Sunday, July 21, 2013

What I'm homesick for / the lure of frictionless consumption

I made a commitment that my next post would include photos. Unfortunately, I'm going to delay that for one more post, hopefully early this coming week, once I have better upload bandwidth (sorry John O'Connor!). In the meantime, here's a post that is less about Ethiopia, and--I guess--more about me.

Caveat, the conclusion of this post may feel a little political:

The other week I had a moment at work where I really and truly wanted nothing more than to be able to step out for a brief moment; grab a quick, easy, custom-made, and familiar sandwich from Mike's Cafe; and make it back within 10 minutes to eat it in the office.

For the most part I've avoided too much homesickness while in Addis. To different degrees this could be attributable to the fact that I'm still in a "honeymoon period" (coming up on the two months mark!), that I was ready to leave DC, that Addis isn't as lacking in familiar comforts as might be expected--if you know where to look, and that my expat colleagues before me have figured out exactly where to look.

Still, I've been putting thought on occasion into what it is I really miss from "home" and why.

1) Summer -- The rainy season in Addis has not hit me as hard emotionally as I was warned it might. Twelve weeks (now half-passed) of a couple hours of rain daily and a little mud to walk through doesn't forebode for me as much as the dark and cold of November entering into a New England winter. And, in terms of weather specifically, I'm willing to take up the bargain that Ethiopia will more than make up for this briefly sub-optimal weather with sun and moderate temperatures the entire rest of the year. (Especially when I know folks in the Northeast US are suffering: even three years in, I was still feeling lucky to take advantage of a mild DC winter that wasn't Boston's or Ohio's).

Still, certain things about summer in the US I unequivocally miss not being able to take in. Mainly these have to do with summer days spent on Kelleys Island, Ohio: views of the lake, placid ferry rides, steak from the barbecue, corn on the cob, outdoor drinking, and the general feeling of languor that accompanies all these summer luxuries. I understand, though, that it's been an unusually hot summer so far in the US--one that makes you want to stay inside, turn up the AC, and interferes with some of these simple pleasures. And even more so with my next desire...

2) Outdoor exercise -- Biking up into Rock Creek Park, down across Memorial Bridge to the airport, or even across to downtown or unknown parts of Northeast was a favorite way of mine to kill time in DC while not giving in to complete laziness. This would be a more difficult and (likely) less enjoyable pursuit here for any number of reasons. In particular, I'm thinking lack of quality roads and parks, difficulty getting ahold of the required equipment (bikes aren't a thing here even for urban commuting), conspicuousness of a ferengi engaging in something laborious for personal enjoyment (although, unlike in India, running is a recognized thing here and so this might be less of a hurdle).

While I'm on some level skeptical of a lot of the outlets for enjoyment available to young American urbanites, this was one of the several that I nonetheless got substantial enjoyment out of. And another was...

3) My apartment -- My apartment in DC was pretty damn awesome. Lots of square feet; wood floors; light; views; outdoor space; modern conveniences; proximity to public transport; walkability to--if not actual presence in--legitimately interesting parts of DC (sorry Foggy Bottom); and less than two blocks from all the conveniences of modern yuppy life--Whole Foods & Trader Joe's, CVS, grab-and-go quasi-gourmet burgers, salads, and sandwiches. Which leads to...

4) Friction-less consumption -- This is to some extent a catch-all bucket. At times I can miss many of the things that were easy to get ahold of someplace I've been recently and no longer are: chai tea lattes, respectable sandwiches, and a chattering crowd at a hip coffee shop in DC (Tryst basically); Vietnamese, Japanese ramen, and fresh seafood options; coherent neighborhoods to walk around in--whether in DC, London, or San Francisco--that are held together by the fact that someone else is there to buy the overpriced food, art, or whatever else.

I desire what I don't have--in my prior situation I missed the novelty and immediacy of life in a foreign place, and now I miss the comfort and distance of an American suburb. At a more material level, I miss a world that has become very good at serving up whatever I desire at a particular moment with limited hassle--whether it's combining the elements of a quick meal at the Whole Foods hot food bar, ordering the exact right green tea off of Amazon, or finding an alright movie on Netflix to kill some time.

My experience in Addis tells me that this form of consumption hasn't reached the entire world. Fulfilling a particular consumer desire/demand often takes a lot more input and effort here, for better or for worse. There's no self-checkout, no walking into Target and walking out with prescriptions and trail mix and jeans and furniture, no one-click purchase then putting it out of mind until it shows up two days later.

Transactions involve explicitly formulating your desires, strategizing over how to fulfill them, and--invariably--interacting with actual people at the point of sale. My colleagues know exactly which expat supermarket will sell particular "staples" (for instance Parmesan cheese, disposable cups, frozen chicken breasts). You'll have to bargain for a taxi there and a taxi back. And you'll generally have to stop at smaller individual stands and shops to fill out your basket--bread, fresh produce, etc. coming from their own individual proprietors.

Some of the friction comes from being foreign and not used to it (e.g. it's not as easy to negotiate for taxis), some of it comes from the economy being not used to me and the goods people like me desire (e.g. quick, customized lunch sandwiches in the Mike's cage example above), but some simply comes from being in a less automated and less streamlined economy (see Whole Foods, Amazon, Netflix, Target above). In a way this raises prices for everyone, by adding on a layer of "hassle" in addition to the monetary cost of goods. (Those with servants to do their shopping for them--which was common in India, and seems common here though on a less full-service model--may manage to substitute most of this hassle cost with an additional monetary cost).

It reminds me that many of the accomplishments of the American retail sector over the past 50 to 100 years (really as far back as the Sears catalogue) and the American technology sector over the past 20 have been to remove this sort of "hassle" cost and make the sole cost of a purchase its monetary cost, as in the examples of big box stores, self-checkout, and one-click shopping noted above. This is no doubt efficient in a specific sense, and is positive for someone like me who enjoys consumption and dislikes instrumentalized human interaction as a barrier to it.

Some would say that this removal of "friction" is good for all in the long-term, as it's inherently something without a net benefit. Others might counter that a trend toward not having to formalize, strategize around, and then communicate your desires is dangerous to society in a variety of ways--a push toward thoughtless consumption, as well as social inequity. 

Without coming down one way or the other on that, as a hallmark of the society I'm used to, I miss it.

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