Aisle Be There for You

No matter where she is in the world, Rijn Collins knows what’s in store.

The supermarket was on the other side of the village. I had to cycle there, shopping bags shoved deep in the pockets of my long red coat, hood up against the Finnish cold. It was all I could do not to look over my shoulder for wolves, Red Riding Hood pedalling through the forest.

It took me so long to translate the food labels that I often ended up with the same things each week. Buttery kirsikkapiirakka (cherry pie), some poro steaks (reindeer) and a small bottle of divine lakkalikööri (cloudberry liqueur). I knew no-one in Finland; the conversation with the cashier would sometimes be my only conversation that day. Back in my attic at the writing residency I would cook, then carry the meal down to my studio. The door was often nudged open by one of the residency cats, each named after Finnish gods and goddesses. And I’d eat my feast, watching the sun drop low over the pine trees.

Supermarkets have always been a source of solace for me. They anchor me in my travels and comfort me at home. Whenever housemates or partners baulked at the task of grocery shopping, I’d always volunteer. The shelves held the promise of nurturance, as well as a constancy that I appreciated when nothing in my life seemed predictable.

At the age of 18 I fell into a period of intense agoraphobia. It lasted two years. I could avoid social occasions and family gatherings, but what about toothpaste or cat food? I would inch my way down Swan Street, in Melbourne, eyes on the footpath, waiting for the red logo of Bi-Lo to signify safety. Unable to work, I lived off food vouchers and would patiently add everything up on my calculator, determined to make every cent last. The contents of the basket held the only self-care I had access to, and I clung on tight.

When I began living on my own in my thirties, I honed my culinary skills. My friends knew I wasn’t available on Saturday nights. Instead, I pored over recipes, cooked a huge feast often hours in the making, and ate it in the company of old blues records. Even when depression tried to pull me underground again – especially when this happened – I would search for fresh nutmeg to grate into stewed plums, or a round of cheese to bake, studded with cloves of garlic. It never took much money; I rarely had any. But when I walked into a supermarket, I knew I would be leaving with something to strengthen me, no matter how small.

After a particularly traumatic break-up, I reacted in a manner familiar to many: a new haircut, and a dwindling appetite. I lost weight, I lost faith. But one morning, months later, I looked down at my supermarket basket and saw I’d chosen The Good Cereal. It was a small sign, but one I recognised as heralding healing.

The first place I go when I land in a new country, after I’ve checked into a hostel or writing residency, is the supermarket. When my bedside has raspberries or bread, I feel anchored there, already at home. It doesn’t always work out in my favour though. In Estonia, intimidated by the language and seasick from the ferry, I selected ingredients based purely on their names: ploomikompott, kassitoit and suhkrukuubikud. Back in my subterranean hotel room, lightning splitting the sky open, I sat down to a meal that turned out to be a jar of stewed plums, a small tin of cat food, and a box of sugar cubes.

In Berlin, I bought cheap champagne for the charm of the Rottkäppchen name, meaning Red Riding Hood. My own red coat came with me on all my travels. Delighted to be able to haggle in German, I picked up a packet of supermarket prawns at half-price. I was so proud of my language skills that I never thought to question the discount. My cast-iron stomach was fine, but my travelling companion was struck low with food poisoning for pretty much her entire stay.

The weekly supermarket shop has taken on a different dimension these days. COVID took my job but I’ve finally found some part-time shifts. I’ve opened the recipe books again. This time I’m not just nourishing myself but also my husband, stepson and a three-legged tuxedo rescue cat. In lockdown, the aisles were really the only time I saw other people en masse, all looking for self-care in a world where that’s rarely been more important. As restrictions ease I keep my distance, but I also keep my tradition.

I’m baking spiced cakes to honour the change of seasons. I gather brown sugar, cinnamon and cloves. It’s not a complicated recipe, nor an expensive one. But a supermarket seems the perfect place to start welcoming the return of the light.

Rijn Collins is an award-winning Melbourne writer whose collection of memoir, Voice, is published by Somekind Press.

First published in ed #649.