Transfixed and Bemused by Choice

I was inspired by the photos on the Art and Life blog to think about shopping and one’s perception of excess and choice.

This is a photo of a shop called something like ‘Elysian Fields’ near Pushkin Square in Moscow.  I must have taken it in 1996, and given what the people are wearing it must have been late Spring or early Summer.

It’s not typical of the places I did my shopping when I lived in Moscow; the elaborate decoration make it as different from the usual as Harrods Food Hall is to shopping in Londis.  There aren’t many people there, because despite the chandeliers and giant vases, there is really anything you would want to buy, on sale.

In my first few months in Russia in early 1995 it took me a while to accustom myself to the way one had to shop there.  There was no guarantee of a regular supply of anything, so if you saw something you liked, you bought lots of it.  We all adopted the thrifty Russian practice of always having a carrier bag in our pockets, just in case.

I became particularly fascinated by the merchandise on offer in the Dieta shop in my block on Tverskaya.  One day there might be a surfeit of German ketchup, and the next day the shelves would be filled with Burtons chocolate chip cookies.  Further down the road a Danone shop sold nothing but yoghurts with Polish labels.

Even in Stockmann, the Finnish supermarket with the most reliable supply chain, there was no point having a list.  You went to the shop and you bought what they had.

During the years I lived there and then visited afterwards, what was available improved immeasurably, but in my first three to four months grocery shopping required a degree of dedication I would never previously have thought I had in me.

I made my first trip back to the UK after nearly five months of being away.  I stayed with a friend in London and one day went with her to Sainsburys.

I will never forget that feeling of being assaulted by choice.  I stood transfixed in front of the the array of lettuce, utterly incapable of making a selection.  The only salad things I’d seen while I was away were aging bowling ball iceberg lettuces tightly wrapped in plastic.  To be presented with all shapes and sizes of lettuces as well as bags of mixtures, rendered decision making impossible. I wanted to look at them all before I picked one; I wanted to choose exactly the right one.

Eventually my friend came to find me, picked a bag up and threw it into the trolley with barely a second’s hesitation.  I realised I had lost my tunnel vision; that focus on only the thing you really want that makes shopping in a large supermarket possible.  You have to be able to ignore most of the options in order to escape with your sanity in tact.

When I moved back to the UK, I quickly re-established my shopping defence.  It returned quite quickly, probably of necessity.  There are whole aisles in the supermarket that I never have to visit; my eye can scan rapidly over the produce on offer, to boil down the choices without my brain becoming engaged.  Mostly, I know if I forget something, it will be there and available when I go next time.

It does no harm, however, to recall the effect of that over abundance had on me, that day.

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  1. “It does no harm, however, to recall the effect of that over abundance had on me, that day. ”


    Long before 1996, I had do perform some escort duties on groups of Russian Submariners who were docked at Southampton. (Something to do with the big dry dock there, I think.) We couldn’t let ’em run loose round the town, like we did with the Americans, so we escorted them.

    When we took ’em to Sainsbury’s, the local ratty one, they just about had heart failure. “Who is rich enough to have all this?”

    I think your post is one of the most powerful arguments for everyone to put some element of real foreign travel, under their belt while they are still young enough for it to make a difference.


    • Thanks Brendan. You’re right on how important it is to experience where things are different so we can appreciate our own good fortune.


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