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Holidaying in Tesco with My Zen Master

I’m the main cook in our small family and thus I am also the one who does the food shopping. I go to a big Tesco not far from home, not for any misplaced loyalty to a huge faceless corporation, but because it is the closest supermarket to where we live.

When I’m preparing a meal I always have the radio on and at 5:00 p.m. Radio 4’s PM programme comes on. It’s a frustrating programme for me, but it’s my own fault. I can’t shake the idea that it is an hour news programme when in fact it is a news and light entertainment programme. For example, there is often what I call the Oprah segment. Under the guise of a news interview someone does an on-the-cough conversation with the guest where the expression of feelings is more important than the news that got them to the studio in the first place. PM can also be like a dog with bone. Once the programme asked listeners to send in audio clips of how best to present the weather. We all know the weather report is trance inducing so PM got the brilliant idea of asking it’s listeners how to do it. Every clip I heard was ridiculous. The latest bone the programme couldn’t let go of was asking people to send in their favourite sound. This went on forever! And if all that weren’t bad enough, PM introduced iPM, “the news programme that begins with its listeners.” You get the likes of: “Hi, I’m Mildred and I had a wonderful lunch with my daughter yesterday.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for Mildred, but it’s not news. It’s not even light entertainment. I doubt Mildred’s husband cares all that much. I certainly don’t care and I don’t need to know.

Anyway, a while back when I was dicing an onion, a news item about Tesco came on. A few years back, Tesco was so successful all you ever heard was that it was taking over the UK like some unquenchable monster. But today Tesco is doing so horribly badly we are told the world as we know it is coming to an end. In this regard, Tesco is not unlike the English cricket team. For weeks the media proclaims that the English team is the best in the world, reminiscent of the old, but gratefully deceased, empire and that the team captain is second only to Churchill and Jesus, in that order. Weeks later, however, the English cricket team is worse than a joke and a disgrace to the nation, and while no one actually suggests the captain should be crucified, hundreds of column inches are used demanding he resign immediately and never pick up a cricket bat again. However, I digress.

PM had three “experts” on to tell us, and presumably Tesco, how the supermarket could be saved. The one that interested me the most was a very intelligent woman saying that Tesco desperately needed to improve my “shopping experience.” They way she talked about it, it seemed my shopping experience should be similar to my holiday experience. As I began sautéing the onion, I imagined myself walking into Tesco with sunglasses, a colourful short sleeve shirt, shorts pants, and sandals, filled with anticipation about the experience I was about to have. I saw myself emailing and texting friends at home: “In Tesco food shopping. Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.”

If truth be told, I have never thought food shopping in Tesco should be a holiday experience. Obviously, I do have an experience when I shop. Even sitting in a chair doing nothing is still an experience. But the most I ever hope for is at Tesco is getting in and out with my sanity in tack and without having insulted other shoppers. I experience food shopping as a Zen-like challenge. The aisles are wide and spacious but two people with their shopping carts can block the whole damn thing. Politely requesting passage is a waste of time. One is more than likely on their mobile phone and thus not actually engaged with the shopping experience at all, while the other one simply ignores you. I am never sure if that person actually is unaware of my presence, blocking all other human forms from their consciousness as a survival mechanism, or if they are just selfish and mean. No matter what the next thing is on my shopping list I can be assured that someone will be standing right in front of my desire item reading the shelves or talking on their phone or arguing with their obnoxious child. I’m convinced that a Buddhist monk, who has after decades of dedication achieved nirvana, would lose it after fifteen minutes of the food shopping experience, in much the same way Jesus would never had instructed us to turn the other check if he had to drive an automobile in any major city in the world. If Tesco wants to improve my shopping experience, it can get the other shoppers out of my way. And oh, it can stop rearranging the shelves every other week making it difficult if not impossible to find the things on my list. Om. Om. Om. Ommmmm.

The doors of my Tesco are located at the right end of the store. That obviously is where everyone enters and as a result there is always a bottleneck in the vegetable section, the aisle in a direct line with the doors. I, nonetheless, run this gantlet and slowly make my way across the store always moving to my left until I reach the last aisle. In that aisle is located the wine and spirits. It’s always my last stop, perhaps because at the end of the shopping experience I feels as though I need a drink. More than not there are only a few people there and as I approach the last check-out in the store, the one furthest from the doors, I see a middle aged woman from Uganda minding the till. Big smile and big, what in the old days we would have called, Afro. We smile and talk and make jokes, and not just about the weather. She is always pleasant, even though I’ve seen shoppers treat her with less politeness and dignity than she deserves. She told me about the new American section, which I visited with excitement only to find a box of Cheerios cost the equivalent of $10.00. One Friday I asked her if she had the weekend off and she said she was heading home soon, though it would take her two hours to get there. I laughed lightly and suggested she should have moved from Kampala if she wanted to work at Tesco. She almost fell of her chair laughing in response. If there is no one in line behind me I linger a few minutes. It always ends with the shared request that each of us have a nice day. The shopping experience is a strange place to find a stranger-friend, but as a result I usually leave the store feeling pretty good.

The woman on PM concluded that Tesco should make the interiors of its stores look and feel like an outside market. I knew what she was getting at. My wife and I used to live up north in Newcastle and we went to the Metro Centre frequently. There was a section with a Spanish and Creek restaurant. There were fake tress and twinkling lights fixed to the ceiling painted black encouraging you to imagine you sitting outside on warm Spanish or Greek evening sipping wine on holiday. It didn’t work. Shoppers kept walking by loaded down with bags and heavy coats. Across from the restaurant was a evangelical Christian bookshop where, I supposed, people were being saved. I’m not sure about Tesco indoor markets. Tesco’s isn’t a market and I doubt a pretend market would make the shoppers more courteous towards each other. My shopping experience is determined by the people more than the space. If Tesco wants to improve my shopping experience it can hire more people like my Ugandan friend. And it can clear the store upon my arrival.

Copyright © 2014 Dale Rominger

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