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For me, university started with the task of choosing the least emotional parent to act as haulier for my journey from home to destiny. As we arrived at halls and unloaded my single bag of possessions, we ran into a giddy and excited girl with a quirky accent going through the same routine with her own considerably larger entourage. After the arrangement of bookshelf number three had been approved and the ribbon cutting for her clothes horse had drawn to a finale, her family emerged into the hallway just in time for our starkly contrasting ceremonies to meet.

“Alright, see you at graduationâ€￾ said my next of kin to rounds of laughter, as if staying away from a god-awful city he'd never visited before was going to be difficult for him. He did return once before graduation for work, but didn't tell me until two weeks afterwards. Luckily, the girl's photography unit interrupted our awkward silence, but didn't delay my father's exit.

One solitary backpack sitting on a naked bed can make even the cosiest of dwellings seem dauntingly airy - not least when it sounds like there's a small pagan festival occurring behind walls so thin that it feels like they were probably built only from paint. It felt like I spent days sitting alone, visualising how you could dry paint to form a wall. What seemed like weeks later, I had a sudden realisation that things had to change. Like when you get out of bed to face your hangover rather than continuing to stage a Lennon/Ono style protest. The aforementioned girl was the only other fresher I had yet witnessed. I knew what I needed to do.

Having not long touched down from an excellently non-exotic but thoroughly intoxicating around-the-world-to-one-destination-and-back-again gap year, the prospect of making friends and settling in actually wasn't something I was too nervous about. My first step was to spend half a day in Tesco with some other freshers. I took great lengths to distance myself from those who owned cookbooks for students - they're repackaged joke books where every punchline is “cheese on toastâ€￾. While owner of such vile pamphlets filled their baskets with 17p noodles they'd never tried nor wanted to before, I found an excuse to disappear down the world food aisle, where I tried to stand out by thoughtfully appreciating the packets of udon.

At this point, my youthfulness made me think that eating relatively exotic foods and prefacing each sentence with “on my gap yearâ€￾ would allow me to shine brighter than a blood diamond as a sage of culture and wisdom. But in that supermarket, I soon met people who'd saved starving children, seen countries that even the UN doesn't recognise, and “Raleighâ€￾-ed to build so many schools that they made Lenny Henry's contribution to Comic Relief look like dropped change. I realised was at the bottom of the gap year food chain. I was barely above the “tour through Thailandâ€￾ guys. I couldn't compete in the world food stakes, so there was only one way for this fresher to go. To the booze aisle.

“Let's make vodka jelly!â€￾ I cried desperately, and quickly realised my mistake. I've never seen the point in adding a six-hour setting agent to something sold as ready to drink. The use of jellied alcohol is only permissible if you're stripping the paint from military vehicles or bringing out the shine of an aged dining room table. It was official. I'd been out funned. I was also shortly to find myself out vintage-clothed, out music-tasted, out well-read, out-intelligenced and outnumbered. Time to check out.

The cashier treated us all, regardless of relative status, with a disdain usually reserved for war criminals. And that's when it struck me. Shopping in Tesco is a perfect metaphor for the formation of personal identity, and life in general: it feels like a competition, but nobody really wins. And as long as you're scanning items you actually like to eat, you won't starve, and you'll be slowly building up the points on your Clubcard.   

Published

18 September 2012

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