On buying toilet paper in a new city

It’s the little things. They’re the parts of life that can offer the greatest moments of joy or send you into the darkest depths of despair. This is true never more so than when you’re trying to create a new life away from the comfort, security and familiarity of home.

The first time I moved to the UK was ten years ago. I was in my mid-twenties (read: actual mid-twenties) and I was lucky enough to have arrived with a job and friends to stay with until I got my own place sorted. Nevertheless, I still experienced some sharp learning curves and long, dark moments of doubt about the choices I’d made. Thankfully, I came out the other side a better, more learned, more experienced person who could often be heard remarking how living in the UK for two years was one of the best things I’d ever done.

On my second move to the UK, which entered its one-month anniversary this past Sunday (hence the reflective tone of this post), I expected things to be very different. I was at a different stage of my life to where I had been in 2006 and felt that I knew ‘a thing or two’ about navigating England’s grand capital. A capital that at times can be unimaginably overwhelming and wonderfully captivating, usually at the same time. But if London does anything well, its give a good knock to those who think they know ‘a thing or two’ about it.


The scene of one of those little knocks was at Sainsbury’s. The hierarchy of English supermarkets is almost as complex as England’s class system, and for those uninitiated, Sainsbury’s falls somewhere just under the very fancy Waitrose but a good deal above Iceland (the supermarket chain, not the country, obvs). Sainsbury’s was a place I thought I knew. But the Sainsbury’s I knew was the Sainsbury’s of ten years ago and just like supermarkets in Melbourne, they’ve changed over the years. How? I hear you ask, for who isn’t interested in the development of supermarkets!
It's not quite Woolies or Coles...

Firstly, the evil that was the helpful (if damaging) plastic bag has been run out of town. You can always fork out 5p for a bag but the looks you’ll get from your fellow shoppers renders this option a no go. Second, self-checkouts. These are a fantastic addition to the supermarket-going experience and an addition I believed I had mastered back in Oz. However, the combination of these two advances in supermarket shopping proved to be my downfall.

It was a few days after my arrival in London and necessities were needed. Breakfast food. Tissues. Hobnobs. Toilet paper. The nearest Sainsbury’s, I must admit, didn’t have the robust selection of items I’d expected, but I didn’t need much so all was well. Then, while standing in front of the underwhelming selection of toilet paper, the jet lag I thought I’d escaped, descended upon me like a great grey cloud one would expect during England’s infamous winter (but who are we kidding, the grey cloud will just as soon arrive on your shoulders in spring as in winter). I grabbed the nearest packet of (only 4!) rolls of toilet paper and with arms loaded down, staggered to the self-checkout in the hopes I’d get back to the flat without passing out. But there were no plastic bags. Not one. Anywhere. Oh well, it was a short walk back, maybe I’d be okay. And then the self-checkout machine proceeded to make me feel as welcome as the Brexit vote. For whatever reason, it just wouldn’t.scan.my.items. 

As my energy drained away and I could actually feel the colour leave my face, I tried to flag down someone to help. When help did arrive, he also had to watch as I signed for my items since my international credit card wouldn’t allow me to use my PIN. As the Sainsbury’s worker tried to find a pen, I held on for dear life, refusing to give into the shame and tiredness that was threatening to pull me under. Why couldn’t this transaction be as easy as when I used to go to Woolies or Coles? Why couldn’t I buy toilet paper with a cute golden retriever on the packet, a packet that included 8 rolls and not 4?? And WHY WERE THERE NO PLASTIC BAGS???
I miss you! (But don't tell anyone.)

I lumbered home with my items, the toilet paper threatening to topple out of my arms at any minute and by the time I entered the flat, I was spent. I put the items away in the strange kitchen and then flopped down on my strange bed, in my strange room that wasn’t full of my things. I closed my eyes and tried not to think of my lovely house in Carlton and the life I’d given up.

Next day I knew would be an even bigger challenge. It was my first writing day in London in a brand new library. I mapped out my route (seriously, how did anyone ever get anywhere before Google maps?) and with a deep breath, headed into the unknown. I was still feeling less than sure footed and gripped my phone in one hand, oyster card in the other, as I walked to the bus stop. I managed to flag down the right bus and it seemed possible that I’d actually get to my destination without getting lost! Hope began to surge through my being as I stared out the window from the bus’s top deck and began to think that maybe everything would be okay. And then.

Ticket inspectors.

Yep, a group of three clambered into the bus just as a handful of ticket-routing passengers escaped through the back door. I heard the inspectors stomp up the stairs and I had a moment of panic as I tried to remember if I’d heard the beep noise when I touched on my Oyster card. And then they were upon me. With shaky hand, I passed over my Oyster card and waited a beat. And then.

‘Lovely, cheers, thank you,’ he said and gave me back my card. They all got off at the next stop and a few minutes later, I reached my destination. The library was perfect and I had a more than productive writing day. As I made the trip back home, I couldn’t have wiped the smile from my face if it’d wanted to. I’d succeeded! It was the first step, but it was the first step to achieving why I had thrown out my old life, moved away from everything familiar and comfortable and travelled to a place that I really didn’t know too well, but underneath, is actually still pretty similar to where I came from. I mean, both cities have ticket inspectors that for whatever reason bring fear into my life as if I’d committed the most heinous crime and they would see it written on my face. And yes, supermarket shopping is a different experience, but an experience I can easily get used to because the payoff is worth it.

London.

It’s a hard, wonderful, confusing, frustrating city. But as a friend said to me the other night, it’s a privilege to live here.

I couldn’t agree more.

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