Tuesday, April 29, 2008

No good bread, no decent paper towels, and hoarding.

We have a couple of grocery stores on our little compound and this makes us women quite lucky in that since we CAN drive inside the perimeter of our walls to go to the store we don't have to put our abeya's on and get in a cab to go downtown. And that's a good thing.

When we got here five years ago there was only one grocery store and a little 24-hour store that stocked the very basics. I was actually fairly impressed that we had such decent selection of items - foodstuff and whatnot - that I was familiar with. There were a lot of items on the shelves that I had no idea what they were and, this being the strictest of Muslim countries we were well aware of the fact that we were not going to find any pork products or alcohol so their absence was not a surprise. But there was a good selection of the items which I had eaten or used in the States and whatever it was that I couldn't find or couldn't get I realized I was just going to have to live without.

There are in this little multi-cultural community of some 15,000 people, many nationalities living together in a walled-off compound. I know I refer to it as "our little compound," but in actuality it isn't that little. The grocery store, which we refer to as "The Commissary" seemingly made efforts to stock items that would be pleasing to everyone. Much has changed at The Commissary over the past five years, and as far as I'm concerned, those changes have not necessarily all been for the better.

The workers have all changed. What was once all imported labor for almost every position in our Commissary was "Saudized" and the workers who once ran the registers were eliminated as those positions became positions that ONLY the "locals" are allowed to fill. At the same time, as more and more Westerner's are replaced by the "locals" on our Compound the Commissary's products have changed to accommodate them - and not us, anymore - along with the changing of the Commissary's employees. In the "olden days" the imported workers knew how to bag groceries - they didn't put bread in the same bag with the soap, they bagged all the frozen food together, and you could count on your produce being bagged together. Not any more. What annoys me more than that, though, is the fact that it takes so much longer to go through the check out because the newer workers aren't really interested in working - they are there to socialize. They are either talking with each other or much more concerned with whether or not they have had a text message come in on their mobile in the last three or four seconds than they are with running your groceries over the scanner. It's annoying. The workers who were imported would NEVER have gotten away with this sort of conduct. And it doesn't just happen once in a while, now, it's ALL THE TIME!

I get more and more disgusted every single time I have to go to grocery store, here. We went for three months without ice. Why? Who knows. Every time I inquired as to when we'd be getting ice the answer was the same, "We are working out the details with a new contractor to supply ice." What was wrong with the contractor who used to supply ice? Was someone not getting the appropriate kickback or something? There was always ice, so the contractor was obviously doing his job - to stock the stores with ice - and now - we have to go three or four months without ice because someone decided that he wasn't getting enough out of the deal so the rest of us - some 15,000 or so of us - have to suffer? And, yes, because I have an incredibly difficult time keeping my mouth shut, I couldn't help but ask if it was due to the kickback percentage but I got no answer.

The larger of the grocery stores, which we refer to as The Commissary, has a bakery department and for a several years I was buying this wonderful bread - a real whole grain, full-bodied bread with a great flavor - that made the best toast in the world and terrific grilled cheese sandwiches. I shared the bread with others who would immediately say, "What kind of bread is this? Where'd you get it?" That was a mistake because word got around and then if you didn't get to the bakery as soon as the bread was delivered and baked [it was brought in in loaves that needed to be cooked and then the bakery would bake them on-site] then you were "SOL" because it would be gone that quickly with everyone buying it. Honestly, they could have raised the price - even doubled it - and the bread still would have been the first to sell out. But, nooooo. Guess what happened, instead? About a nine months ago someone decided that because the bread was so damn good and was a best seller that it shouldn't be carried at all, anymore. Yes. That is exactly what happened. One of the men who works at the bakery - who gets to know all the women and is quite friendly - said to me one day when I was buying my bread, "This is it. We are going to discontinue making this bread." I bought the entire batch - eight loaves - and froze them. Thank you Mr. Bakery Man for the heads up. But why? Why? [Because it was a favorite among Westerner's and therefore we must eliminate even the smallest item which causes them any satisfaction, that's why!] And regular store-bought, sliced bread? What happened to the Delta bread? You were selling out of that on a regular basis and people liked it - or Westerner's, anyway - and so a few weeks ago you decided that you wouldn't carry that anymore, either? Nope. Now, not only is my favorite bakery bread no longer available, but neither is the sliced white bread that I would buy for daily use - because you always have to have some bread on hand...

What happened to the "real" paper towels? What we have now is some sort of imposter that comes on humongous rolls that gets wet and slimy in your hands that doesn't do shit to either dry up spills or clean up messes, that leaves a fibrous residue all over every single thing which it comes into contact with, that cannot handle any cleaning solution whatsoever being applied to it, and furthermore doesn't even have perforations to tear off single sheets!!! Whatever it is - is is NOT paper towels!!! It isn't even an excuse for what should be paper towels. Probably someone complained about the price of Bounty paper towels - they weren't cheap here - so in order to placate that person who must have had a common "local" last name - they eliminated Bounty from the shelves and in Bounty's place put some sort of barely fibrous paper on rolls big enough to circle the globe but are a fraction of the cost. Oh thank you, thank you, thank you for this because just what I needed was another small aggravation to add to my ever-growing list.

If you are not fussy about your laundry soap then you can always find some. I am fussy about laundry soap. It's not enough that we are using salt water to do our laundry - which ruins your clothes - but now, for some reason, good laundry soap is getting more difficult to obtain. Why? Who the hell knows. And dishwasher soap? Every house on this compound comes with a dishwasher, so why is it that there is never any dishwasher soap?!? Who is doing the ordering for The Commissary, now? [Never mind. I know the answer to this.] Can't they see that the dishwasher soap area on that particular aisle is empty?!? [Or is whoever supplies the dishwasher soap not giving a big enough kick back?]

Good butter? Rarely. Some yellow-oily stuff that is labeled butter, but is the farthest thing from butter that I've ever tasted. May as well use pure crude oil on your toast - but since there's no good bread, no need... Crackers? You get one of two kinds. You better get used to putting Ritz crackers out with cheese if you're entertaining and want crackers and cheese. I was told by someone that the reason we can't get decent crackers is because so many of them are made with animal fat and that animal fat is often from a pig - so that's why we can't get crackers. We haven't had a box of regular saltines on the shelves at the Commissary in over a year. Not that I'm a big saltine fan, but they are great in tomato soup and with peanut butter!

So you hoard things. If you see something that you know you like and are going to eat or drink or use - you buy twenty of them - you hoard them. Which means that there won't be any for the next person who wants to buy whatever that item is. But because you can only sometimes get whatever it is you like or want and you know that it's going to be a while before that particular item gets stocked again - IF it gets stocked again - whatever it may be - dishwasher soap, bread, Limeade, butter, paper towels... You just have to hope that you have a freezer and have room to freeze perishable items, and you just have to make room for the rest of it - laundry soap and paper towels can be stored under the bed!

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