I hardly give it a second thought. I don’t love it, but I like food and cooking so it’s kind of necessary. When I need something, if I have the van available, I get in my car and go. Most of the time I make a list.
A few weeks ago, I got all fired up about a grocery store closing its doors in the city. Grocery shopping is not a hardship for me because I have a car. But for some who live in the city, grocery shopping is not as accessible.
I know this. But I hadn’t actually experienced it until recently.
One afternoon, I got an email that made me cry. I had applied for a freelance writing job and I got word that I didn’t get it. I was frustrated, mostly, because I want to help our income with my writing. But the more I try, the less effect I see. (Have I told you the one about where I try to increase the number of blog subscribers by offering freebies and my teensy-tiny list gets smaller? Good times.)
Phil and I were getting ready to head to Target to pick up a few things when I got several messages from my new friend, a Syrian woman who has lived here for a couple of months. She wanted to know if I could take her grocery shopping anytime that day. And she wanted to go somewhere cheap. We exchanged a few messages to clarify and there was really no reason I couldn’t do it, so I told her when I would be there. Phil and I ran our Target errand and then I took the now-familiar route to my new friend’s house.
I decided I would take her to Aldi because that’s where I shop and it’s cheap and not too far from the city. Once a month, I accompany a group of refugees to the downtown farmers’ market, but this experience was different. We aren’t usually buying anything, just looking. And there isn’t a lot of time to ask questions. Following a woman still relatively new to our country through the grocery store was another chance to see my world through a different set of eyes.
I let her lead and I answered questions when I could. I pointed to prices. I offered opinions. I tried to hide a smile as she put five eggplants into her cart. I’ve never seen someone put five eggplants in their cart before. Maybe one. Maybe two. I suddenly wanted to be invited for dinner.
At the checkout, we unloaded and I spoke to the cashier about a few things. As we finished and my friend paid for her groceries, the cashier said, “You’re a good friend.” I wanted to ignore her words or make a joke but nothing I wanted to say sounded right. All I could think to say was, “It’s just what I would want someone to do for me.”
“I concur,” the cashier said with a smile.
We bagged our groceries and left. On our way in, my friend had noticed the beauty supply store next to the grocery store. She is a hairdresser, and she was excited to go inside. She wanted to leave her cart of groceries just outside the store on the sidewalk. I didn’t think that was a good idea, so I went to the van to unload while she went in the beauty supply store. I met her inside. She was looking at hair color and a clerk was trying to explain the pricing difference to her.
Beauty supply stores are foreign territory for me, but we figured out what she wanted and she bought two tubes (I don’t even know if that’s the right word!) of hair color. We counted out all the money she had to buy them. She could not stop smiling, and I thought about how good it would feel to do something familiar in a new place, how it would feel to me to have a notebook and pen in my hands again if it had been a long time without.
This is what I was thinking when we got back into the car to go to the next store. Then she started pointing at me and motioning with her hand the act of cutting, and I got the feeling that she might want to cut and color my hair. (I am not 100 percent sure this is what she was saying, but I think so. And I think I might let her.)
At the next store, a much larger one, we bought the few required things she needed, then she wanted to look around. I don’t blame her. In the produce section, she looked and familiar things caught her eye. Whole artichokes, but those were not worth the price, I guess. Then we saw some chayote squash and she wondered if it was quince. I have heard of quince but I know nothing about them. Still, if any place would have these fruits, it would be this grocery store. We found them, and she bought a bag full of them. She kept talking about her family and how happy they would be. At least, this is what I could understand from her tone and facial expressions.
We made it through the checkout process here, too and when we were back in the car, she typed something into Google Translate for me to read.
“I love traveling so much!”
In this short couple of hours, I had taken her out of the city. I showed her the bus station, the train station and the baseball park. I pointed to the playground where some kids were playing after school and she told me with hand motions and a few words how her son liked to swing and slide.
Back at her house, we unloaded the groceries. Her two younger children were awake (they were sleeping the other time I visited). “Mama!” I heard just after we pulled up. The little girl helped carry groceries inside. The boy smiled a lot and tried to escape the house. (Toddlers, I tell ya.)
Inside, we carried groceries up the stairs, although they were reluctant to let me help in any way. My friend had already asked about coffee, to which I said “yes” even though it was after 4 o’clock. They sat me down on the couch in the kitchen. My friend handed me a glass of water, and while I was drinking it and texting my husband to tell him I would not be home just yet, she poured me a glass of the juice we had just bought and exchanged my water glass for the juice glass. Then she gave me a large muffin on a plate with a fork and her husband carried an end table from the living room downstairs to the kitchen upstairs and set it in front of me. Soon after, there was coffee.
I have been to their house twice and I always feel like a special guest. They look at me often and smile to make sure I am happy and enjoying myself. I am, but I have trouble taking in everything that is happening.
The little boy is tossing a small ball around the kitchen and chasing it, just like my son, who is older, does. And when he laughs it fills the room. He throws his head back and lets out this giggle too big for his little body and everyone smiles. When he loses the ball on the counter, his parents play the same game we played with our kids, pretending we don’t know where it went. I imagine they are saying something like, “I don’t know. Where is the ball? Is it here? No. Here?”
The boy runs down the hallway yelling what sounds like “Bye” and returns a few minutes later repeating, “Baba, baba.” He wants his papa to play with him. Just a few miles away, my son is home from school asking his dad to play catch with him.
My friend hands me two jars of peanut butter, unopened. Her children will not eat it. Then they start giving me boxes of cereal and cans of beans and a bottle of ranch dressing. “Mayonnaise?” the father asks, and I try to explain salad dressing but we both give up.
He types something into his phone and I read the English: “Elissa I am sorry for kelling the texi.”
I have no idea what this means but as I’m driving home later I realize he was apologizing to me for calling me to taxi his wife to the grocery store. Many times while I am with them, they say “thank you.” And it is not a big thing I have done but their gratitude makes it feel important.
When I leave, there is an invitation to bring my whole family back. And I want to. The father helps guide me out of the driveway as I back onto the street, and then I am on my way. I am alone in the van, stuck in city traffic, mind already on my family at home and the dinner my husband is cooking and all of the things I have seen and heard that have changed me in these unplanned two hours.
I am no longer thinking about the job I don’t have, the money I could have earned doing it. I am no longer sad, just humbled and grateful and a host of emotions I can’t process right away.
“How do I get myself into these things?” I ask my husband as he stirs the vegetables for the curry he’s making.
But I don’t need an answer from him because I already know the answer. It is simply that I show up and I say “yes.”
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