Orange County, California — Just like my kids were familiar with snow only because of the book The Snowy Day, they were familiar with supermarkets and convenience stores only because they’d read about them in their children’s books. My kids have spent the majority of their conscious lives in Cuba, a country almost devoid of consumerism. To my kids, American supermarkets and stores were exotic, shiny places with sliding automatic doors, endless aisles filled with never-ending products, and a whole area of the store dedicated to fruits rare or nonexistent in their normal lives, like blueberries, strawberries, and kiwis.
Many of our friends and family go to beach destinations for their holidays. On our vacations, we leave the beach in Cuba and fly to the United States to spend hours in supermarkets and superstores. It’s funny how living in Cuba turns the exotic into the mundane, and the mundane into the exotic.
About every six months, we go back to the United States for a vacation. The fantasizing begins months before. I dream of Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Target. In a desk drawer in our Havana home, I keep a shopping list on which I scribble items like plastic wrap, parmesan cheese, NyQuil, and gummy fruit snacks — none of which are available in Cuba. When we meet up with expatriate friends in Havana, we often talk about all the food we miss from the United States. Some have confessed to have gone as far as to bring back whole frozen turkeys or ground beef from Whole Foods on ice packs. In the days before our flight, I plan out which days I’ll shop, scheduling it alongside trips to amusement parks and ski resorts and time with friends and family.
One Sunday afternoon during our vacation, we tackled Costco. My parents accompanied my two kids and me. My husband, who detests shopping, conveniently found something else to do. Everything about the store entertained my kids and me. We paused, admired, and touched the Ferrari displayed in front of the store. I marveled at how neatly the line at the cafeteria moved, as people followed the lines and arrows painted on the floor. My kids stared at the soda fountain machines dispensing an unlimited quantity of bubbly liquid into enormous paper cups.
As we went down the cavernous aisles, we loaded our cart with granola bars, nuts, and cheese. I allowed my kids to pick out a couple junk food items. We paused at the free sample counters — something that’s completely foreign if you lives in Cuba. We’d just had lunch but I couldn’t resist trying everything from the vitamins to the energy bars that advertised themselves as brownies but tasted like wood.
My four-year-old daughter, who was riding inside the cart, stared at the aisles piled tall to the ceiling with products. I thought she would have pleaded and begged for all the treats in sight, but instead she was eerily quiet. It occurred to me that she was probably overwhelmed by the excess and abundance of everything after two years of living in a country of shortages. She was, however, curious about the samples. “What’s that?” she asked at a booth that was giving out tapioca pudding. “It’s like, er, arroz con leche,” I said. She accepted the little cup filled with the dessert and placed it atop a package of plastic plates in the cart. The problem was, she wasn’t hungry, because we’d just had lunch. But living in Cuba teaches you to take everything you are offered. As we weaved our way through the store, her collection of uneaten samples grew unwieldy.
When we got to the cash registers, a crisis of sorts loomed. My mom and my son waited beyond the checkout counters to avoid the fray. As we stood in line, I did my best to eat all the buffet of samples my daughter had collected, cramming into my mouth a smorgasbord of cheese, sausage, and pudding. My father frantically looked for a place to dispose of the trash before we had to unload our cart onto the conveyor belt.
Also, I was unsure if I had enough in my wallet to cover the bill. As is always with Costco, no matter if you live in Cuba or just down the street from the store, I’d put more in my cart than was on my list. Costco didn’t take my credit card, and I wasn’t sure I even remembered my pin number for my ATM card after living in Cuba for so long without the ability to use ATMs. In the end, I was able to buy nearly all the items in my cart, except for the NyQuil and the Children’s Tylenol. Even so, we left the store with a cart filled to the brim. It would take me hours to figure out how to cram those items, along with others I’d collected at other stores, into our luggage.
That’s the problem with stuff. A Cuban friend once told me that when a friend of hers went to the United States for the first time and visited Target, she was so overwhelmed that she cried. How many varieties of cereal, yogurt, and shampoo do we really need? How much of what we buy is just for convenience’s sake? Do we really need all those little plastic bottles of water packaged in more plastic? Or those little individually wrapped packages of Pringles and Pepperidge Farm cookies? And do we really need so much of one thing? Can we really use 1,000 ibuprofen pills before they expire in two years?
Still, in the stores I couldn’t resist. At Target, I bought soy milk just because I could. At Trader Joe’s, I bought packages of applesauce and heavy cans of artichokes even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry it back to Havana. In the end, all that stuff ended up left behind at my parents’ home in Orange County.
When we got back to Havana and I started unpacking our six suitcases, I began appreciating the absence of all that excess. Because it means that my daughter can enjoy something as simple as an apple as if it’s a rare dessert. And because it has taught me to rely less on store-bought conveniences. I’ve learned how to garden, and I make nearly everything from scratch — from yogurt to bread to pizza.
The absence of excess also makes those Pepperidge farm cookies taste a lot better. In Havana, we savor them one by one, hopefully right up until our next shopping binge in the United States.