There seems to be a common misconception among many Americans that when it comes to shopping and eating, there is far greater variety on the western side of the Atlantic as opposed to in Europe. While in some quarters of the market this may be the case, in the area that currently makes up 95% of our shopping, namely food, we have found far more variety in supermarkets this side of the Atlantic.

Our shopping basket frequently holds lush black and red seedless grapes from South Africa, Italian Kiwi fruit, New Zealand lamb, Dragonfruit (Pitaya) from Vietnam, salmon from the remote lochs of Western Scotland, Fuji apples from Japan and China, broccoli tips from Kenya, French and Italian cheeses, Spanish tomatoes, baby potatoes from Israel, and on. It has become a fun – and educational – game with the kids to note the country of origin of the food we buy.

If you know where to go, I’m sure these are all freely available in the US but we never noticed them on the shelves of our local larger supermarkets (Wal-Mart, Giant Eagle etc.) Here, these items and more all seem to be carried as standard.

Much of the variety in the UK may derive from the way in which the country gets its food. Comparatively little of the food consumed in the UK now comes from truly local sources. In contrast, the US provides much of its own food. This domestic production leads to greater availability; however, it seems to offer less choice for the consumer who chooses to shop beneath one roof.

The variety extends beyond the supermarket shelf. Large scale immigration into the UK in recent years has led to a huge variety in high street restaurants. For instance, in one block of a neighbouring town we can choose between traditional British fish ‘n’ chips, Thai, India, Italian, Spanish, Polish and Chinese foods – all within 100 metres; if we include the adjacent block the variety extends even further, including Iranian and Hungarian cuisine.

Anyhow, it’s time for me to have a cup of tea – from Kaisugu, Kenya.

One thing I’ve noticed in Britain is that, because it is part of the European Union, many products come from various parts of Europe. Usually the various languages on the packaging will give you a clue as to their origins. Different countries will have different rules regarding what is required on food labelling.

In the US, we did get products from countries around the world, but they were all packaged for the American market. Some items will have French and Spanish on them, but most do not. One of the requirements for food labelling is that the ingredients are listed, as well as a table for the nutritional content.

Here, despite the emphasis on health, some items are missing either a list of ingredients or the nutritional labelling. If I want to compare two different brands on their salt and fat content, sometimes I’m not able to. Makes me wonder why there is not a universal standard in the European Union for food labelling. It seems they have universal standards on all the “green” issues, but not on health.

In the United States there are several types of thrift stores. You have church-affiliated thrift stores, charitable organization shops, and other for-profit thrift stores. The organization of each is different but the goals of all are to sell goods at low prices. Primarily, the goods are second hand, most having been donated, in the cases of the church-affiliated and charitable organizations. Of course, some of these shops may also sell new items, usually close-outs, irregulars and such.

We shop a lot at thrift stores for various items. It gives us a chance to compare one thrift store against another. In recent times, we have noticed that although places like Salvation Army and the church thrift stores have continued the tradition of selling things very cheap, because they cater to the poor, Goodwill is starting to sell at higher prices and are pickier about what they sell. No longer are they selling everything that is donated. It seems they sort through the donations, keeping only the very best. This is good news to some, who do not like going through “junk”, but it does mean that their prices are higher.

Coming to England, I have found that there are numerous charity shops, each affiliated with one charity or another. However, I can’t say that their prices are very charitable. These charity shops sell “good” second-hand goods as well as new items. “Thrift” is not the term I would apply to any of these shops. They remind me of the Goodwills in America, only somewhat costlier. I have seen box-loads of donations outside the doors of these shops, yet the stock does not appear to be much changed nor are the shops packed. My question is, “Are they even keeping these donations or just throwing them out?”

What is the purpose of these charity shops? Are they not there to help those in need? Or are they only out to make money for their specific charities? And how much of their profits actually go to the charity as opposed to the pockets of the administrators? Are people donating to these places thinking they are contributing to a worthwhile cause/organization, while the administration gets rich? Is it right that these organizations receive free donations and turn around and mark them up?

In these days of credit crunch when people are losing jobs and homes and have less money to spend, why are these charities pricing items so that these people cannot even afford to shop in charity shops?

Recently, we entered a shop and bought some books.  There were signs posted stating that certain books were individually priced while the rest were under one umbrella pricing.  When we went to pay, the clerk, who is supposed to be a volunteer, took it upon herself to decide the books were too good to be under the blanket pricing and repriced them especially for us.  Was that fair?  Was that charitable?  It’s like bait-and-switch.  Why should consumers have to pay more because one clerk thinks the price should be higher than what another clerk determined?

I’ve been to some rummage sales in the US.  I’ve attended and even held my own garage sales.  However, I had never been to a Jumble Sale in the UK.  That is, until now.  What an experience!  I’ve been to several now and I certainly find them much more amusing than any rummage or garage sale.  That’s not to say that I haven’t found wonderful items at both rummage and garage sales.  It’s just that the entire atmosphere was different to what I’ve been used to.

My first experience was walking into a bustling, noisy, crowded room, buzzing with activity.  You’d think you were at some overcrowded market and the goods were outstanding.  But it’s not.  It’s a bunch of old junk people have donated to the organizers of the Jumble – whether it’s a local charity, church, or community group.  But amongst the old junk you might find a treasure, hence, the rush to get at the goods first.  You practically have to elbow your way in to look at what’s on the table.  Everything’s just piled up high, especially the clothes.  Almost nothing is priced up.  Or, I should say, almost nothing is even priced.  You can either make an offer or ask how much and someone will make up a price on the spot (your  price will even differ depending on who you ask).  You can choose to bargain with the price, but given how low most of the prices are, it seems a very guilty pleasure to try to get it for even lower.

Because we had left most of our household stuff in the States, we had to replenish here.  The Jumbles really helped us out financially.  At one Jumble, we almost furnished everything in the kitchen for 4 GBP.  We didn’t run across any valuable antiques but we found some good quality items that only needed a little cleaning.  You have to be able to sort through junk and enjoy it in order to appreciate these Jumbles.  Unfortunately, from what I hear from the natives, Jumbles are starting to go by the wayside.  That would be quite a shame.

I was having a migraine while we were shopping at Sainsbury’s one day.  Even though I was feeling sick, my mind was still alert enough to register “Free”.  That’s how I ended up with my first copy of the Friday Ads.  It has been a handy source for finding out what’s going on as well as what’s selling.

We knew we had to be resourceful in order to save money and we knew we had to forego a lot of luxuries.  Shopping with the Friday Ads has helped us to manage our budget.  We’ve seen free items that we wanted in the ads, but the lack of a van or truck to collect these items has prevented us from taking full advantage of this resource. 

Yet, we’ve been able to find some great deals.  The girls each have beds that would have cost us 3-4 times more at the charity shop.  We also got a good refrigerator/freezer.  Still awaiting more appliances.  But the best deal so far has to be the car.  It’s hard enough to find an automatic car and even harder to find a good one that won’t cost too much.  Ours cost us the price of two weeks on a rental.  It’s several years older than my last car in the US, but it only has half the miles.  Great deal in my book.  It’s a good thing that we don’t mind using second-hand goods and none of us are overly concerned about a car’s make and model as long as it runs well.