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.

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