x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Observing life: Battle of the shopping bags

The supermarket packing assistant's lot is not a happy one.

Forget traffic wardens, social workers and British MPs. For my money, the most thankless job in the world has to be that of the supermarket checkout packer. This truth first struck me years ago in the UK, not long after my marriage. Joint shopping trips came as a rude awakening to one who had been criminally indifferent to the essentials of shopping, such as choosing the right colour of bathroom tissue, leaving frozen goods until last - and packing.

Twenty-five years on, I am more domesticated - though it is interesting to note how quickly I am reverting to type, living to all intents and purposes a bachelor existence in Abu Dhabi. For example, if I make a list at all I generally forget it, and while I still select a particular colour of bathroom tissue, I try to make it look random and inattentive. I thought I had been rumbled the other day when a loitering teenager gave the contemptuous snigger characteristic of the species. It turned out his derision was aimed at a bewildered young man with a sheet of paper and a hunted look. A new husband shopping solo with a cryptic list. Still, that's what the mobile phone was invented for - assuming you can describe what you are looking at.

Anyway, back to the packing assistants. Ubiquitous in the UAE, they are rare now in Britain and then usually female, presumably on the grounds that women know what they are doing. And in my experience, women have generally logical ideas about how the bags should be organised: tins at the bottom, for example, squashy things like tomatoes on top. Logical, yes, but rigid: and while they might concur on broad principles they differ sharply on detail, something that regularly leads to a silent but bitter power struggle as items are packed and repacked with ill-concealed impatience.

In Abu Dhabi they are all men. I don't know whether the same tension exists in their dealings with female shoppers, but from the way they treat me I infer that it does and that they are visiting accumulated humiliation on me. I recently bought a plastic tray of freshly sliced pineapple, which I took the precaution of wrapping in a separate plastic bag - you know how those trays leak, lid or not - and then placed on a level surface in one of my big bags. I turned to pay, hoping for a few Dh10 notes in my change (have you noticed how the total always comes to just under a multiple of Dh50 – or worse, just under, eroding your coin supply?).

Transaction concluded, I pushed my tolley hastily away (they seem to resent it when I linger to secure my wallet) and it was only when I was in the taxi queue that I noticed the pineapple had been moved to the other big bag where it was sitting at a jaunty angle on an uncertain surface of fruit. Most of the liquid had leaked out of the container, which I irritably returned to the place I had originally appointed, little realising that the precautionary bag, now aswim with pineapple juice, was itself far from watertight. Result when I got home? Two bags of sticky shopping instead of one.