Seasons in the Sun
31 October 2016 | or 'Foraging & Familiarisation'
While on the subject of cars, have you noticed how they all look the same these days? They may vary in size, carrying capacity and internal configuration, but their general overall shapes and styling are monotonously alike. Gone are the days when you could identify a Ford Capri, a Morris 1000, an E-type Jag or an Austin A40 at a distance of half a mile. Now you can't be sure of the make, let alone the model, until you're close enough to read the small print on the badge that's glued onto the front. In my case, with my eyesight, this probably means that I've just been run over by it and have my nose wedged in the grille.
This is an example of convergent evolution. Anything that needs to move at speed through water ends up looking like a fish, even if, like a dolphin, it's a mammal. The shape is the optimum for getting through water quickly without collapsing from exhaustion after the first 50 metres. In the same way, the physics of aerodynamics, power transmission and steering geometry have all advanced to the point where the designs are pretty near optimum. As a result, all cars start to look the same.
What prompted this little digression was that I expected the same principles to apply to supermarkets.
Let me explain.
I got a little bit distracted.
The subject of this entry was intended to be about the contrast between wintering somewhere and the short, transitory visits made while summer cruising. In the latter, cruisers tend to stay a few days at most, maybe a week to ten days if they are weather-bound or suffer a technical. In the winter, most stay in one place for around six months. This makes for a qualitatively different experience - practically, socially and psychologically.
At a practical level, life when wintering becomes far more efficient and much easier. Take shopping for example. This is inordinately time consuming in the summer. The first challenge on arrival in a new port is to actually find the shops. Note the use of the plural. Even if you are only looking for basic provisions you will need to find several shops. The chances of you buying everything at one stop are infinitesimal. The sort of fully equipped hypermarket which sells everything from baked beans through wasabi paste to dehumidifiers and replacement windscreen wipers will, if it exists at all outside of your fevered imagination, be situated off a multilane gyratory system halfway to the Crab Nebula.
Once in the shop you then face the problem of finding out where they have secreted away the goods you are looking for. At first glance one would think that this would not present too much of an intellectual challenge. One would be wrong, but understandably so.
The major supermarket chains employ a veritable army of psychologists, neurobiologists, time and motion experts, ethologists and data scientists. Their prime objective is to get the punters to spend the absolute maximum amount of money. In this they are similar to Las Vegas casinos and, indeed, employ many of the same tactics - confuse, bamboozle, distract and disorientate.
Clocks and natural light sources are minimized in both environments for example. Entrances and aisles are usually arranged to encourage anticlockwise circulation, which has been shown to increase sales; apparently by favouring the right hand to pick things from the shelf. The most profitable items are placed on shelves that eye-tracking technology has shown to be the prime positions for being noticed. Describing the full range of tricks and tactics would take volumes.
I would have thought that all of this research would have found the near to optimum design and that every supermarket on the planet would buy into it. All layouts would therefore become clones of the big chains' designs. As a result you should be able to walk into any supermarket and know instinctively where everything is.
Outside of Britain and the US, though, this does not seem to be the case. Continental supermarkets, especially around the fringes of the Mediterranean, continue to display the quirky idiosyncrasies of their host cultures. Charming and atmospheric this may be, but it's a bugger if it sentences you to spending a futile half hour wandering gormlessly around looking for the bloody toothpaste before finding it cunningly hidden between the drain cleaner and the cat food.
It takes weeks to really get the feel of a place and know where everything is. In summer cruising mode this rarely happens. If you do manage it, say in a small village with only one shop and an itinerant live chicken vendor, you have little time to savour and use your laboriously acquired local knowledge because you're bound to be off the next day.
How very different from the home life of our own dear wintering cruiser. He has had several months to become a local. He knows where all the supermarkets are and which one he has to go to for what.(*). Hardware stores, stationers, launderettes, post offices and mobile phone shops are all engraved deeply on his mental map. Pubs and restaurants even more so. He can even work out the shortest route between any two points in the area by foot or by bicycle.
By the end of the winter the proportion of his life spent on shopping and general commerce has dropped from five hours a day to five hours a week, thus freeing time for such essentially pointless and self-indulgent pastimes as learning line-dancing or writing irritatingly patronising blog updates.
Talking of which, we are approaching the sweet spot on word length, so the riff on social and psychological effects will have to wait until the next post.
Do try to contain your excitement
(*) I have to admit here that this talent is far more likely to be exhibited by Mrs. Yottie