Grocery shopping in a lockdown time
Frothy clouds are sprayed across the sky above me, almost covering the pale spring blue above. I stride along the path, enjoying the sensation of being out in the open air, but zipping my coat up tight against the gusts of wind. Shopping bags flap against my legs. I’m conflicted between enjoying the escape out of the apartment we’re spending so much time in, and dread at how long this errand may take.
Two blocks down I see the queue outside the supermarket and breathe a sigh of relief. There are maybe 5 people in it right now. Often the queue grows to stretch all the way across the car park and up the road. Those times, if at all possible, I turn around and go straight back home to try again later.
I slot myself in at the back of the line on one of the rusty red lines that have been spray-painted at intervals from the entrance all the way around the side and into the outdoor car park. Pieces of plastic sheeting flap like beating wings on pallets of gardening mulch that have been left stacked outside. Pre-ordered, no doubt, before things went sideways. The queue ahead of me is more interested in replenishing food and alcohol stocks than tending garden for now.
The icy wind cuts through to my bones. I stuff my hands deeper into my pockets. The minutes tick by slowly. The twenty or so shoppers currently in the store are taking their sweet time. No one exits for several minutes. People stamp their feet in a futile attempt to keep warm. It’s spring in Montreal. It’s actually relatively mild for this time of the year. Still, it’s bitterly cold when the wind is blasting along the streets. You never know when dark ominous clouds will suddenly pass overhead bringing torrential rain to flood the streets. Or an impromptu snow storm will deposit its load.
We all stand waiting, too far apart for even casual chit-chat amongst strangers. It feels unnatural not to have the option of exchanging a banal comment about the weather. I imagine what this will be like when next winter rolls around. Queuing for anything up to an hour in snowy sub-zero temperatures. I predict that there will be scaffolding erected, and plastic tunnels will extend like tentacles out of the shops and stores into the streets, to try and reduce the misery of the long wait.
We’re lucky where we live. There’s a well-managed supermarket a mere 5 minute walk from our apartment. We don’t have to trek across the island only to find lengthy queues and bare shelves. Or wait for unreliable home deliveries that may or may not contain the requested items. Still, the process of grocery shopping is a whole lot more complicated than it was two months ago when I might casually drop in on the way home from somewhere with the kids to pick up one or two items.
Now the timing of a shop has to be carefully planned. Should I run out first thing in the morning, or will the queues still be too long? If I leave it too late, who will mind the kids during that work call my husband has? What if after all the waiting and queueing the shop is out of the essential ingredients we need for dinner? What’s my back-up plan then?
At a time when a grocery shop takes significantly longer than it used to, the shopping hours have been reduced, and all large stores must close on Sundays. If you do the math, it’s not surprising that the queues have been getting longer every week. It’s chaos Fri/Sat/Mon due to the mandatory Sunday closure. First thing in the morning and near to lunch are always bad. Optimum slot for a once-a-week shop in our local store appears to be Tuesday mornings around 8.45 when the early rush is slowing down. Whatever isn’t in stock right now, we will have to do without for the week.
Finally I reach the head of the queue. When the next customer exits, the security man gives me ‘the nod’ and I liberally apply sanitiser over my hands at the entrance before grabbing a trolley and following the one-way signs up and down the aisles. I move quickly and quietly, just the occasional “désolé” as I encounter someone blocking my way, also searching the shelves for something that’s apparently out of stock.
Today the flour aisle is barren apart from some sad looking self-raising cake flour that I know would result in inedible bread. As someone who normally bakes bread every other day, I have some resentment towards whoever has so much free time now that they’re baking cakes and using up all ‘my’ flour. Buttermilk is also nowhere to be found. As a consolation I notice a few cans of own-brand tomato sauce and scoop them up because they’re a rare find lately too Obviously yeast doesn’t exist anymore. I’m down to my last jar before I have to start experimenting.
In less than five minutes I’ve completed my run of the shop and go back to waiting. This time on the responsibly distanced stickers marking the way to two (of eight) checkouts that are now in use. The person ahead is finally putting their groceries into their bags, painstakingly slowly. This is exactly the reason why they had employees to pack bags in the time before covid-19. Now ‘bring your own reusable bags’ means pack your own bags too.
Instead of efficiently stacking my purchases up for scanning while the person ahead is slowly packing, I have an additional wait until the previous customer finally ambles off. The cashier squirts and wipes all the surfaces down before I can finally frantically empty my shopping cart and move along to the far side of the plexiglass to frantically pack them into my bag.
“Airmiles?” asks the cashier.
“Mastercard. Credit,” I say, in as Québécois an accent as I can manage after almost 3 years of living here. I can pass for native about 50% of the time if I don’t say more than than this. If the cashier switches to English mid-conversation I know I didn’t pass muster this time.
And it’s done. For this week. I haul my bags back out of the shop and wince in sympathy at the sight of a now-lengthy queue wending off into the distance. The person at the head of the queue will now be ushered in to take my place inside.
I remember being irritated going into the same supermarket . When the aisles were full of meandering customers and shelf-stackers blocking the passages. When the person ahead of me at the checkout was always ‘that one’ who has to fish a hundred coupons out of their purse and argue with several employees about which ones are actually valid. Inevitably some items would then be rejected and sent back to the shelves they came from. It’s strange to think that experience of grocery shopping could be forever in my past now.
I’ve moved on from thinking that we should take note of how different things are during this time… to the realisation that most of this is the new normal. I’m sure some things will be relaxed eventually, but others are here to stay. It’s how we used to do things that I should be taking note of, while I still remember the finer details. This time next year I’ll be struggling to not see all these extra precautions as normal.
For now, I plod on through what is feeling like a never-ending lockdown. At least we will eat well for this week!