I could spend all day in a thrift store, but put me in a Target or one of those other stores and I feel like I’m five years old. I am so overwhelmed by quantity and choice and a cheapness that can’t possibly reflect the actual cost of production that I want to curl up in a fetal position and cry.
Our flight on Monday left Charlotte at 10 PM, so we had time to run some last minute errands. Ben dropped me off at a Michaels to look for embroidery thread while he went to some electronics super-store to look for a laptop for our neighbor and a microphone. As if 20 minutes in Michaels trying to find the embroidery thread aisle and choosing among hundreds of colors and shades of thread wasn’t bad enough, we went to Best Buy next. After that, we stopped by Radio Shack and Ritz Camera (still in search of a microphone). A final stop at Harris Teeter where none of the sullen employees I asked knew where to find the maple flavoring… When we enter big box stores, we feel confronted by a spirit of consumption. We both wanted to take showers by the time we got back to Ben’s parents’ house.
Here’s what I noticed when we went out to get groceries in our Petion-Ville neighborhood on Tuesday (choosing not to go to the new Giant that opened while we were gone, which was probably wise since I was still reeling from trying to buy thread at Michaels): The market ladies that I buy vegetables from ask if I’ve been traveling because they haven’t seen me in awhile. They ask how my family is. They let me buy on credit when I don’t have enough change and they give me a bunch of green onions as I’m walking away. At the tailor shop where we buy eggs (weird, I know), the tailor gives us three extra eggs and painstakingly wraps them in two halves of an egg carton tied up with red string so that they won’t break on our way home. The security guard at the grocery store greets us and helps us stash our motorcycle helmets and the checkout clerk knows that we’re the freaks that bring our own grocery bags. The owner waves at us from behind his desk. As we ride home, the moto taxi drivers at the end of our street honk and wave to let us know that they know we’re back. Later, Ben takes a few empty beer bottles to the old lady down the street and exchanges them for full ones. She knows us, too.
All of this takes place within walking distance of our house. In Haiti, if feels like we shop as part of a community and that – flights to/from Haiti and some imported foodstuffs notwithstanding - our consumption footprint is much smaller. I even buy most of my clothes from piles of used clothing on the street, from women who know my name and my size. This kind of shopping feels healthy to me in a way that the dominant consumption model in the States never has. In Haiti, there are no box stores to lure me in with cheap prices and I never come home from the grocery store or the street market feeling disgusted with myself. Although I do think that it is possible to shop in a healthy way in the States – to buy directly from farmers, to barter with friends, to frequent locally-owned establishments, etc… in most places it takes a lot more effort and planning than it does here.
Leaving North Carolina and our families this time ‘round was harder, partly because of Martha’s cancer and because most of our closest friends in Haiti have moved away this year. But, the contrast between our shopping experiences on Monday and Tuesday reminded me of one of things that I most appreciate about living here and that we have, however unintentionally, become part of the community of our neighborhood.