I'll admit, here in Belgium, I'm once again feeling a bit overwhelmed about stepping foot in a grocery store. After living in a second world country, the choices available to me are stymieing me from the moment I grab my shopping carriage. Because we are now located in close proximity to an American military base, I now have regular access to commissaries. For the unfamiliar, commissaries are essentially military grocery stores that sell American grocery products. Regardless of where you are in the world, whether you are in Virginia, San Diego, Japan or yes, Belgium, the store layouts are the same and you can buy your Oscar Meyer Bacon, Old El Paso Taco shells and Bounty paper towels. (It is like having a little piece of America in your shopping cart). Stepping into the commissary for the first time I felt like I was immediately transported back to northernVirginia. But I was overwhelmed just the same. I was simply not used to having so many options.
By the time we left Albania many of the most popular American brands were available in the stores. Heinz ketchup lined the shelves and it even came in a "spicy" version which wasn't all that spicy. Coke was always available but the European version was made with sugar rather than corn syrup, which produced a drink with a totally different flavor. Pringles were readily available in every store in Albania but the flavors were different and limited. Sidney's favorite in Albania were called "spicy" which in reality was a red pepper flavor. Here the choices are endless; while not including red pepper you can even buy pecan pie and guacamole or one of many other varieties. Who knew? Looking for an easy dinner option, I selected boxed pasta and Barilla sauce from the shelf. First, the number of brands available to me was overwhelming. While the pasta tasted the same as the Albanian version, the sauce, one that I regularly bought in Albania, was different. Despite being the same brand, what was in my jar was sweeter and thicker than what I had bought in Albania. Looking closely at the label I saw that my Italian Barilla pasta sauce had been imported from the United States. I suddenly found myself longing for my European sauce. And rice for risotto, my go-to meal? None could be found on the shelves but I could have bought ten different varieties of instant or quick cooking white rice. But some of the differences in products were wonderful. My name brand paper towels purchased from the commissary were soft and absorbent rather than the flimsy yet stiff paper products I had grown accustomed to. My hands actually felt soft rather than shriveled and dry after washing a sink full of dishes with my American dish detergent. These are a few of the "luxuries" I had been missing.
But my options don't end there. In addition to the American commissary, there is a whole variety of European grocery stores in Belgium. The most prevalent appears to be Carrefour, a French grocery chain that also established a small footprint in Albania during our final year there. But all Carrefour stores are not created equal. I know stores cater to their market and in that respect I suppose that the Albanian Carrefour stores meet the needs of their clientele. In fact, the items they carried were not all that different from those sold in the other grocery store chain in Albania. Choices were limited but somehow it seemed to work. But Belgian Carrefour stores? They are a whole other beast that are
Honestly, at the moment I feel as though I have too many choices. While I still love certain American products, I've grown used to shopping in local markets and for the most part, buying European products. (For all you bakers out there, those gourmet European butters that cost an arm and a leg in America are everyday inexpensive here!). Even in the midst of my cultural shocked daze, I'm realizing that I now have the best of both worlds. I can buy the American products I love (cleaning and paper products) and the European brands I've grown to prefer all while discovering items unique to Belgium. Once I recover from my initial shock, this is going to be fun. And if history holds true, I'll soon be in and out of these stores in a matter of minutes as well.........or maybe not since I do have a lot of options.