week.

PaulaJean said...

Shopping in the US is so easy! Since we walk to do our shopping, what we need has to be balanced against what we can carry for seven blocks, and hope it doesn't rain. So we shop several times a week, and pay for delivery once in a while when we have to get a lot of heavy stuff.

At least I can communicate now, more or less. And I only have to shop for two!

Lydia said...

Whoa, since when did they get baggers at the commissary?

UnkaDave said...

Your mother ("Paula Jean" above) is right. You carry everything here in Bogotá, so we shop much like the Bakuans (?) Bakunos (??) Bakuneros (?!) Bakunistas.. whatever they are.

Just US said...

This sounds like shopping in Jeru!! You just have to add a Kaelen to the mix and the checker lady who gets annoyed because you are not bagging fast enough so she puts your canned goods on top of the bread. Never have I loved baggers and cashiers in the US more than I do when being overseas!

Bridget said...

Thank goodness people have huge families here. My cart hardly gets a second glance from other shoppers because at least I don't have my housekeeper following me with an additional cart, just as full of food.