Weigh the apples, tip the baggers

You probably have a favorite grocery store. And maybe a secondary favorite, where you head for specific foods your favorite store doesn’t carry or where certain items are a bit cheaper. And you know exactly what route you like to take to get to there, whether by public transport, your own car, or powered by your own two feet.

Me, too. Although now “my” grocery stores are no longer mine, in the sense that it would take a taxi, several plane rides and a rental car to make picking up a gallon of milk at Harris Teeter an option.

One of the frustrations—and fun parts—of moving is you have to start over when it comes to finding your grocery store. Hard enough when you move a few towns over, right? Now, try finding a new favorite grocery store in a new country, where none of the names ring any bells, none of the routes to get there are familiar, and once you enter the doors, very few of the brands are recognizable, and quite a bit of the food is new to you, too. And all the prices are in a currency you’re still figuring out so every product comes with a bonus of a math equation in your head to determine what the price translates to in US dollars.

Full disclosure—in the quest for a grocery store, Wil is the gallant knight riding the lead steed, and Liam and I are the peasants trailing behind, oohing at the foreign chocolates in the candy aisle while he’s actually trying to find food to fill out a menu for the week. He’s the chef in the family who ably plans and cooks our daily meals. (Yes, my friends, I married well.)

He has had some help in the quest. We’ve been taking suggestions from the other Americans here and experimenting with different locations. One option is the Co-Op system, a government, citizen-owned, grocery chain which has a larger anchor store central to each district in the city, with small branches in each, or at least many, of the district’s blocks. We went to our small branch once, when a neighbor took us, but the vibe was weird for me—almost only men in the shop and some of them just idle—and the larger one is nicer but the selection was still a bit limited compared to other grocery chains we’ve found here.

A lot of the grocery stores are located in the basements of massive malls. In those cases, part of the challenge has been accessing the correct parking garage that puts us near enough to be able to wheel the grocery cart out to the car.  We had a failed attempt to properly shop at one of those the week we moved into our house. First, Wil got home from work late. Next, we got a little lost getting to the mall. Next, despite it being a Tuesday at 7:30 pm, the mall’s outer lots and encircling access road were clogged with cars. We ended up parking in a garage near the mall’s IKEA a good 15-minute walk (inside the mall) from the grocery store. We picked up a few small items but it wasn’t practical that night to do more.

After visiting at least half-a-dozen stores, Wil’s current favorite is a good 15-minute drive down the highway, but comes with the bonus of a giant parking lot. Inside, the grocery store is spread out over several floors and contains quite a few US-type items, so he’s able to get through most of his shopping list.

Almost all of the stores we’ve visited have many Indian and Filipino foods and brands available, since those are large expat populations here, as well as a large array of British goods. (I mentioned the candy aisle earlier – Hello, Dairy Milk and Flake!) There are large arrays of figs, dates, dried fruit and nuts behind counters. You can buy pineapples from India or Kenya, Saudi beetroot, or mango from Egypt, with the origin of all fresh fruit and vegetables on display. Rice is on offer in gigantic sacks lining an entire aisle. In the dairy aisle, labneh–a kind of yogurt cheese–takes up half the aisle. (It’s also sold in jugs that look suspiciously like milk jugs, so it’s good to pay attention.) No pork products and no alcohol available, to adhere to Islamic rules, but we do see beef bacon and non-alcoholic beers and mixers. We get a little giddy, to be honest, as each aisle unveils something a bit new and different.

The signage and labels are generally in both Arabic and English, so that’s not a huge issue, although Wil has to spend a lot of time reading labels on all the unfamiliar brands to determine which can or package is likely to contain what he is actually trying to buy.

We missed the cues on our first big shopping trip and ended up holding up our check-out line while the baggers had to run back to the produce section to get all of our fresh vegetables weighed at the mandatory weighing counters. We at least had been told that the men bagging—all of whom are non-Kuwaiti, third country nationals—are employed purely by tips, so we brought Kuwaiti Dinar bills to hand over.

We’ve learned to bring freezer bags to try to sort the cold and frozen foods into at check-out. The walk out to the car in 110+ degrees means everything is already warming up by the time we unload into the trunk. Wil has bought a cooler to stack the bags in for the drive home but it’s still a challenge to keep everything relatively chilled by the time we make it back to the house.

Food will be a topic for many more of my posts, I guarantee, so I’ll leave you with the image of us sweating as we rush to get our foreign groceries inside the air-conditioned cool of our villa, dreaming of the reward later of a delicious dinner.