How to Survive Small Towns (aka a weekend in the Big Smoke)

I ask the taxis to do drive through McDonald’s when I leave the airport. They laugh but oblige me, impatient after 4 months without those fries of heaven, that QuarterPounder of bliss and that Diet Coke of pure perfection. There is a PhD thesis waiting to be written about why, empirically, McDonald’s Diet Coke, full of ice, is the apex of Diet Cokeness. There is something so cute about a sweet shiny grey can, and yet, yet, yet, that large cup, white with a bit of yellow, that small splash of red, that straw, at the right angle, that ice, so cool and crisp. That moment when the counterperson slides the cup to you and you pick it up, savoring the heft, the utter complete ‘rightness’ of that large Diet Coke. Three seconds to order, one minute to wait and it is yours. Yours, completely, to cart around, sip, enjoy, savor, your portable chalice of joy.

Oh absence makes the heart grow fonder. I have logged my time in small towns, and I like small towns. But the truth is I do not enjoy living full-time in a small towns surrounded by nice, healthy people in vegetable-dyed wool sweaters. Kindly, outdoorsy people make me snarky and bitter, hard as that may be to believe. There comes that time when you start to hanker for the big smoke.

And I have done pretty well in here – heading to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha now and then. Of course, before you go, you have to ask your friends what they want. This is a sacred ritual of living in a small town – when you head to the bright lights, you need bring something back for your people. One trip’s list was: flax, verbena tea, vitamin E, coffee beans, melatonin, baby asparagus, rye bread, and cape gooseberries Which just goes to show that you will ever know what you will miss until you goes through the semi-deprivation of living in a small town. One European who visited me marveled at the “huge selection” of food available. “Hmm, and what would you make for dinner?” I asked.

“Vegetables with pasta!”

“And the next night?”
“Vegetables with pasta are really good.”

I think he would last about two weeks.

After a few months, when I start to get twitchy, I book a ticket, get off the plane and head straight to a mall. Central air-conditioning, florescent lights, people passing, talking, life, energy and Baskin Robbin’s ice cream. Then the grocery store. Oh the grocery store, huge space, linoleum floors, giant grey metal carts like T-Rexs prowling the aisles. I am transported: “Party fever” spray deodorant, hokey-pokey (ask someone from New Zealand), “Sweat” sport drink, red mung beans in syrup, Jaggery (isn’t that a Dickens’s character?), angel delight, “Sausages Tonight,” Tim-Tams (ask someone from Australia), “Chicago Sauce,” pineapple gel in syrup, fish maw soup, jungle oats with a recipe on the side for “fish cakes” which begins with “one tin of sardines in tomato sauce.”

The oil aisle – of course you have your basics: almond oil, sunflower, Crisco, coconut oil, pure ghee, Mazola, grape seed, peanut oil and then the flights of fancy take off: olive oil from Spain and Italy, toasted sesame oil, gingelly oil, olive pomace oil, ground nut, walnut oil from France, basil, lemon, soy bean, avocado oil.

The spice section: “Spice for Rice,” peri-peri, “Zeal” (aka MSG), “Spice for Mince,” “Veggie Season,” “Zulu Fine,” Origanum, juniper berries, char-grilled smoking BBQ spice, bits of raw sugar and cinnamon sticks in a grinder.

Another few hours of shopping, to the hotel, cafe in the morning, and onward to more shopping. The things I carried back: French apple cookies, Blue Diamond almonds, brownie mix, gold mirrored coasters, five bottles of  perfumes, three bottles of nail polish, eyeliner, long-stay lipstick, birthday cards, wallet, chocolate bars, Australian nougat, and stuffed green olives.

I got on the plane home clutching a latte, back to real life. Goodbye Big Smoke.