Every evening at about six-thirty, I walked through the doors of the local food store on Muswell Hill Broadway. During my extended stay in London, it was my evening ritual to pick up something for dinner and a snack for the next day. While I fell into the groove of a London grocery store rather quickly, the first few days were an interesting experience of learning the norms of a different culture.
Back home, grocery shopping is usually a once a week thing, but I realized very quickly that weekly shopping in London does not work. First, like many Londoners, I relied on walking and public transportation to get around town, which makes carrying a week’s worth of groceries next to impossible. Second, the house where I was staying had a teeny tiny refrigerator that I had to share with another roommate and the homeowners. It was about the size of a mini bar, so I had no choice but to adopt the London lifestyle of daily market trips.
There were two grocery stores in the Muswell Hill area: Marks and Spencer’s and Sainsbury’s. I went with M&S mainly because it had a large array of fresh produce and a healthier variety of food products. And it was cleaner.
My budget constraints left me with about £10 a day for food, which included my daily Cafe Mocha, (£2.90). Breakfast and lunch were a snap – a bagel smothered with Nutella in the morning and a fresh apple in the afternoon. Those two meals together cost me about £10 a week.
Dinner, however, was a bit trickier. All I had to cook food was a microwave and a toaster, which was actually more restrictive than the budget! Thankfully, Marks and Spencer carries a wide array of frozen prepared meals that are reasonably priced and somewhat healthy (few preservatives or artificial ingredients). If I could get to the store before 6:00 p.m. I picked up a freshly made sandwich or salad. They were just as inexpensive as frozen dinners, but they were in short supply! Just ten minutes past six meant an empty shelf.
I think I tried just about every variety of the single-serve frozen dinner. The store brand chicken casserole, bangers and mash, and shepherd’s pie were my favorites, though I’d stay away from anything Italian (the noodles never cooked right). For £2.29 - £3.29, I got a pretty decent meal with enough left over to get a little dessert.
The candy rack is usually where I found that dessert. Candy bars are typically Cadbury or Mars, but in varieties that were totally foreign to me, (see The Junk Food Tourist for a complete rundown on my candy adventure). Depending on the brand or size, they go for about 55p or £1.00.
Shopping in the store is about the same as it is in the U.S. It’s crowded, people don’t always move, and it has that urban food smell that dominates all grocery stores. However, things get interesting when it’s time to wait in line and pay. British people take waiting in line (or queuing up) pretty seriously. There is no whining, line cutting, or standing too close to one another, nor is there tolerance for obnoxious conversations on a mobile phone. If any of these unspoken rules are broken, the British are not shy about voicing their disdain.
What I found most fascinating was the courtesy of placing the conveyor belt divider for the person standing behind you. Whether I was carrying one item or five, the person in front of me never failed to place the divider. It didn’t take me long to adopt the policy both in London and back home. A little kindness goes a long way.
The cashiers sit instead of stand as they scan purchases. They sit on ergonomic stools that actually looked really comfortable! People either bagged their own groceries or the cashier took on bagging duties once money changed hands. Bags are not free, but rather optional and for a fee, (5p). It didn’t take long for me to wise up and bring my own bag in order to avoid being charged extra.
After a while, I got to know the cashiers and I no longer got lost trying to find the snack aisle. I knew the left door always got a little stuck when it slid open and there was always a huge puddle in front of the exit after it rained. I’ll bet if I went back today I could still find the Nutella and the best frozen bangers and mash a girl could ever want. This little store, along with so many other things became part of what I call my “new familiars.”
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As this series progresses, I’ll being using this section to ask questions to clear up my own curiosities. However, please feel free to leave your own questions and comments below.
Are small refrigerators common in London homes?
What’s the story behind having to pay for a bag?
How would locals describe food prices – high or reasonable?
Londoners, what did I get wrong?
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