Big it up

Technology has advanced in many ways over the last decade, what with the 3D TV and the 4G phones and that, and so the smeared, grainy, black and white portrait that appears on the ID card surprises and almost delights me with it’s crude imaging, unchanged in picture quality from the one I was issued in 1998. I am using it as my Facebook profile picture, though the lighting casts a shadow that gives me clown lipstick.

In 1998, in London, shopping for anything was expensive. The Americans told us about Costco. Saving money, like crispiness, is an inalienable right. We had just acquired a wonky old station wagon. Having a baby made grocery shopping and everything else just that little bit more complicated. At first I did the weekly shop at the Waitrose on Finchley Road. You walk to it down the hill. There was a taxi rank outside and a bus stop for the 268 that ran all the way back up the hill.

Having come there from NYC, I had been surprised by the lack of supermarket deliveries. The big, clean, orderly supermarkets, the satisfying graphics of Waitrose packaging, so much nicer than the small, cramped supermarkets of 80s/90s NYC, even Food Emporium (where “people like things special, even when they’re shopping for the little things.”) It was a step up for us. For the other Americans, it was the small underground car park, with its tight turns and never enough spaces that symbolized the general sense of difficulty, the austerity of convenience. It’s not America, love.

In a few more years, the supermarkets would offer internet shopping with home delivery and, unless your weekly shopping trip was something you looked forward to, as I did when the O2 Centre (urban mall) was newly opened and I was great with second child, you would never go back.

Only a desperate at-home mum would be at the O2 at 7 am, using that prime mother & child parking by the front entrance at Sainsbury’s (big supermarket). The two-year-old and I would waddle up the escalator and enjoy the sound of the rain forest, the Flintstone rock seating, the elevators, the waterfall and best of all a huge tank aquarium you could walk through. That was good free entertainment, that was. An outing you could do in the rain, week after week, with an infant and a toddler. And you came home with groceries, with something to show for it.

In 1998, the underground parking lot was a step up from the taxi queue, when you shopped with a baby strapped to your chest. “Now that you have a car you can go to Costco,” people said. Costco was where, during the BSE crisis, you could buy American beef. They had ziploc bags, Magic Tape, and the American version of Hellman’s mayonnaise we were used to. They sold large versions of the American products, like Skippy peanut butter, that we could only buy in town in small, imported delicacy sizes at Panzer’s.

Our friends took us on our first run. You had to prove you were a professional of some description to “qualify.” It felt like Glastnost. Look, comrade, at these computer terminals, these Spice Girls music CDs.

Being from New York and Chicago, we were not used to box stores. That was a novelty. (I throw back my head and laugh sardonically now) and there were acres of outdoor parking, free. Look, look, look. SO many things to buy, so cheap compared to Waitrose or Sainsbury’s. And you could get a hot dog or a soft-serve frozen yogurt (rare treat in the UK) for £1.

Our car sagged as we drove back down the M1. We took our cubed metres of paper products and tucked them into the eaves of our Victorian flat. Kirkland this and Kirkland that. Diapers, SMA (baby formula), think of all the money we’re saving.

Circa 2001, our second used car handed in its notice and we let our passport to cheap bulk shopping expire. The BSE crisis was over and we had come to prefer British beef. Tesco offered online grocery shopping. The moment had passed.

Here we have a Costco in easy reach, and a Sam’s Club. We thought about going when we arrived, being that it was like our job to shop, us without any electrics and utter lack of American light bulbs, but the prospect of more paperwork, of paying to shop, it wasn’t appealing. Everything is so cheap anyway. You can drive and park everywhere. It seemed to offer only a meaningless distinction.

Clearly, a year and a half in, something has snapped. We find ourselves in an identical store to the one in Watford, filling out a membership form, being photographed for IDs and filling our cart with olive oil and rice, cheaper Capri Sun.

We see my daughter’s friend and her family. They are shopping without a cart, just picking up bread on their way to lunch. We see the lady from dog park, with her distinctive eyeliner, who makes the organic scented candles.

The children sit in the leather furniture display while we chat to the other parents. The store is laid out the same as the one in Watford, as they are the world over. We are freed once again from the supermarket, we think, but of course you are never really free from shopping.

Instead of the grainy two dimensional photo maybe they could do a high res 4-D one, and we would select an avatar and send it shopping instead, and then we could get on with our lives, fully stocked and saving money at the same time.

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