June 8, 2012

Shopping Schemes of a Desperate Expat

Do you have any idea how cumbersome it can be to shop for your favorite things as an expat? To what lengths we go (and what lows we descend to) all in the name of scoring that favorite pair of jeans?

And I should know what I’m talking about. This here is the jeans section in my closet two years after leaving Kansas:

"Toto, we're not in God's own Shopping Mall anymore"

I can't even claim any shopping hardship here in South Africa. In fact I can already hear some of you grumbling, here she goes again complaining about her posh life, having to maintain a pool and manage a maid. And it's true. I can get anything the heart desires here in Joburg. And anything the heart doesn’t desire, to be completely truthful, if I go by the acquisitions I unwittingly make from convincing street vendors.

And yet once in a while you need that special outfit from The Gap.

Technically, these were from the Easter Bunny, who
of course delivers anywhere worldwide without so
much as an order or change of address notice

Unless you want to gamble away your kids' future college tuition by having it shipped here (let alone the substantial risk of it disappearing altogether), you have to find other ways. This one (shhh, don't tell the girls) involved me feeding a friend's cat and looking after their pool so as not to feel guilty when asking for a huge package from The Gap to be lugged across the world (and through South African customs) for me.

Or take this one:

It involved another friend going on a US boondoggle, carrying it from New York City to a wedding in Minnesota and back. Or perhaps the other way around, I honestly don’t know. I do know that we shared a lovely cappuccino while doing the handover, which somehow always feels a tiny bit illicit, what with having outwitted South African customs so thoroughly.

Or how about these ones:

The handover for these admittedly rather bulky items is yet to come, as the container (of a newly arrived expat family) they are traveling in is still somewhere enroute between Somalia and Durban. Or perhaps kidnapped by pirates for all I know, it has taken so long.

Do you see what I mean? We expats are constantly bartering and exchanging favors for goods. Some of us travel a lot but don’t have a local bank account, so handing over hard cash for a coveted new camera lens can be a win-win situation all around. And some of us travel a lot but do it with four children in tow, so all our hopes of scoring twenty pairs of sneakers at Target and smuggling them back here are dashed when we discover all ten suitcases are already filled with the entire contents of our house in South Africa making a round-trip voyage.

Which made my recent discovery, at Pick n Pay no less, of one of the most coveted overseas items at our house all the more shocking.

Schokoknuspermüsli (it probably took them so long to export
it because they had to translate that  name first)

We left Germany in 1991, and in all those 21 years since then, I have never been able to shop locally for Noisette’s favorite muesli (if you’re  new to this blog, Noisette is absolutely beholden to Milka Noisette chocolate bars, hence the name, but he will make do with any type of chocolate in a pinch). Anybody visiting from Germany knows that you might as well not show up if you don’t bring a bag (a large one, not the small carton) of Kölln Schokomüsli with you. So Imagine my surprise when I’m in the cereal aisle at the Hyde Park Pick n Pay, not my typical hangout, and find myself face to face with an entire row of Kölln Schokomuesli?

Needless to say, I scooped it all up and into my trolley, elated at this find, wanting to tell every other shopper I encountered how extraordinary this was. I was somewhat deflated upon learning at the cash register that each 375 g package would cost me 52 rands ($7) when a bag five times as large might be less than half that price in a German supermarket.

But just imagine. No special orders via email with relatives who you know behind your back are questioning your sanity. No waiting for months for the goods, during which you give ration cards to your kids to be handed in at breakfast. No cold sweats under the withering looks of customs officials and drawing up wild schemes of bribing them with a bowl of muesli if you were to be discovered. No opening your suitcase and discovering that flakes of oats are now happily mingling with your underwear, while the chocolate pieces have formed a cohesive symbiosis with the pages of the new book you also bought abroad.

And yet, somehow I already feel a tinge of regret, a foreboding sense of loss. Most likely one day you'll be able to buy the exact same things everywhere in the world, and what would be the fun in that?


2Summers said...

I can relate to this on so many levels. My jeans wardrobe looks exactly the same. And I think I would spend my life savings on Barbara's Shredded Oats if I found it for sale in a Joburg supermarket.

Sine said...

Where do you get Barbara'Shredded Oats in the U.S.? I've never heard of it but would be happy to bring some back for you in August when we travel there. Oops, maybe shouldn't have mentioned that or the orders will come pouring in:-)

usersnow said...

I leave for Joburg in two weeks for six months work. I'd be happy to bring something over if it means meeting some locals. :)

Regardless, consider me a new reader!!

Sine said...

Hi there, welcome to my blog! And yes, would love to meet you, even without a special order. Though it seems I am running low on ziplock sandwich and snack bags:-)

2Summers said...

I need ziploc bags too! Sine, I'll speak to you off-line :)

Amira said...

wow, this is very disappointing...:((

Stephanie said...

Ladies, my pick n pay has Ziploc brand bags in all sizes. I'm sure the Jozi ones do also!

Anonymous said...

So understand! Here in the UK I cannot seem to find the plain Cheerios they have back in the US. ( My little one's favorite cereal.) We've found lots of new things to love though!

Stephanie said...

I hear you! I about fell over when I found A1 Steaksauce at the Pick N Pay Hyper at Woodmead. HP just doesn't cut it for me. I too know about the illegal-ish hand overs at the Mugg n Bean!

Sine said...

wow, 2 different Stephanies back to back - took me a little bit to figure that out.

@Stephanie in Durban - I know you've said that before but I still can't find them here. At least not packaged the way I like them, in the carton. Not just in a bag. Although I guess I shouldn't be so fussy.

@Stephanie in Joburg - Yippie on the A1 steak sauce:-)

Oh, and I don't think they have plain cheerios here either, or do they? Just honey nut? Or is it the other way around? And don't even get me started on that Bokomo brand or whatever it is, they are not anywhere close to real cheerios!

Sine said...

So I walk past a clothing store today and on a whim go in to look for a pair of jeans, considering the dilapidated state of all my jeans. I wisely ask for the price before trying on a pair and it's over R1500. Yikes! Now I know why I haven't gone jeans shopping in South Africa before...

cat said...

You know that there is a GAP in Sandton City? And one opening in Pretoria soon. And a ZARA in Sandton City. There are rumours of Top Shop coming soon too. The world is shrinking, although at a costly price per item.

Sine said...

Yes cat, I know and have been there at the GAP, but it is SO expensive. I only ever used to buy stuff at the GAP in the US when it was on sale, but even full price, it is so much cheaper than here. Oh, and I walked into a random fashion store here the other day to look at a pair of jeans I had seen in the window, and walked right out again when I saw the price - R1500. For a pair of jeans!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I wish I knew why imported goods are so expensive for the most part? I think there must be more to it than just arbitrary costs. By arbitrary I mean costs imposed that would not have occurred from the normal workings of the market. The main example would of course be tariffs but the difference in price between the countries are far more than the tariffs. So it may be the shipping costs that are the principle culprit. If so prices would still be considerably higher even absent tariffs as shipping costs are not arbitrary.

Sine said...

shipping cost, cost of importing (tariffs but also just how cumbersome the bureaucracy is), weak currency - it all plays a role. And on top of that, it's probably also a market price, i.e. people (expats and well-to-do locals) are willing and able to pay that much.