Where are the Oats?

Taminka – Semester Exchange to Malmo University , Sweden

Semester 2, 2016

Exasperated hand gestures, elongated syllables and getting more than a day’s worth of exercise walking around a grocery store. One of the challenges that comes most clearly to mind when adapting to a new country is simply managing to complete the grocery shopping. It’s a novel challenge and a good opportunity to laugh at yourself, but it is a significant marker of being in a different country. From getting used to paying in a different currency, to committing grave violations of social mores or mostly just trying to find what you need, ‘the weekly grocery shop’, whilst exciting can also be testing and simply exhausting, that is of course if you manage to find the supermarket and it’s open.

In Sweden, most grocery shops open at 10am and close by 9pm, you can expect to queue for at least 10 minutes even to buy one item and never put your groceries on the conveyor belt before the preceding customer has placed the next customer sign. The helpful thing is that amongst the other exchange students you can find out what you’re looking for and where it will be cheapest.

The challenge mainly presents itself when travelling in countries that speak a different language. Having data, google translate and other apps can allay these challenges but even when know what you’re looking for, finding it in the supermarket can be a different question. Even where the language is the same I was struck by certain differences, you come to realise things you miss from home that you’ve taken for granted or wonder how you ever survived without your new staple; cinnamon buns and spice biscuits in Sweden or the £3 meal deal in England providing crisps, sandwich and a drink at any supermarket. I was talking to a Brit and when they discovered the meal deal didn’t exist in Australia they simply looked dumbfounded, questioning how our society functions or indeed remains intact without the meal deal. Even when the familiar brands present themselves, discovering that your Cadbury chocolate just doesn’t taste the same as different recipes are used can also be a bit of a shock.

It’s not all bad though. A supermarket also provides a really interesting reflection and microcosm of a society and its values. You can learn a lot about your host country just by doing the shopping.

For example, Swedes like Cheese ‘Ost’. There are aisles of cheese. Cinnamon buns and filter coffee are also staples for a healthy life. Everything is also very warehouse efficient – IKEA and H&M begin to make a lot of sense. Environmentalism and recycling are important. 7/11 has a salad bar instead of a slurpee machine and you can buy umpteen versions of oat, lactose free and other vegan milks anywhere.

There is something about doing a normal everyday thing rather than the cool tourist options that makes you feel part of a place. When you get the hang of it, it also bolsters a nice sense of independence and becomes an achievement. The suspense of arriving home and opening the packaging to discover if you’ve actually purchased what you thought, gives the thrill of opening a lucky dip as kid, except of course when you pour yogurt into your tea and thought you bought toilet paper but it’s paper towel.

I’ve had to learn to celebrate the little achievements, from getting through a transaction successfully in Swedish, or rather without the server realising you only speak english, to finding a new or equivalent ingredient; when in a different country you need to be open to not knowing even the simplest thing and accepting new and different ideas about how and why something should happen. If your yoghurt comes in a milk carton with the word for milk on it, the puff pastry is rolled up in plastic foil like dog food or the oats are packaged like flour and your bread turns out to have maple syrup injected into it that’s ok, travel is about learning how many different ways there are to do things and having a good laugh at yourself. Back in our exchange student kitchen it also becomes a great conversation starter and the basis of much valued information sharing. Precise directions are given to different ingredients and stories are shared about what is common and uncommon not only in your host country, but everywhere else in the world as well.

I am often struck at the fact that I am in a different country thousands of kilometres from home. Partly this feeling comes because things can feel so normal and alike here, I have to remind myself I am away because over the course of these four months life assumes its own sense of normal. Yes, the language is different, yes it gets dark much earlier and any myriad of other factors but somehow walking through ICA or Coop just as I would Woolies or Coles brings a sense of common normality to it, at the end of the day whether in Sweden or Australia you need loo paper. I mean toilet paper. *exasperated and pointless hand waving* ‘toalettpapper!’