Lost in the supermarket

By Lauren R. Stanley

SPRINGFIELD, Va. – Grocery stores in this country are incredibly amazing places; really, they are. They’re light and airy and spacious and have literally tens of thousands of items for sale.

But they’re also incredibly scary places. They’re light and airy and spacious and have literally tens of thousands of items for sale. Which makes them very scary indeed for those of us who don’t have regular access to them.

So I have this love-fear relationship with grocery stores. I love to go to them and see all the wondrous items they have: fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, cereal, teas, coffees (oh, the smell of the coffee aisle!). But I fear going there, too, because they overwhelm me: Why do we need all those varieties of cereal? Where, pray tell, is the tea? And how can I possibly choose from all the varieties of apples?

I’ve just come back from three months in Sudan, living in a small town called Renk. It’s growing rapidly, with the return of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons, but it has very little in the way of food, especially fresh vegetables and fruits. There’s running water on a sporadic basis only, and it’s not clean. Electricity generally comes from generators for a few hours at a time. The roads are dirt, most homes are mud huts, most roofs are thatch. Life there is very, very basic.

So whenever I return to the United States, I find American grocery stores pretty overwhelming. There are simply too many choices and it takes time for me to adjust. I waited five days after my return before going to the store. I used up the last of my travel toiletries: toothpaste, shampoo, soap, baby oil, ear swabs. Much as I wanted to resupply, I couldn’t bring myself to face the complete overload that I knew awaited me there.

But then my little tube of toothpaste, which was turning a tad bit … um … yucky from all the heat in Sudan … began to flatten ominously. So I finally had to give in and face the great boogieman, the American grocery store.

The store I went to recently underwent a renovation, making it even bigger, even brighter, even more spacious. And it had even more items to sell than before. Just looking at all the fresh produce made my head swim. Apples! Oh, my, nice crisp apples, such a difference from the mushy ones in Renk. Bananas! Look how big they are! Five, six, seven kinds of lettuce … what a change from jejeer, the bitter greens we eat. Only the tomatoes didn’t faze me; we have a tomato farm on an island in the White Nile, so fresh, beautiful tomatoes, up to six per day, are a norm in my life.

Then I saw the cereal aisle … how in God’s name can we have so many varieties? Why? (Note: All those choices didn’t stop me from buying a box …)

And on and on, up some aisles, skipping others. Buying only those things I thought I needed, trying not looking at all the options. Every once in a while, I’d forget to keep my eyes averted and would see rows upon rows of pastas, or canned soups, or soaps, and I’d feel a moment of almost panic. Then I’d remember my list, pick one item, go find it, and move on.

Whenever I try to explain American grocery stores to my friends in Sudan, they don’t understand. They think I’m making it up. I’ve shown them pictures, even, but still, they can’t believe that Americans would have so much food in just one place, with so many choices to make. I have this dream of bringing a bunch of my friends to America just so I can take them on a tour of our grocery stores. It would be great fun to see their reactions, but then again, I’m worried that even one quick trip to the store might overwhelm them completely.

We are blessed in this country with an abundance, an overabundance, of goods. We have more choices than we can possibly need, more than we even can handle. In reality, we have too much. I know that by the end of my three months here, I’ll be fully adapted to all this abundance. Then I’ll go back to Sudan for another three months, and when I return next summer, I’ll have to work out this whole love-fear relationship all over again.

My prayer is that one day, I won’t have to do through this anymore, not because we have any less here, but because one day, there will be at least a modicum of abundance in Sudan as well.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Greek, Old Testament and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

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