What are you packing?

I was standing in the basement of our new Canadian home surrounded by boxes. We were down to the left over boxes, the ones without an obvious home. Glasses/cutlery went in the kitchen and sheets/blankets in the linen press, but these were the boxes that had missed a label. It was all the “stuff” that came from the back of the cupboards in our last home in Libya.

My companion for the day was Ed, he was a man of few words and even fewer teeth. He was part of a team that had been contracted by the International moving firm we’d spoken to seven months before in Libya. Ed looked a little different than the picture of the male model dressed in uniform on the front of the company brochure. Apart from being toothless, he smelt like he’d bathed in Eau de Burbon the evening before. It was oozing from his skin, even his butt crack which was very visible from his low slung pants.  I’m guessing Ed was around sixty, he had a penchant for women in stilettos with big bum cheeks, they were his preferred choice of tattoo.

Ed’s favourite job, in between smoke breaks, was to open up a box and give me a running commentary as he filtered through through the contents. He’d then leave it all there in the box and make his way to next one. “Looks like this one’s just got bathroom shit in it”. Useful, thanks Ed. As he slid the knife through the latest strip of masking tape and lifted the flaps of the box, I caught sight of Ed’s reaction. Uh oh. It all came flooding back, I remembered what was in there.  As I clambered my way over to Ed desperately trying to remove the evidence, I realized it was too late. There they were. Thirty boxes of unopened condoms.

Silence. Awkward, uncomfortable silence.

A string of excuses began pouring out of my mouth and my cheeks burned as I desperately tried to make  900 condoms disappear. I started to stammer my way through a really poor explanation “Expats sometimes have to buy in bulk, you never know when you’re going to find something again, I just grabbed them while I could”. Ed looked over at the three little travelers, at that stage, all under the age of four and turned back to the me and my thirty boxes of condoms “they obviously didn’t come with instructions” he said.

If you’ve ever lived in a country where supplies are sporadic, you’ve more than likely, participated in bulk purchases. Even in Qatar, a country that has Marks and Spencer, Pumpkin Patch and Virgin Megastore, we are currently experiencing the great tinned tomato famine. In a world that’s gone mad, I made the euphoric discovery of Barbeque Shapes and Tim Tams only to then realize there wasn’t a diced or peeled tomato in a 10 mile radius of my house.

This of course will all change dramatically next week. Next week I will walk in to the supermarket and find an entire aisle dedicated to tinned tomatoes. They will take up all three shelves, it will be then, that I’ll realize that they’re in the space where the baked beans used to be. I’ll silently curse myself for not being prepared for the ensuing great baked bean famine.

To understand the shopping psyche of an expat you have to understand extremes. When not buying in bulk you’re rationing out supplies. The food shopping that was made on the last trip home must be appreciated until the next trip. In a time of need a Freddo Frog may be divided between four, if spread thinly, Grandma’s home-made jam will last for months. “Everyone can have four twistees each if you don’t fight at the dentist”.

Why do we do it to ourselves? Why can’t we just find a substitute and move on. Is it really about the food?

Does a piece of toast with Vegemite transport you to the kitchen table of your youth? Does the smell of Branston pickle make you think of sandwiches at your first job? Is that toothpaste really the best or does your toothbrush not feel like your toothbrush without it.

Sometimes in an unfamiliar world, that one piece of familiarity can be what gets you through the day.

Often if you ask an expat about the items they travel with, the answer is more about the tradition and the experience. It’s not just the warm milo, its the warm milo we always had after netball practice. It’s the road trip with the girlfriend where we took a bite out of every Clinker so she could have the green ones and I could have the pink. It’s the Tootsie Roll that was bought if you were good while Mum did the shopping. There’s a feeling that comes with the smell, taste, wrapping and even packaging.

When a fellow expat asks “what are they” you are then permitted to indulge in a 5 minute conversation on what a Tim Tam means to you while teaching a friend from Mumbai how to do the Tim Tam Slam. When you hand over the bottle of wine at the dinner party it’s the perfect excuse to speak of home “the winery is just near my house, my parents went there for lunch with my sister last week”. And later, when everyone’s talking and you’re laughing at stories, it’s possible you’ll catch a glimpse of the label only to find yourself picturing  them all together.

Sometimes it has nothing to do with the food.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00121604948534642707 Linda

    I used to lay loaf after loaf of Turkish bread across the top of my clothes in my suitcase when I returned from a visit to Australia. Got back to my HK kitchen, cut it up into hangover-sized portions, and popped it into the freezer until such a moment that buttery Vegemite Turkish toast was the only thing that would do the job.

    My friend used to return with freezer bags of meat (her Dad was a butcher) – I’m talking kilos.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02744937536946299450 liz fenwick

    For each location it was different…here it’s proper vanilla essence 🙂

    lx

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08647596319711811125 cjtato

    So true. What a lovely post. I remember the “care packages” my best friend would send when I lived overseas. Oh how I longed for those packages with my cadbury chocolate and vegemite. Actually they’re the two I remember the most. Does that say anything? LOL

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18254275544017629129 bigwords is…

    I even do it with things in Adelaide in case they disappear – at first it was Toobs (which were discontinued then reappeared again) and now it’s pineapple chocolate!

  • http://thesmartexpat.com/ thesmartexpat.com

    In Shangai, we had “syndicates” for certain foods, which meant that when you found a coveted product, you texted your like minded friends to let them know of the treasure you had found and to ask who needed that particular product (anything from dishwasher powder to Weetbix to soured cream). You would then clean out the shop’s entire supply to deliver to your friends.
    …3 and a half years later, I am still working through a few (non-persishable) items that I lovingly carried from other countries and stockpiled in Shanghai 🙂

  • http://thesmartexpat.com/ thesmartexpat.com

    Liz, in a vanilla essence free country, I learned to make my own vanilla essence. 1 bottle of Jack Daniels add twelve roughly chopped vanilla pods with seeds, close bottle and 6 months later its ready and makes cakes taste divine! Lasts for ages too.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15026987107815016616 4 kids, 20 suitcases and a beagle

    I am making my own vanilla essence this weekend! Thank you! I

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17165208811776097332 Heather

    It’s so true. It’s not just about the food is it? It’s about the association and how they make you feel, just for a few seconds, like home – surrounded by things you know.

    Brilliant post xx

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13009715674974259128 So Now What?

    Oh, I am so the unseasoned traveller.

    I have no stories to tell about stocking up for overseas travel, but I do have an ingrained trait that makes me buy at least three cans of chick peas every time I shop even though some weeks, we may not use even a pea. Hence, if you ever want hommus and/or there is an apocalypse and you need canned foods, come to Chez Morley.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06147888501927922319 alliecat

    Great post. I am still getting over the image of Ed’s face though, and his ever so dry comment!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15999271127735997770 Naturally Carol

    Yeah..it all comes down to the hot cups of Milo and the hot buttered and thinly spread vegemite toast! That was the ultimate treat as kids if we went out with Mum and Dad to a concert or an event at night and came home late.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00071999450731273883 Beth

    I have been away from the UK now for just over five years and there are so many things that I haven’t quite been able to let go of. I STILL buy all my underwear from M&S, either stock up on trips home or the occasional internet buy. Food is slightly trickier….how do you transport hot chips??
    Your post made a lot of sense with the association that these ‘things’ have and the history tied up with them.
    x

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06180263907562765057 MissNeriss

    Everytime someone returns to Australia they MUST bring me back a jar of Promite. Or they are de-friended immediately. And I get my mum to send me tampons by the kilo. They’re just not the same in Holland. Mostly because there’s only one bloody brand.
    @Beth, I also had to buy my underwear from M&S for about a year after I left the UK. Once you find a good pair of nickers it’s hard to let go…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06337410829335466284 Emma

    Couldn’t agree with you more… my cupboards are currently full of marmite (sorry!), cadbury’s creme eggs and English Tea! Love your blog, found you through Notsosinglemum’s bloghop… Emma

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06471711624311927855 caroline

    so smart of you to point it out: it’s not about the food. being in a foreign land, familiarity is a welcome change which food from home can offer. There’s lots of tea types and brands here in Doha, at lots cheaper too, but we still manage to bring hundred kilos from Turkey. It’s not the same if we don’t have Turkish tea at home.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09345662692259541964 Kymmie

    Oh, how I laughed with you during this post. To purchase in bulk became so normal, I never once thought to post about it! But the condoms… that’s HILARIOUS! So funny… and the times when I couldn’t get nappies in PNG, and weetbix. Or milk. It sounded exactly like your tinned tomato famine. And you’re right. It’s not really about the food. xx

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05388656296518535181 Kristin :)

    Oh, how true this is!! It’s funny how food can evoke so many memories of home. 🙂 After living in Germany for the past few years, I can’t explain how unbelievably excited I become when I receive a goodie box from the U.S. filled with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Peanut Butter M&M’s, and brown sugar!! 🙂

  • http://adventuresinexpatland.com/ linda@adventuresinexpatland.com

    Two thousands condoms?? Oh you saucy little minx! And you thought you’d divert us with a discussion about food shortages…

    (For the record, I’ve posted about desperately missing ranch salad dressing. It sounds so plebian, I know. But it’s true. No one is allowed to visit without bringing two squeeze bottles. Oh the shame)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02777700715209427380 SDSJMcManus

    I had such a good laugh about the condom box and the 3 travelers standing there and with so many boxes too…
    We have chutney called Mrs Balls Chutney (such a bad name for chutney but the best best in the world!) The only place you could get it was at Megamart and I remember buying 30 bottles (cleaned the shelf off) when I found them there, now you can get it at Carrefour and Lulu!! Also easter eggs, oh gosh I miss our easter eggs from back home!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05302489120654085490 CATE PEARCE

    I find I can’t stop wonderng how many of those condoms you still have….
    (and in a funny twist, my captcha word was ‘tocome’)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08939805218711968317 Mark

    Having always lived in one place I can still understand what you are saying, since so many of my childhood goodies are no longer made. (Well that’s what happens when your childhood is so long ago – sigh.) So these days I am learning about others’ comfort items … sorry though, Vegemite will never make my list, though a shipment of Tim Tams from some friends is always welcome.

    Also wondering how long 2,000 condoms last? 🙂

  • http://barelynoticeable.com/ Jody

    For sure! “whenever something familiar from home shows up on the shelve in the stores, it’s cause for celebration. It’s like showing up at your Mom’s place to find she’s made all your favorites for dinner.”

    It’s like some sweet nourishment….
    http://barelynoticeable.com/2010/09/06/sweet-nourishment/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01255309437963616569 Kellyansapansa

    I’m sorry, I found it really hard to concentrate on the rest of the post after you put into my head the image of a man with bourbon oozing from his butt crack. Ewww.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15605860202771982572 Penny

    YOu write so incredibly well!
    I’m an immigrant to where I live so know how you feel about the memories food evokes. And sometimes I’ve been so excited to find a shop that stocks it, but then am so disappointed by how it tastes! It was better left as a memory!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09646026064261601469 Happy Homemaker UK

    Very funny. Our store was out of bananas last week due to problems with the supplier 🙂 Hope you have your tinned tomatoes back soon! XOL

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14993934232617420348 Deidre

    Well, I live in australia and corn tortillas and black beans are what I need. I’ve found a supplier now (only the safeway in the melbourne cbd sells corn tortillas…) and there is an organic shop in one of the markets that sells black beans.

    The great tortilla famine lasted a long time and tears were cried. MANY TEARS.

  • http://barelynoticeable.com/ Jody

    For sure! “whenever something familiar from home shows up on the shelve in the stores, it’s cause for celebration. It’s like showing up at your Mom’s place to find she’s made all your favorites for dinner.”

    It’s like some sweet nourishment….
    http://barelynoticeable.com/2010/09/06/sweet-nourishment/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00071999450731273883 Beth

    I have been away from the UK now for just over five years and there are so many things that I haven’t quite been able to let go of. I STILL buy all my underwear from M&S, either stock up on trips home or the occasional internet buy. Food is slightly trickier….how do you transport hot chips??
    Your post made a lot of sense with the association that these ‘things’ have and the history tied up with them.
    x

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05388656296518535181 Kristin :)

    Oh, how true this is!! It’s funny how food can evoke so many memories of home. 🙂 After living in Germany for the past few years, I can’t explain how unbelievably excited I become when I receive a goodie box from the U.S. filled with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Peanut Butter M&M’s, and brown sugar!! 🙂

  • http://ms-havachat.blogspot.ie/ ms-havachat

    Yes. Yes. Yes.
    When we lived in Japan it was not only food but clothes/shoes (other than M, we are so not Japanese sizes), medicines (took back 6 unmade bottle of a wide spectrum antibiotic for ‘just incase’) vitamins and shampoo/conditioner and toothpaste.
    I’d send several 10k boxes back by post every trip home.
    People thought I was nuts until I explained why.
    Now its just food …… twisties, cheezles, sippah straws, aeroplan jelly.

  • Andrea Hamann

    ….ah, yes, for me it was Milo and Tim tams. I also made the devastating discovery that south african Milo is no substitute to Australian Milo. My goodness, the taste is so vastly different. I distinctly remember going through my Milo routine with a newly delivered tin of Milo, and then as I went to taste that chocolatey Milo goodness…..bleehh… Awful. Bitter disappointment. Looked the same, packaged the same…tasted all wrong.

  • Anthea Page

    For me it’s been toothpaste (long story). I made a friend bring eight tubes out once, she was concerned that immigration would think she was a drug smuggler so she declared them!! Great post, hope your tinned tomatoes have turned up.