Sunday, October 14, 2012

Return of the Mac

When you're living overseas it's fun to search out places that randomly have unexpectedly familiar things from home. One of those places is the Gjerman store (I promise I didn't misspell that) which is right down the street from us and has coconut milk, Asian foods and spices, cheddar cheese, and other random foods that I had given up on ever finding here. The Gjerman store filled in all my food blanks with turmeric and ground ginger, nori and tikka masala, capers and BBQ sauce. As it turns out, there's another food import game in town- America's Favorites. We had found out about it at the Stephen Center, the Western style restaurant run by missionaries that gives us Dr. Pepper, great french fries, and delicious "American style" breakfasts on the weekends. The food is a nice break from grilled meat, vegetables, and pasta, and it's novel to order Mexican food off the menu. They had table tents advertising America's Favorites as their pusher of Dr. Pepper, so we (Bobby) tracked them down on Facebook. They had pictures of their delights- Pop Tarts, ranch dressing, mac 'n cheese, etc.- and while nothing really called to us we were intrigued and wanted to find it. So, yesterday Scott, Tiara, Bobby, and I made a day of trekking all over Tirana, patronizing missionary run niche businesses catering to foreigners and their love of HFCS, trans fats, and food with a shelf life longer than that of a family pet.

We started off at the Stephen Center for lunch, where we made some plans for our upcoming weekend in Macedonia. We decided to try to find the store after lunch. It was on the opposite side of town on the outskirts of a place where we had never walked, so we made a quick pit-stop to get a map. We were to look for the spray painted red arrows and follow them to our destination. Treasure map, check. It was nice to be setting out into a new part of town, even if we had no idea how to get where we were going. I took along my camera because I had been leaving it behind pretty much since the first week here, and I wanted to play a tourist for a bit.

The first part of our walk was familiar. Here are a few shots from around the neighborhood where Scott, Bobby, and I live.

Crosswalks- even when humans are present, they are almost universally ignored by cars. This picture captures a rare moment when one can actually walk instead of trotting anxiously across with a bumper whizzing by one's ankles.

There are cafes everywhere and the only difference between them is the color/style of the seating. 
Here's where I whip out some metric even though I have no realistic distance reference for it in my brain. The American store was 3 kilometers from our home, and pretty soon, we were definitely in new territory. Here are some pictures from not in our neighborhood.

Do you enjoy this beautiful view? No? Then be grateful for city governments which maintain public spaces.  And be willing to pay for them.

90 was a good year

Children, playing on construction equipment in a gravel pit speckled with trash. 

We kept walking further out, until we found ourselves in a distinctly more rural suburb of the city. The air was fresher, there were more trees, and the roads were no longer paved. Since it had rained for two days the roads were, instead, mud slicks. We started to doubt the mission. Was it worth it to walk this far just for the novelty of novelty food?

We're not in the Zogu anymore

Grass fed is so 2011. Trash fed is where it's at.

At this point we came around the corner and saw a pale, red haired child in a yard. I jokingly said "We must be close", and then, as luck would have it, her mother came out and asked us if we were looking for the American Store. Why yes, we were! She kindly gave us directions and told us where to turn next. Once we forked off down another muddy, rut filled road we finally started seeing the red arrows the map referenced.

This way for ramen and Pop-Tarts!

We all agreed it was worth the hike and the exploring at least, and now that we actually knew we would find the place that was nice, too.

We're here! And it looks... like a compound.
A friendly man came out and helpfully led us into the building. The first floor was filled with huge reams of paper and boxes, but a sign (more descriptive than the spray painted red arrows, certainly) pointed us in the right direction. Scott, despite being Canadian, is excited to drop major leke on favorites from America.

Upon entering the store, it was pretty much exactly what we had assumed based on the FB page- shelf stable processed and/or canned food, a lot of it junk food, which makes sense since they're importing it from across an ocean and they're probably doing so on ships. But they did have canned pumpkin, which means Bobby and I can make pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, and they had cranberry sauce, which means Thanksgiving will be officially legit. Black beans and cheap taco shells also scored points. And, let's be honest- sometimes you just want some trashy mac 'n cheese or a sleeve (or seven) of Oreos. Props to them for providing a way to fill that need.

V8, enjoying unprecedented adoration in light of its rarity in Tirana. It's like having an Italian accent at an American university.

We stocked up on things we would probably never buy in America, just because we all kind of sensed that we will probably never walk out there again. Our curiosity sated and bags filled, we left the compound. But not before seeing this...

I like the juxtaposition of these things, which pretty much sums up the entire situation. Glenn Beck has quite the global reach.

The road back was just as it was on the way in- windy, muddy, and lined with construction and sometimes trash. As luck would have it, we ran into the owner of America's Favorites on the way out. She told us the building used to be a government/military compound (which made me feel less guilty for seeing it and immediately thinking it looked like a compound). She was incredibly kind and sweet and offered us a ride down but we demurred on account of our mud packed hooves. She asked if we wanted to be on the mailing list, to which Scott replied "What kind of mailing list?" Good point, Scott.* Apparently it's just a standard "New shipment of Pop-Tarts!" list, so we signed up and thanked her before continuing on our slippery way.

Between the walk to the Stephen Center and then America's Favorites, we covered around 7 miles. I think we all agreed that it was worth a one time trip, but no one really feels any need to go back. I can totally see how it's nice to have a place you can go to find familiar junk food, and props to them for filling that hole in the market. You can place orders for delivery, and it might be worth it in the future to go in together on canned food- pineapple, pumpkin, and black beans are all legitimately missed in our house. In the end, though, I think I'm not only too lazy to walk back there, but I'm probably too lazy to coordinate a delivery.

That night, I made up a batch of shells n' cheese. I won't lie- they were delicious.

*This is not meant to be a dig at Christianity/religion, I just don't enjoy being on mailing lists where I'm proselytized (holy crap, I spelled that right the first time, it's truly a miracle) to. Plus, I don't just hand my e-mail out to every store owner on the street. I have class, even when I'm standing in a mud puddle clutching a plastic sack of shells and cheese, Dr. Pepper, and brownie mix.

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