In Mentally Mapping Networks, I discussed the similarities between the way the Lebanese find their way around town and the way they perceive interpersonal relationships. I was therefore amused to see that the spatial perception deployed in a supermarket is similar to the directions you get here.
Instead of a linear layout with specific categories in each aisle, the Aoun chain of flashy orange supermarkets opts for something more of a patchwork layout. Though the shelving units are the same, the goods are grouped in corners, stacks and patches without the usual linear logic, the passages narrowing at points to make physical contact with other shoppers inevitable. Instead of lining the extremities of the rectangle, deli counters for fish, meat, olives and spices protrude into the centre, creating more potential for corners and less for actual aisles. Thinking about it, the layout is very like a modern souk.
Lost in the maze, like a typical westerner, I looked for directions. Raising my eyes to the signs suspended from the ceiling, I learnt that I was at the crossroads between “Insecticides” and “Choco spread”. Just behind that a sign read “Coffee” – not exactly a natural bridge between the two. Later on I found myself looking for the wine between “Vodka” and “Batteries”.
Looking around I discovered that there were a few obvious categories such as “Frozen Products” – nobody thought it was a good idea to spread the freezers across the room. But the signs were predominantly single items, so instead of Breakfast Cereals you have “Cornflakes” and instead of Spreads you have “Jam”, and instead of Spirits you have “Vodka”.
Rather than dividing the types of merchandise into comprehensive categories, they are represented by individual items. These supermarket synecdoches struck me as inherently similar to the spatial perception revealed by the way the Lebanese give directions by landmarks which seem to have been chosen by chance – a KFC here, La Cigale over there. Unlike the western map vision which is a 2D version as if seen from a helicopter, it is a 3D perception from the centre out, like Google’s street view, and as such a very human one.