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  • For 10 months a year I live in South Africa. Going back and forth has become routine after 14 years but there is always something that jars and, sometimes, something that makes me wonder where on earth I belong now.

    Shopping tells the story.

    In South African grocery stores some of the biggest aisles are devoted to mealie meals of various grinds. Mealie meal is cornmeal and it is a dietary staple. The first year I thought I was being offered mashed potatoes with the grilled meats and realized it was a mound of white, corn meal mush.

    Compare that to the near endless rows of breakfast cereals, the massive cases of frozen prepared foods and the lines od bright and improbable drinks and snacks that, from the prominence and number, are the staples of a US diet.

    In South Africa, at the store around the corner, I will queue up with:

    a security guard with his huge pistol in a holster across his stomach

    2-3 laborers in ragged boots buying a packet of chicken livers and a kilo of mealie meal to cook over the scrap lumber fire at their work site

    a fashionably thin, woman in gym clothes all made up down to the rings on her fingers getting veg and boerwors (sausages) for the weekend.

    university students with a bad case of the munchies and a sticky prepared cake

    a girl in riding boots

    a barefoot boy in school uniform with his elegant mum

    a young woman with a baby bound in a blanket riding on her back

    This year, back in Maine trying to cross of some random items on the three-page list, I dropped Claire off at the Walmart.

    In an attempt at efficiency I went to the Home Depot on the opposite side of the mall complex. After 45 minutes wandering the fluorescent canyons I had 8 things that weren’t on the list, three that were and no sign of what I actually went in to buy. I fled.

    In the vast parking lot I waited by the car and watched the big cars, big trucks and big people come and go.

    Claire emerged a while later.

    You won’t believe it, she said. I saw some grandparent types buy huge bags of frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

    On the rest of the drive north and east towards Bass Harbor and the island I thought about what that says about us as a people, us as a nation.

    Today, on a rainy morning, beside the old woodstove, I think about it again.

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