Rachel del Valle | 10 ounces too light
Duly Noted | When you’re away from home, the small things can feel very big
January 15, 2013, 12:09 am·
Rachel del Valle
I pack light.
I left my home in New Jersey in August with a medium-sized roller bag, a monogrammed backpack last used in grade school and a leather purse.
My livelihood for the next five months was tucked comfortably in those three bags. The backpack was full of sundresses and all the three-ounce toiletries I could stuff into a Ziploc. The luggage, to be dropped off in a storage facility outside London, had a few sweaters.
I brought very little because my plan was this: buy everything. Something about foreign receipts seemed very romantic to me. I figured anything I needed could be bought and packed accordingly.
Besides, I was a vagabond. Who needed a hairbrush anyway?
For a month, a friend and I backpacked through Spain and Italy. This minimalist approach more or less worked. I ended up being much less of an international consumer than I had planned. The space constraints of my Land’s End backpack imposed a frugality. Any weight gained when I arrived at Heathrow in September was from gelato and tapas, not souvenirs.
When I got to London, the first thing I bought were twinkle lights — locally known as fairy lights. My room was big, carpeted and white. It begged for that certain kind of instant ambiance.
The second thing I looked for was Café Bustelo. And so my adventure as a global shopper really began.
Naively, I headed to Tesco. Tesco is one part Walmart, one part supermarket and on the weekends, mostly just hell. There was one a 15-minute walk from my dorm, and I ventured there on a Saturday to look for my specific brand of coffee.
I had bought a stovetop espresso maker from a cooking shop in Notting Hill the day before, thinking it would be a snap to find the grinds to go with it.
By the time I got past all the kids and shopping carts to the coffee aisle, I was ready to leave. I scanned the rows of tea and instant chocolate, looking for that familiar yellow tin.
Or at least the vacuum sealed brick? Where was it? Maybe they at least had El Pico. I’d settle for that. I was desperate.
I shuffled my way over to the ethnic food aisle. Bags of long grain rice and sunflower oil filled most of the space — there weren’t even Goya products. Now I was just confused. If it wasn’t here, it wasn’t anywhere.
I left Tesco feeling lost. I retraced my steps, sheepishly scanning the bodegas I’d passed on the walk down, making a beeline for the drink aisles and leaving empty-handed. I did this maybe six times. Then I entered one that advertised international calls to Latin America in the window. Bingo.
“Hay Café Bustelo?” I asked the woman behind the counter in Spanish, feeling relieved, content. Soon, I’d be sipping on some cafe con leche, dipping toast into my mug.
The woman looked up. “Como?” she said. No, they didn’t have that. I didn’t understand.
I had never thought of the coffee I drank every morning as something exotic. I thought every country would have it, every bodega. I’d depended on it, really — I wasn’t prepared to go without it.
I went to my room and searched on Amazon UK — no cigar. Ebay proved fruitless as well.
Why was it so hard to find a $3 tin of Cuban espresso in London? It was a weird sort of ethnocentrism. I’d never really stopped to consider that Café Bustelo was part of my own world. It’s not exactly Coca-Cola, but it’s part of a Latin American culture, one that’s not always seen by the global community. I’d never felt like such a niche before.
It made me think about just how superficial the interconnectedness of everything really is. With big things, like Apple products and sitcoms, globalization is palpable.
For smaller stuff, that uniformity of culture doesn’t really apply. Because while people in countries all over the world use Google and listen to Rihanna and wear clothes from H&M, the minutiae of their daily routines are different. And that’s a bit inconvenient, but also comforting.
At least now I know — have Café Bustelo, will travel.
Rachel del Valle is a College junior from Newark, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @rachelsdelvalle. “Duly Noted” appears every Tuesday.