Repat: American Grocery Store Anxiety

Coco helping me carry home groceries in the utterly worthless free bags from Coop, way back in the day.

Yesterday, I went to the grocery store. Standard enough, right? Not really. I realized yesterday that I have mostly adjusted to American grocery stores and it felt like a win! I went to Super 1 Foods, which is a gigantic grocery store up on 29th, a “busy street” in our very residential, sweet neighborhood. There is everything easy about going to Super 1 from an expat perspective.
  • I drive there in about 7 minutes and park in the parking lot - for free! 
  • At check-out, they bag my groceries for me, in my bag of choice - also for free!
  • If I want someone to help me out to the car, they will push the cart out to the car (even if there are children in said cart, so that my hands are free to find keys), and then they help me to put the bags in the car, and finally, take the cart back to the store for me - also for FREE!
On top of all this, while in the store, I can buy so many ingredients for Mexican food and there are dozens and dozens of options to choose from in each category. Enchilada sauces, taco seasoning packets, guacamole packets, hot sauces galore! Tajin, authentic tortillas and tortilla chips, spices, all the salsas! It’s quite wonderful. Then there is the same thing in the Asian aisle. Multiple varieties of rice noodles and curry pastes and Sriracha and chili garlic sauce in a jar. Yum!

But there is a very dark side to shopping at Super 1, too. For the first few years we were back, I basically never went there. And when I did, I literally had to psych myself up and prep mentally for a trip to Super 1. As with any jumbo American supermarket, Super 1 is just SO big and vast inside. And it’s sooooo cold in there in the summer. It felt like I was spending hours and hours just walking around when I would go there and it stressed me out. Why were there so many aisles? Why were there so many of each thing?! Why. For a long time, I stuck to Trader Joe’s because it felt more like a European grocery store (minus the practically freezing temperatures) and it didn’t give me the sheer anxiety that Super 1 did. I had a short list of things that I didn’t necessarily need all the time that I would buy at Super 1. It included:
  • my favorite organic Southwest Taco seasoning (I used to order 12-packs on Amazon and take them back to Zurich in my suitcase on trips home;)
  • Krab salad from their deli and Ritz crackers (I’m sorry, it’s just so good. Don’t judge) 
  • Hot sauces, like Tapatio, Frank’s Red Hot, Cholula and salsas (duh!)
  • Jaunita’s Tortilla Chips (the absolute best!) 
  • Romaine lettuce (random) 
  • Doritos (the best ghetto garnish for a taco salad I make in the summer)
  • French Salad dressing (second ghetto ingredient for said taco salad, but so yum)
  • Heinz 57 ketchup in the stand up squeezer that ensures you never squeeze that yucky ketchup water out onto your burger or hot dog, (but which J always puts in the fridge cap side up anyway! Drrh)
  • C&H white sugar (big bag!) 
  • Canning supplies for freezer jam
Basically it was just the most random assortment of stuff that you can’t get (or which isn’t very good - romaine, I’m looking at you) at Trader Joe’s. But I avoided it. I avoided Super 1 because something about that gigantic, sprawling grocery store filled with scary things like Twinkies and gross, unethically raised, non-organic meats made me cringe inside. And not just cringe. I would get literally panicky and wind up leaving without half the things I needed if I didn’t have a list. Yikes! And yes, I realize that Trader Joe’s has plenty of bad meats, but the packaging is cuter. I was so relieved when a friend told me that she had a panic attack in a giant grocery store after moving back to the US from Zurich. She literally ditched the cart with everything in it in a random aisle and left the store crying. I get it! I totally get it.

In a way it makes sense, because even in Portland, we did our shopping at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and the best grocery store ever, New Seasons. Fred Meyer freaked me out, as did Safeway. By the way, Super 1 makes your average Safeway look pretty small. All of our stores in Portland were pretty small. In Switzerland, there are two main grocery stores. Migros and Coop. Most people are either a Migros person or a Coop person, but very few are both. I was a Coop person all the way from the very beginning when I went to Neuchâtel in 2006. Neighborhood Migros and Coops were pretty small, the size of a Trader Joe’s, while at major shopping centers, there would be a “big” Coop or Migros. But even the big Coop we went to at Sihlcity didn’t freak me out the way Super 1 does. I guess some things just don’t make sense.

 But yesterday, I realized something when I went to Super 1. Granted, getting out of the parking lot afterward was kind of annoying, but driving is annoying period, especially in Spokane. Ha! So I won’t let that color my experience, because in the store, maybe for the first time, I was totally at ease! It struck me that I know where everything is now! I bought my favorite salsas and sour cream and grabbed some Tillamook cheese that was on sale and these adorable Mission “street taco” corn tortillas for making baby quesadillas. And I swung by the bakery to check out cakes for Theo’s birthday, got a bottle of Pinot Grigio, went through the check out and went on my merry way. All good. It only took five years! ;)

 Fellow repats, what has been hard for you to adjust to when moving back home? Or, maybe you’re not a repat and find big grocery stores scary regardless? Tell me all about it in the comments below!


  1. We used to shop at Sihlcity too! My partner is Swiss born and bred and he is definitely a Migros person but I am hands down a Coop person which, makes for an interesting mix!

    I have to admit, even in Switzerland those MMM Mirgos seemed big to me. The only supermarket i've experienced like the ones you're describing is Costco. We got one here a couple of years ago and we signed up and ended up giving back the membership a month later....everything was just WAY too big. Half of the things we had never tried before and didn't want to buy in jumbo size.

    Initially I desperately missed Globus. I felt like that shop and I were like two peas in a pod. I just loved everything about it. The department stores we have here just don't even compare. I also miss all the little shops around Zürich. I feel like Australia is full of chain stores and no matter where you go, it's always the same shops.

    I was wondering when I read your post, do you feel different about things like the supermarket now that you have more direction of where you're headed and can maybe see a 'light at the end of the tunnel' or do you think you've just come around and embraced the American way of life?

    1. You’re right. The MMM Migros are huge. I was going to mention this in the post, but I was not feeling up to going down the Migros rabbit hole. M vs MMM is easy enough to understand, but Milette and M-Budget and M-Classic and all the other made up M brands? That is kind of hard to explain. I did love their clever bags for the bathroom bin, though. So handy and felt so right having perfectly sized liners for them. :)
      Costco freaks me out. I have a very specific list of things I buy there and I avoid going. In the US, they have Costco Gas (what you would call petrol) and it’s actually much cheaper, but I wouldn’t go out of my way just to buy it. However, the stars have aligned and my gas alert came on and we are out of Parmesan cheese (I only buy at Costco as it’s imported and massive enough for my Parmesan cheese habit) so I guess I’ll be going. I also buy laundry detergent, garbage bags, eggs, English cheddar, Morningstar Sausage Patties, Dave’s Killer Bread and Oxiclean there. Otherwise, no. Just no.
      YES to Globus. Oh how I love it. I went there for San Marzano tomatoes. Love those things! And their cans are so beautiful and well-designed. :) :) :)
      And, to answer your question, I think it’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know when exactly, but my ambivalence evaporated like a fog and I’m 100% in on going abroad again in 2021. Hopefully back to Zurich, but open to where life takes us. Knowing that has allowed me to live life more fully here in the now.

  2. Yes the giant grocery stores are overwhelming. And malls. I literally had to call my husband once from the mall to ask how to find an exit (they are all hidden out of sight around corners!). We shop at our small local grocery store mostly since we still live car-free. But every now and then we go to the Superstore which is enormous and sells all sorts of household stuff too and even after having been back in Canada for 2 years, the size of it boggles me and I do not enjoy shopping there despite the much lower prices.

    1. That sounds terrifying to be stuck in the mall! Yikes. And Superstore!!! How that word nails it. They're just SO BIG. Apparently they're actually a French phenomenon, but they seem so North American to me.

  3. I remember making a sliced bread ball and throwing it across my kitchen when we first moved back. LOL. WHAT EVEN IS THIS?! Then the lack of freshness in the lettuces. Trader Joes is a nice little soft landing though, isn't it? : )

    1. The bread is not right. Not at all. I really miss the variety of brown breads in Switzerland. Sigh. Cheers to TJ's though. I'd be lost without it!

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