If you, as a foreigner were to visit the average American home, you would be astounded at the quantity of stuff they have, well, stuffed, everywhere. I’m not talking about clothes and papers and books, things accumulated within a lifetime. I’m talking about consumables. I thought of this yesterday when the bathroom lightbulb blew at 9:30 at night, and I didn’t even stop to think whether I had extras. I just knew I didn’t. I wouldn’t say that makes me better than anyone else, just less prepared. And then I thought about why.
Costco and BJ’s and Sam’s Club memberships abound in the United States, and people are drawn to them like gulls to a trashheap. They buy, say, all their paper goods or a flat of ketchup, congratulate themselves on having made a good purchase, and drive their stuff back to their house, where they unload it to find, d’oh! I already have a flat of ketchup. Or not.
I don’t doubt that buying things in large quantities makes sense when you have a big home, a car, a membership to one of these buying clubs and many people that live in your house using diapers or cleaning products or what have you. It’s also not particularly uncomfortable, I suppose to have your pantry chock full of canned items that can be opened, inverted, heated and eaten. When I was growing up we had so many of these canned items (mostly tomato products and canned beans, if memory serves) that we took to writing the dates on the tops of the cans so we would remember when they’d been purchased, and try to (vaguely) eat them in order. Or at least within a few years of when they’d been purchased.
But I still have to wonder, what’s with the bomb shelter mentality? Is it because our parents, or our parents’ parents lived through the depression, when food was scarce (and disposable diapers not yet invented)? Is it because it makes us nervous to have empty storage space in our homes? Storage space that could be filled with multiple repeats of whatever it is we bought last week?
Whatever the case is, that has taken Americans and their overstocked larders by storm, I can guarantee that it has not yet caught on here in Chile. Sure, we’ll get six packets of tomato sauce bundled together, offering a free “yapa” of pasta to accompany them, and this will incite “bulk” purchasing, but we have nothing like what’s going on several countries (I count nine, but that’s because I skirted Belize on my trip, how ’bout you?) to the north.
In fact, when I went to buy my refrigerator here (refrigerators only seldom coming included in your Chilean apartment, and generally only if the apartment is advertised as having a “cocina equipada,” which should mean they have a stove as well), I was hesitating over which size to get. And the woman at the store asked, well, how many people are you? At the time, we were two, and so I was pointed to a fridge maybe one-third to half the size of the fridge I had just bought for my (then) rented house in DC. In Chile they just don’t stockpile food. By assimilation, I now behave in the same fashion, and in fact, if I tell you I have no food in my house, I really mean that all I have is some rice and dried mushrooms, and baking supplies (but probably no eggs). There might also be some tapioca balls for an ill-conceived foray into making homemade bubble tea.
This failure to stockpile food and other consumables is why I found myself at what I like to call “the bad supermarket” near my house at nearly 10:00 last night, looking to buy a lightbulb to replace the one that had just sparked its last spark in my bathroom a few minutes before. In addition to remembering why I call it the bad supermarket, I puzzled over why what I consider to be one of the greatest supermarket inventions ever, does not exist in the United States.
In the lightbulb aisle at supermarkets (and Home Depot-like stores like Easy and Sodimac/Home Center), there is a lighbulb tester, a little socket where you stick the lightbulb in flip a switch, and determine if your lightbulb is dandy or a dud. In the US we usually hold them up to our ears and shake them to hear if the filament is loose, but sometimes still end up with a no-glower. I thought about why we don’t have these in the United States, and then I realized what thousands of dollars in legal education have told me is true. We are a litigious society. Some bozo would stick his finger in the socket, flip the switch, shock himself, fall on somebody’s grandmother, break her leg, which leads to her not picking up her grandson at daycare, which leads to him being onsite when a sinkhole opens and swallows the daycare center, and the whole thing is because nobody had to hold a lightbulb up to his ear and shake it.
Which is also way of telling you that I know those energy saving lightbulbs are the shizzle, but I can’t bear to look at myself under the flourescent-like glow of those creepy coiled monstrosities first thing in the morning. Which means in about a year, at say around 10 PM, one day I’ll be back at the lightbulb testing aisle, buying another OSRAM 60W bulb. Because I still didn’t buy any extras.
Americans can be like little chipmunks, burrowing for the winter. It is comforting being surrounded by things, but the more I travel, the less I become attached to material items.
Also, it helps not to have storage room! 🙂
I dunno, I might have to disagree with you here. When I lived alone, I was always having to run out to the store at 10 pm for toilet paper – here at The Family Manse, I just have to run out to the garage 🙂
It mostly has to do with space for storing things. I don't have very much space and I prefer the supermarket to store my stuff for me. It could also be a reaction to the years when you had to stockpile things when they appeared. Now it is a pleasure to know they are there whenever you want. There might also be a tad of joy in shopping thrown in. Also, I think you waste less by shopping when you need things. Sometimes things in the back of the cupboard pass their date. In Perú I used to go to the corner store and buy what I needed to make a cake: 400 gms of flour, 4 eggs etc. They weighed each thing and I never had old bags of flour hanging around.
I was never a huge stockpiler back in the U.S., but I dare say I'm even less so now that storage space is at a premium. It's convenient to have certain things on hand, but I agree that there's no real reason to horde massive quantities of food and/or household products.
And though it's not a very "green" attitude, I have to agree with you about the compact fluorescent bulbs. The light they cast is terribly unflattering at any hour of the day in my opinion.
I just wrote about the grocery store too!
I used to love going to Costco as a kid, until I realized how many calories those giant muffins had.
My parents have always had the stockpile, save it for a rainy day, mentality and I tend to be the same. However, here I have less physical space to put things so it is more difficult. I hate going to the gorcery store so I try to do it only once or twice a week. I think I told you about the time I was shopping with my boyfriend and he looked confused and asked "Why are you buying so much food?"
Oh, and I forgot to say with that last comment that in the US I think it's a convenience thing. You might not have time to go to the store everyday so you go on one big trip thereby "saving" time.
Now that we have a car and a bigger apartment, we buy more in one trip. That said, we don't stockpile to the extent that my parents do in the US and UK. I sort of associate having all the cans and other non-perishables with being an adult…like in college I just bought what I would eat that week, now that I'm more settled I do have some supplies that are always on hand, like flour, but I'm still not to the extent of having the fully-stocked spice rack plus soups of all kinds plus enough random seasoning packets to last for years. I do think it's convenient though, since at home I always seemed to be able to find something to eat and here there really are times when there's no way that I could make a meal without going to the store!
What is this great SuperMarket Zen going on. I wrote about my obsession with grocery shopping just two hours ago. I think it is the new "crack" for ex-pats. Just sayin…….
…enjoy your blog. Just found the link on a chile forum.
I'll be the gringa dissenter. I love having another six pack of paper towels in the basement. I get a feeling of peace and plenty when I replace something and know that I have more on hand and won't run out. That said, I don't have a Sam's Club membership and don't have an emergency stockpile system like some do.
And come on, give the CF bulbs a chance. Did you know that you need to give them a few minutes to warm up to their maximum brightness? The first wan light is not what you'll have after five minutes — it really does get better. And they last and last. So try!
Hi Nimble, thanks for commenting. I do actually have those lightbulbs, just not in the bathroom. I have them in the living room and bedroom, which are places I actually spend some time with the light on. Since I shower at the gym most days, my bathroom time at home is mostly short-lived, and until they outlaw incandescents, I'll be sticking with those.
and you know, if I had a basement, I would think about getting a six pack of something. But at this point if I buy anything in bulk, I will have to sleep in the hallway!
You know, being suburb dwellers who don't like to drive all that much, our stockpiling is more a response to our dislike for shopping as opposed to our need for 64 rolls of TP. Thing is, when we lived a block and a half from the market, we often had no food in the house, really, none, because we kept it at the market for when we needed it, you know?