In the sleepy English village where I went to boarding school for seven years, there was a row of shops that we could walk to---at first just on Saturday mornings and then, as we grew older and earned our independence, on Saturday mornings and Tuesday afternoons (provided we were wearing our blue and gold school blazers---buttoned all the way up!---and traveling in a group of three or more. Oh, you wish I were kidding, but I'm not.)
This row of shops consisted of a post office, a library, a laughably miniscule supermarket, an overpriced stationary shop, an Italian restaurant where I celebrated my thirteenth birthday, a newsagent, and a greengrocer. Actually, if it helps, I just tried to find a picture online for you---in the hopes that it might provide a better visual of this bucolic British one-horse town---but the only one I could dig up via Google was taken in 1955. You can rest assured, however, that it hasn't changed at all in the intervening 53 years.
(Oh, and just for kicks, here's a picture of the pub out of which I was unceremoniously frogmarched by my boarding housemistress on a balmy summer evening in 1998, after she stormed in, saw a group of us raising our pints in celebration, and started shrieking GET OUT! GET OUT! GET BACK TO SCHOOL, YOU NAUGHTY GIRLS! And yes, just in case you were wondering, nothing impresses the local boys like being escorted back to your dormitory in disgrace by a jowly middle-aged French teacher wearing both a pair of forest-green culottes and her glasses on a fluorescent chain around her neck. No, really. Want to hook up with someone tonight? Try it. Foolproof, I swear. You'll be beating them off with a stick.)
Anyway, of all the shops that I frequented every single Tuesday and Saturday between the years of 1991 and 1998 (and sometimes, if I was being naughty, on other days of the week too), the newsagent was my favorite. I'm not sure if the concept of newsagents translates to Americans, but a newsagent is basically a small store that specializes in newspapers, magazines, and candy bars. There is usually a cantankerous old man or woman standing behind the counter, and behind this cantankerous old man or woman---if you're lucky, though I hear it's becoming increasingly rare these days---is a sugar junkie's Shangri-la: a wall of gleaming, glistening, multi-hued sweets in jars.
(Brief time-out: Are we all clear on sweets, by the way? Sweets are just candies, kind of like knickers are just underpants. Also, since I am all about the visual aids today, here is a picture of the outside of a newsagent for you. And here are some sweets in jars. I hope you don't find this inclusion of pictures patronising; it's just that my powers of description aren't always up to snuff, and I'm never quite sure how well things translate from England to America and vice versa. Trust me, were it not for Google Image, I would have absolutely no idea what a pot roast looked like.)
Newsagents and sweetie shops are something of a British tradition, and this particular newsagent became my own personal tradition. Every week, I'd wander in, go up to the counter, and ask for a quarter pound of Apples & Custards and a quarter pound of Rosy Apples. Sometimes I'd vary it up and get a quarter pound of Strawberry Bonbons, and sometimes I might even go for Barley Sugars or Cola Cubes or Flying Saucers or Sherbet Lemons. No matter what I asked for, though, the ritual would be the same every time: the woman behind the counter---I can see her now, in her pink twinset, her white bob parted straight down the middle---would pour my sweets with a clatter from the jar onto the scale and then tip them gently into a white paper bag before twisting the ends to seal the contents inside. I'd make that bag of sweets last a week, sucking them surreptitiously during choir practice in the chapel, or lying on my bed in the dormitory with the bag at my side and a book on my stomach, reveling in two of the world's most simple pleasures: sugar and a storyline.
The last time I went back to my boarding school to visit---probably around 2001, three years after I'd left at age 18---I made the five-minute walk down into the village (scandalously, it may have been a Tuesday or Saturday, BUT IT MAY NOT HAVE BEEN) and wandered into the newsagent for old times' sake. To my huge surprise and subsequent delight, the woman behind the counter remembered me. "You used to come in all the time!" she said. "We wondered what happened to you."
I never found another sweetie shop when I moved to London for university---there were plenty of newsagents, sure, but never the old-fashioned kind with jars of brightly-colored boiled sweets behind the counter, clattery metal scales, waxy white paper bags---and I became used to getting my sugar rush the more modern way: in pre-packaged tubes and rolls and plastic packets, stuffed with additives and E numbers, dumped onto the conveyor belt at Safeway with the rest of my groceries. A few years ago, though, moping at the office on a Saturday morning in Charleston, I came across the most wonderful article about British sweet shops, and found myself overtaken by a nostalgia so powerful that it caught me off guard. But these few lines didn't surprise me at all:
"The British may spend more on chocolate a head than anyone else in Europe, but it is the boiled sweets, sherbet delights, fruity gums, and liquorice treats of sugar confectionery that are so strongly associated with this country, and that we remember from childhood.......The response to the old-fashioned sweets that [sweet shop] Sugar Boy sells is surprisingly emotional...and is reflected in the way people tend to bulk-buy when they discover that a favourite from their childhood is still on sale."
Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that my childhood was tumultuous---it was actually very calm and very pleasnt, if rather unconventional---but I did grow up with a lot of change, a lot of moving around, a lot of upheaval and adjustment. And as a result, I think, I tend to cling to tradition wherever I can. It's why I can't even begin to think of spending Christmas anywhere other than with my family, why I have certain rituals in the days leading up to a plane journey, probably even a significant part of why---against all odds, against all separations---I've had the same boyfriend for so long. As much as I like things to change, you see, I like it even more when they stay the same.
About a month ago, Sean and I were walking around San Francisco on a windy Sunday afternoon, and we stumbled upon a tiny store on a street corner, a store I must have walked past a hundred times before and never noticed. I carried the memory of that store around in my head for the next few weeks, but every time I thought about going after work, I'd remember that it closed at six and I didn't have time to make it. This afternoon, after a month of thinking about it, I left the office just after five and marched, like a girl on a mission, through the streets of San Francisco until I found it again: Fiona's Sweet Shoppe. Inside, with the walls stocked floor to ceiling with glass jars, the colored candies bouncing into the clattery metal scale, it felt like I'd come home.
I spent more than I'd ever normally spend on sweets, and I ate more than I'd ever normally eat in one sitting too. But the familiarity of the ritual, the sudden, sharp rush of memory, and the sample bag the woman behind the counter made up for me in addition to my purchases---"try these and tell me what you think of them the next time you come in!"---made me feel like a grateful twelve-year old in a navy school blazer all over again. There's a quote I read somewhere about homesickness being nothing more than a nostalgia for the foods of our childhood, and while I can't seem to find it on the Internet---pictures of pot roast are easier to pin down, apparently---I sure do understand where the person who said it was coming from. Well, of course I do, I've got a one-way ticket from there myself.