Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Wal-Mart Effect

I've heard from my numerous Peace Corps acquaintances about the huge adjustments that one has to make when returning to the United States. Peace Corps volunteers are gone for two years, and aside from those lucky enough to be placed in crumbling Eastern European capitals - Skopje, Sofia, etc. - they live in extremely rural villages or collapsed industrial centers. The stores that exist are tiny - one room in a house converted into a a grocery, a one-room clothing "boutique", or a simple kiosk with the goods outside and the seller behind glass. Skopje, however, has several malls and shopping centers, as well as numerous supermarket chains. Most of the larger cities in Macedonia have some sort of open-air mall, and usually a small-but-recognizable chain grocery store. For the most part, however, the big-box retailers that Americans (and to an extent, some Western European countries) have come to love are almost nonexistent. So, when these Peace Corps volunteers return to America, they experience something which might be called "The Wal-Mart Effect", where one is completely overwhelmed by walking into a big-box retailer for the first time after returning home.

Earlier this summer, I had a mini-Wal-Mart-effect experience. Skopje is a fairly developed city, and a ring-road around the city was recently completed. I can't remember the occasion, but someone took me out to the edge of the city where all of the new development is taking place, to a store called "Huba-Mart". I really can't describe the feeling when I walked in, it was so. . . strange. It was a huge, over-air-conditioned pole barn, with the sound of shoppers echoing off the polished concrete floor. I was overwhelmed with the smell of various plastics, tinged with potting soil, paint and varnish.

It was the Macedonian "Home Depot". As I walked through the aisles, I experienced a strange mix of revulsion, nostalgia, and bewilderment. It was like a waking dream. I almost lost it when I turned a corner to see a row of drip-coffee machines and filters. I needed nothing, but my mind was reeling - "LOOK AT ALL THE THINGS YOU CAN BUY!"

The best approximation I can think of would be the scene in that David Bowie classic, "The Labyrinth", where the girl - that was Jennifer Connelly, right? - entered into what she thought was her own room, with that crazy hunchbacked lady trying to trick her. Everything looked the same, but it was just ever so slightly off. . . and then the girl breaks the mirror, and realizes it was all just an elaborate fantasy.

I walked outside, into the parking lot with the freshly mowed grass and the highway exit ramp, and I desperately wanted to break the illusion - "THIS CAN'T BE MACEDONIA! YOU ARE LYING TO ME!" I still get chills thinking about it. . . it was just so creepy. So out of place. And right afterward, we went to a giant Vero grocery store, which is attached to a gas station and a McDonald's. It didn't help my feeling of American consumerism-bizarreness, but it didn't make it much worse. . . at least the giant grocery store had racks of ajvar and Turkish coffee to remind me that I was just in globalized-Macedonia.

Now that I've booked my plane tickets home - I'll be back on October 22 - I think more and more about that Wal-Mart effect. That overwhelming air-conditioning. . . the sickly flourescent lighting. . .the rows and rows and rows of STUFF, all kinds of STUFF. . .

It just seems so foreign, so strange. It'll be impossible to avoid, I know. . . but I'll give it a shot.

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