In New York, I moved fast.
I knew how to work the lines at Trader Joe’s on 14th street so that I could be in and out in under 45 minutes; I knocked off my farmer’s market shopping early in the morning, before the shuffling herds came through taking pictures of picturesque radishes. (I took my arty roughage shots in my early morning rounds. I love a pretty beet as much as the next gal.) Dry cleaning, school trips, doctors’ appointments, work meetings? Done, done, done, and done. I was one efficient Mannahatta Mamma: Things. Got. Done.
Now? Everything has slowed down. Time has blurred into one long hot swirl: our apartment only has one working clock, in the kitchen on the microwave; my phone’s battery is dying and so the clock keeps slipping back to New York time (unless can phones be homesick?) I never know exactly what time it is and even if I did, we don’t have anywhere to be. The boys haven’t started school, I haven’t started work; it’s Ramadan and a sticky 115 degrees at midday, so the streets are quiet and lots of shops are closed until after sundown.
My sister, who lived for a few years in Paris, told me that the thing about being an expat is that everything takes a lot longer than you’re used to, and she’s absolutely right. Being new anywhere, of course, means it takes twice as long to do the things you did at home, but the triple whammy of new city + new country + new culture has slowed me practically to a crawl.
So for instance the other day I went to a mall to scope out a store that sells skateboards (yes, Avril, there are sk8rboys in the UAE.) Caleb has his heart set on a skateboard for his 7th birthday, thanks to the influence of his much-adored fifteen year old cousin Charlie. In a burst of inspiration, I found a skateboard store on a mall website and reminded myself to make sure that the mall was open in the afternoon, despite Ramadan. The mall was open, in fact, so I girded myself for the heat, found a cab, found the mall, found the store.
Which was closed. Mall open, store closed. Closed with no indication about when (or if) it would ever open. Undaunted, I went to another store, looking for sheets. Closed.
Refusing to admit defeat, I went downstairs to Lulu’s, which is the huge “hypermarket” that is less expensive than Spinney’s (probably because Lulu’s doesn’t have the overhead of maintaining a pork room) and not as overwhelming as Carrefour, which as near as I can tell is a combination of K-Mart and Food Emporium. Yes, it’s true, there have been any number of grocery store trips in the last week: big grocers are reliably open during Ramadan and I can stay inside playing Hearts with my kids for only so many hours before losing my mind.
So I tell myself that I can do some grocery shopping – get some staples, a few household items, and then I’d head home. I have a list, I like grocery stores, I can do this.
Next time you’re in the grocery store, notice how much of your shopping is done through visual cues: you’re on your way to one section of the store, you see a flash of something out of the corner of your eye and remember you’re out of bread; you’re on your way to the cheese, see the Land O’Lakes lady and remember you need butter. You know the pattern on the cereal box, the color of the pasta box, the layout of the shelves.
I meandered through Lulu’s, down the aisle devoted to ghee and oils, past the aisle of rice, along the trays of meat (Brazilian beef mince, Australian beef mince, Irish beef mince—aka, hamburger meat). I’m weaving up and down the aisles, looking for items on my list and not finding much: I don’t recognize labels and while many things are printed in Arabic and English, it’s the Arabic side that usually faces out to the aisle, so I am, quite literally, clueless.
And then I found myself in the vegetable scrum. My blurred sense of time had erased a key efficiency mantra: thou shalt not go anywhere at rush hour. Somehow I’d hit Lulu’s at about 530PM on a weekend evening and the produce section was mobbed with people shopping for the iftar meal or grabbing their post-work dinner.
The vegetable scrum doesn’t start as a scrum: you choose your produce, sling it into the little plastic bags, just like at home. Then, however, instead of plunking the bag in your cart and waltzing on your way, you have to find the weighers: people who sit at scales in the produce section, weigh your selections, and smack a price tag on each of your little plastic bags. Woe betide you if you get in the checkout line of the store without having your produce priced first; and woe double betide you if you show up at the vegetable scales with your produce not in a bag. There’s very little recycling here, so I thought I would pass on the plastic bags. WRONG. I got dark looks and deep sighs from those all around me in the scrum as the weigher had to take an extra few seconds to put my bananas, garlic (one head), and grapes each in separate bags.
I suppose some would say it’s like Fairway on a Saturday morning or Zabar’s deli counter of a Sunday, but you know? I never go there because I hate crowds. And if I were to go there, I’d know the etiquette, where to stand, what to grab, how to glare (or if to glare). Instead I stood heavily in one place wishing that the six South Indian guys in front of me didn’t smell quite so bad, and envying the burka’d lady behind me who chatted confidently on the phone while elbowing me subtly out of her way so that she could Get. Things. Done.
Total time spent in the grocery store? Two-plus hours.
And you know what? There’s still nothing in the house to cook for dinner. I was so undone by the process of figuring out the store that I forgot to buy food that went together: in my grocery bags were chicken, taco shells, a jar of oregano, my hard-won produce, a dust mop, apple juice, butter, microwave popcorn, cookies, babaganoush, a bottle of glass cleaner, and small plastic baggies. We ordered in Indian food.
This whole adjusting to expat life reminds me of being pregnant for the first time. You know, you read the books that say “life will change” and friends who are already parents do the mysterious smile and say “things will be different,” and if you were like me, you probably nodded and said I know, I know, it’s going to be different, sure sure sure.
But then you had the baby and HOLY CRAP MY WORLD JUST EXPLODED WHY DIDN”T ANYONE WARN ME?
Before we moved here, I was all yeah, it’s going to be hard, it’ll be an adjustment, blah blah blah.
I didn’t understand that “adjusting” would involve being the confused white lady catching dirty looks from tired shoppers because she’s holding out a bunch of bananas without the requisite plastic bag.
I forgot, in other words, that moving from Not Knowing to Knowing can sometimes be a bumpy journey.