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7/14/10 Giant Stores

I'm getting better at giant stores.

[[Giant stores = Target, Walmart, Safeway, CostCo...even a CVS or Walgreens if it has enough aisles.]]

I haven't attempted a mall yet, though. I didn't like malls even before Peace Corps, and my experience with stores tells me that I'm not likely to enjoy them any better, now.

The first time I walked into a giant store, fresh out of Morocco, I got dizzy. Lightheaded. Kinda lost it, a little bit. I couldn't find the edges of the store. Or even of the ceiling, because the shelves rose so high. I felt myself entering a foreign realm, whose edges reached off my mental map. Here, there be dragons.

Commercial dragons.

Who breathe fiery lies about the need for near-infinite selection.

At these giant stores, I can buy anything. Anything that has ever been dreamed of, constructed, and had a pricetag slapped onto it, anyway. And if they don't have it in stock, they can order it for me. (Or I could go home and order it online, myself.)

The number of choices available in these places ... blows my mind.

In Morocco, I'd count myself lucky if I found an American soda that wasn't Coke. ('Cause yeah, Coca-Cola has encircled the globe. Many, many times.) Here, grocery stores devote entire, 50-yard-long aisles to their soda selection. Same with shampoo. Or deodorant. Or ... sponges. Laundry detergents. Frying pans.

How do people make so many meaningless distinctions?

How much mental energy is devoted to distinguishing between essentially identical products, none of which we actually need??

In Morocco, I discovered that products labeled "shower gel" cleaned my hair at least as well as those labeled "shampoo", and usually better. It's handy, only having to bring one small bottle and a towel, and knowing I'll get nice and clean.

So when I stare down the shampoo aisle - or worse, wander through the shampoo maze in a drug store - I'm stunned both by the extraordinary number and types of products, as well as the very idea that people feel the need to have this selection.

Same with cereal.

At one point, when describing my reactions to an RPCV friend, I heard myself use the phrase "temple to consumerism."

Maybe it's because I've spent some time wandering ruins in northern Morocco (once Mauritania, a province of the Roman Empire) and in Rome and Jordan. I've seen temples, built to long-forgotten gods.

And the giant edifices screeching BUY HERE BUY HERE are almost as imposing. They certainly try as hard as any ancient culture to bully me into accepting that their vision of the universe is the correct one. That I'm a deeply flawed mortal, in the hands of an awesomely powerful authority, who will condemn me to eternal torments if I don't have this month's shoes.

(Forget sacrificing a bull - they've taken care of that step, and the ones after it, the sacrificing and butchering and tanning and rendering into steaks and belts and burgers and motorcycle jackets and ... shoes.)

So, yeah, I'm avoiding the mall. And while giant stores no longer make me dizzy, it's because I've gotten better at tunnel-vision. If I make targeted runs for whatever items I planned to buy, I can resist the crushing waves of the oceans of options roaring in my ears.

But I miss my corner hanut, with the limited selection that never felt overly limiting. The entire shop was probably 10 feet across and 15 feet deep, and my friend Ali knew every inch of shelves, and could find anything for me with a smile - or explain that no, he didn't have it, with a somewhat more rueful smile.

I remember complaining about the pressure-to-buy from overeager merchants (which Ali never was, lhumdullah), but it pales in comparison to the pressures that the multi-trillion-dollar commercial enterprises bring to bear.

I never thought I'd say it, but ... I think I miss souq.


7/2/10 One Step Forward...

Two steps back.

Or at least it kinda feels like that.

Last night, I hung out with some RPCV friends. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, with whom I'd shared a year or more of my service.

When we set up our plans for the evening, my friend happened to say, "Marhaba!" - one of my favorite Moroccan words.

And I felt a pang. I felt nostalgic and homesick and relieved and excited and grateful, all at once. Because I was finally talking to somebody who understands my crazy language.

When we all got together tonight, I felt a muscle unclench. Not a physical muscle, but a mental one. The tight rein I've been holding over my reflexive use of Tam and relaxed. Released. Freed.

I could drop phrases like, "Aynna trit," As you like / Whatever, or "Msh irra Rrrbi" If God wants, or even "Tnghayi taghufi l-Moghreb." I miss Morocco.

And as I used these expressions, and my friends understood them, I realized how hard I've been clenching this mental muscle.

It's like when you step into a jacuzzi and feel yourself relaxing body parts you hadn't even realized you'd been tensing. That same feeling of unexpected restfulness and ... peace.

I've been trying to act like a "regular American". Like I think in English all the time. Like I find cars and billboards and central A/C perfectly normal.

And I like to imagine that I've been pretty convincing at it.

But I do miss speaking my crazy language. I miss using those muscles in my tongue and throat. I miss hearing others speak it. I miss having people around who share my memories of crowding into a taxi, or battling miscellaneous transportation struggles, or haggling in the souq. Who understand what a blessed miracle hot running water is.

I understand now why RPCVs tend to gravitate towards each other.

Which is why now, this morning, I'm off to see them again. :)
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