Friday, May 2, 2014

Adjusting to Life in Sumter

It’s really hard to describe to people who have never lived outside of the US for any lengthy period of time what being back here is like; to them it just seems like I’m complaining about every little thing or that I hate America.  Nothing could be further from the truth, I love the USA. Truth be told, although I miss Italy tremendously I am actually really happy to be back here in my own country. I remember when I left back in 1998, all I could think about were all of the things I would miss living in Europe but I quickly learned that even though you miss certain things, they get replaced by other things that you didn’t have in the place you left. That’s sort of what I’m experiencing now – rediscovering things about the US that I love but had forgotten about or otherwise learned to live without. Sometimes it’s the little things, like turning on a TV and having every single channel in English. And sometimes it’s bigger, something you can’t quite quantify like just the general feeling you get when you suddenly realize you’re actually back in the US - I’ve spent the past 16 years of my life feeling like a guest in someone else’s country but suddenly that feeling has been replaced by the feeling that I’m finally home (such as it is anyway). 

There are still adjustments though and I am occasionally experiencing bouts of culture shock here in Sumter. I think the biggest shocker for me so far has been this one: you cannot buy alcohol here in Sumter on Sundays. At all. Not in a grocery store, not in a bar, not even in a restaurant. That one was quite a shock to my system. Everybody I talk to seems embarrassed by the law and several tell me that it is coming up for a vote in November and will probably get overturned but it floors me that in this modern day, I can’t go to a restaurant on a Sunday and get a glass of wine with my meal. Or go to a bar to watch a game and have a beer. Apparently it is only Sumter County as I’m told most people just go to Columbia on Sundays. I can’t even imagine what it must be like during NFL season here. Just shocking.

Speaking of alcohol, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I am not going to find decent wine anywhere close to Sumter and so far that has pretty much held true. In many of the restaurants we’ve eaten at so far, I’ve sampled some of the wines on offer and haven’t found anything remotely resembling what I would consider decent vino. Now, coming to Sumter, South Carolina and complaining about the wine selection would be a tremendous exercise in futility so I just grit my teeth and keep my mouth shut because a wine snob in Sumter probably has a very short life expectancy. That being said, I have discovered a small oasis in my vino-less desert. There is a wine and spirits specialty store very close to the house we will be living in that features a halfway decent selection of wines from various countries around the world (decent for Sumter at least). The prices are high which is to be expected but there are some decent options at decent prices so at least I know that life will not be completely barren in the wine department.

Not on Sundays...

Food is quickly becoming one of the biggest disappointments for us. We had thought that being in the south and in a somewhat rural area would mean that we would have a plethora of fresh produce and such. Sadly it seems we were mistaken, at least so far. We haven’t found a single farmer’s market, Whole Foods or anything else along those lines here in Sumter. Even the grocery stores’ selections are lacking. It seems like everything here is deep fried or otherwise prepared in the least healthy way possible. Virginia plans to start her little vegetable garden when we move into the house, hopefully that will help. I worry about my kids’ diets living here, quite frankly. 

Fish and seafood - if food in general has been a big disappointment so far, then fish and seafood are right at the top of the list. Sumter is roughly two hours from the coast but we’d been told by a few people that the fish and seafood here was really good. That may be true but unfortunately we have not been able to find any of it. I’d done my research online before we got here and found a place called Liberty Seafood downtown that got rave reviews from people about their fresh fish and seafood so we were very anxious to check it out. We found it on our second or third day – it is a tiny little run down shack of a place that is actually an eatery in a predominantly black neighborhood serving all manner of fried fish but they also sell “fresh” fish. However, by “fresh fish”, we’re talking fish that they must have pulled out of the local creek (or is it called a crick?) - a whole bunch of dirty looking carp-like trash fish. I walked in and immediately felt like I didn’t belong there. I asked the 400 lb guy covered in fish guts if they carried any saltwater fish, seafood or shellfish. He gave me an angry look, cocked his lip and said “naw man, just what you see here, bro.” I beat a hasty retreat filled with bitter disappointment. Even the grocery stores feature terrible selection. Most of what passes for fresh seafood here seems to be farm raised catfish, farm raised salmon and more farm raised catfish. A couple places do have lobster tanks but they charge almost 20 bucks a pound for them. For those who don’t know us, Virginia and I are HUGE fish and seafood eaters. I would give up red meat before I ever gave up fish and seafood. Things have gotten so bad that we actually went to…*shudder*…the Red Lobster the other day.  It was “meh” at best and extremely overpriced but I needed fish so bad we had no choice. It was not my proudest moment. I felt like I needed a shower after we left. It looks like we’ll be relying on frozen fish as long as we’re here. Big disappointment. How big? Huge.  

Oh how we miss you...

Shopping, while not disastrous, is certainly not what I’d hoped or expected. One of the things you miss most about the US when you live overseas is the shopping. You have a small department store on base called a PX that has a limited selection of American stuff and you learn to live with it but you dream of the day you get to go back to the US and have an unlimited selection of American goodies at cheap prices. One of the things I’d sold the X Man on to get him excited about moving here was the huge selection of toys he would have to choose from rather than the one tiny aisle of toys he had at the PX which was always missing the stuff he liked. Unfortunately for us, Sumter is far from a shopping mecca. There’s a super Walmart but their toy section is not much bigger the PX and I’ll never forget the look of utter disappointment on poor Xavier’s face when he saw it. There is the Sumter Mall but it’s so small that you can almost throw a rock from one end to the other. I’ve quickly learned that you want decent shopping you have to drive 45 minutes to either Columbia or Florence. There’s a Toys R Us in Florence so we’ll be taking the kids there to pacify their youthful cravings. There’s also a Target and – my personal favorite – a Barnes and Noble. To put it in a way that the folks back home will understand, there are more shopping options in the Pheasant Lane Mall than in the entire city of Sumter put together. And don’t get me started on the sales tax…

Anyway, those are a few examples of some of the bigger adjustments we’ve had to make so far. There are plenty of other things both good and bad we are finding here and I’ll try to cover some more in the future. 


  1. Sorry to hear of all your disappointments. Too bad you don't have a Wegman's supermarket.

  2. Kitty, I am with you. Wegman's is fabulous. Columbia might be a haul with three kids, but it might be worth finding places to curb the disappointments. Seems like Sumter is more rural than anticipated. Question: Why on Earth are you so far from the coast? The SC beaches are fantastic. Good luck adjusting.

  3. Just come down to myrtle and ill take you to one of many awesome seafood places...theres a place called sara j's that offers fresh caught that day flounder crabs shrimp sea bass and mackrel. So dont get to bummed about the so callled fresh fish in sumter! Lol.