A Tale of Two Supermarkets


by Timóteo Pereira Neves

It was the highlight of transitions, it was the toughest of transitions.

Moving across countries is no joke, especially when you do it as a child. You are like an astronaut, jettisoned from your familiar spacecraft into the unknown. You land in spaces where you are bombarded with foreign and colorful cues, and your inventory of emotions ranges from thrills to horrors. It’s a do-or-die moment. But people around you don’t recognize that because while you are fighting dangers, in their eyes, you are just doing some grocery shopping. 

In 2011, my family moved from Brazil to South Africa. The following year, we moved to Lebanon, where I have been living ever since. There have been different years in which I visited my home country and one of them was 2022. Within the many pages that spanned these 11 years, I found two which are oddly similar. Both of them involve walking into a supermarket, and both of them reflect how transitions shaped my identity. 

Woolworths, Cape Town, SA 2011 

As the automatic doors opened, I stepped into a wonderland of black shelves with packaged varieties of all types. There were blooming flowers in one corner and chips of various flavors in the other. My mission, along with that of my brother, was to find the flavors that we were certainly going to miss when we left Brazil: crispy and salty treats as well as cheese puffs that melted in your mouth. They were all there! Packaged in stylized varieties and promising to deliver satisfaction to our taste buds. 

The bottled drinks had colors I had never imagined a person could drink. The yellows of lemon and pineapple were there, but so was the sea green of something called… cream soda! Was that even safe? There wasn’t anything close to Guarana, but maybe the new drinks would make us miss it less. 

The vegetables and fruits there also looked fresh. My dad, a lover of watermelons, was happy to find one that was ripe and big and had stripes that seemed extra green. 

Going from shelf to shelf, my brother and I had a huge discovery: ready-to-go sandwiches. We could see the bread and the filling through the transparent packaging, and there seemed to be everything in them: from cheeses to hams, eggs, and tuna. We never looked for those in supermarkets before. The variety promised a quick fix for lunch at a place right next door. 

There were also tin boxes of cookies with the shape of the Big 5, the largest mammals of the Southern Cape. The way they reflected the light from the ceiling made you think these cookies were made of pure gold. 

The best thing about it was that the price tags might as well have been Chinese. The random numbers were gibberish to us. It all came to asking my dad the magic words, “Can we afford it?” And that day, we could. 

SPBR, Alto Araguaia, BR 2022 

As the automatic doors opened, I stepped into a warehouse with huge and crammed shelves. The blooming variety of goods, colors, and smells made me feel giddy. 

In the past few years, the economic situation in Lebanon declined so much that it was in some ways worse than when the country faced a civil war. This meant that supermarket shelves were bare, and international products became rare. The second-rate products were now the expensive ones. 

This is why being in SPBR supermarket in Alto Araguaia, Brazil, felt surreal. A supermarket in that small town, with barely anything written on its Wikipedia page, was more packed with varieties and choices than some of the biggest supermarkets in all of Lebanon. 

It felt wrong. 

My eyes quickly caught my brother’s favorite brand of instant noodles, one with Turma da Monica in tomato flavor. But if you were not happy with tomato, there were also some special ones like feijoada and the more classic beef and chicken flavors. That instant noodle, along with the milk chocolate powder, Toddy, were the first things my brother would pack in his luggage. The chocolate powder was available with reduced sugar, with a more chocolaty flavor, in a bigger container, with different cartoon characters on the cover… the options were endless! 

Why did people need so much stuff? Did they not realize there were places where even one flavor of powdered chocolate was already a luxury? 

Customers walked in such a carefree way. My cousin said she wanted an ice cream and waltzed to a fridge peppered with tastes that I missed, like acai and guava. All the flavors in the catalog were there. 

My aunt and my grandma were going through their list of groceries, and their biggest concerns were that the mangos were not ripe and the papayas didn’t have the right color. As much as I missed the tropical fruits, it was hard to believe that this was all that was bothering them. After all, there were probably better papayas in other places and they would still be getting back home to 24-hour electricity, clean water, and readily available medicine. 

I didn’t want to buy anything there. I was just eager for my extended family to leave.

A lot changed between the time I walked to the supermarket in Cape Town and the supermarket in Alto Araguaia. The space in between supermarkets is the space in which the transitions my family went through became part of my identity. 

The wonders of South Africa, the instability in Lebanon, and the mundanity of Brazil impacted me at those times to the extent they were significant markers in my life journey. I’m forever changed but also forever grateful.

Timóteo Pereira Neves was born in Brazil and moved to South Africa and then to Lebanon, where he lived for the past eleven years. He currently teaches English at the American Community School Beirut. An inspired learner and passionate fiction writer, he has previously shared his voice in Interact Magazine and in the book Student Writing Tutors in Their Own Words. https://timstransitions.wordpress.com/

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