When I began this story, I was thinking about what I missed most from my passport country. I was writing after a particularly vexing trip to the supermarket, with both children. Although they have become great helpers as they’ve grown, it is still a near constant barrage of questions. Trying to make sense out of things for someone else when not everything makes sense to you is a taxing experience. A family trip to the store leaves me exhausted, frustrated, and inevitably lacking at least one key ingredient.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized there was a lot more to it than just my recent experiences shopping in grocery stores. I also began to see that more than a little of my aggravation could be attributed to continued adjustment to a new environment, aka culture shock. So my tale is in two parts.
This week in part one, I’ll share my negative thoughts as I take you through an average trip to the grocery store, an aggravating experience in any language. In the second part, I’ll take a look at what I consider is really the way to shop, the individual local stores and farmer’s markets. What it lacks in the form of ease and convenience, it makes up for it in variety, individual attention and human interaction. It’s not a quick way to fill your pantry, but I believe it is essential to fully integrating into the local community.
The soul of the community is shaped around these daily activities. Where you are dependent upon the supermarket, there tends to be less interaction, and you remain on the periphery. When you become a regular at your local corner stores, and farmer’s market, you are strengthening the bonds of the community by increasing the community’s independence from large chain stores, while increasing the interdependence on each other. Not to mention increasing your own sense of belonging.
As I continued to write, I realized that while I had grown accustomed to the convenience and frustrations of doing my weekly shopping at the supermarket. It wasn’t until I tried to replicate this monotonous household task in an unfamiliar environment that I saw exactly what that convenience cost me.
Part I: The Supermarket
I don’t enjoy Grocery shopping. I never have. I always feel as though I have just left the grocery store, and yet it’s time to return. Again. It is a necessity, but it is a necessity dictated and driven by all of the other day to day tasks that I must accomplish in order to keep the house running more or less smoothly. You might think that because I hail from the US, land of the giant supermarket, enormous box stores, and seemingly endless options for each and every item that the task would be less onerous. It isn’t.
Most of the places I lived stateside had little choice for shopping other than the large stores, and the few exceptions to this are notable memories. I became a slave to the giant supermarkets in whichever town I found myself. When I moved to Europe, the supermarkets were familiar. They were a known entity among all of the unknowns, and I continued to shop there.
Grocery shopping in a new country, in a language you are not fluent in with can leave you dazed, frazzled, and wondering exactly what it is you just added to your cart. Combined with every other unfamiliar aspect of your new life abroad, this can be overwhelming. An essential and unavoidable task like this causes you to confront your inadequacies in a new environment on a regular basis, talk about exacerbating culture shock!
Initially, I do enjoy perusing the aisles a bit more in a foreign language, picking up items that look interesting, wondering how on earth I would prepare others. However, as I settle in and attempt to begin the business of everyday life, it grows more and more frustrating. It soon becomes a long exercise in attempting to translate obscure cooking items on the fly.
Won’t you accompany me as I meander through the aisles, please forgive any negative descriptions. Sometimes culture shock settles in and obscures your vision, making it difficult to see the positive in the things you enjoy, and impossible to find the positive in the things you don’t.
Unlike US grocery stores, the stores in Germany and Italy require a deposit for carts. Even before you enter the store, you are scrambling for the change, which inevitably you have just emptied out of every pocket. Eventually, you will start to accumulate small plastic discs that work in the place of coins. These prized possessions are often handed out as business promotions, hold on to them, they make life just a bit easier!
Now that you have your cart, you’re ready to set out and conquer your shopping list. Most likely, the first place you’ll head to is the vegetable aisle, it seems to be the universal starting point for grocery stores. You’d think that this would be a fairly easy section to maneuver, but no. Yes, you can identify by sight what it is that you are looking for, however, in many stores you can’t just pick it up and go. You have to weigh the produce and print out a sticker first. Oh, and in Italy, please don’t even think of touching the produce before you put on your giant plastic glove.
Now that you have your bag of produce (being very careful to not touch anything with your bare hand in Italy), it’s time to weigh it. In order to print out the proper sticker, you’ll sometimes have to play a bit of produce elimination. Most of the time, the produce is very neatly labeled, and easily identifiable. Other times, there are four or five different placards with very foreign sounding words all hanging somewhere in the vicinity of the item in question. Some stores have electronic scales with pictures, which help. Others don’t. Sometimes it’s easier to carry a dictionary with you.
There are times where neither pictures nor dictionary will help. Take my sweet potato fiasco for example. Tucked away in an unassuming corner of my Italian grocery store, lay a small bin of patata dolce. Which, in my beginner Italian translates to sweet potato. Ecstatic to find this staple in my local store, I pick up a couple, noting – and ignoring the less than familiar appearance. It wasn’t until I prepared the potatoes that I realized they weren’t “sweet potatoes” at all. As I cut into the potato, I saw that it was whitish in color. I left the potato in the kitchen and went to look up white sweet potatoes. Finding that there was in fact such a thing, and that you could prepare them in a similar manner, I returned to the kitchen. In my absence, the potato had begun to oxidize. It was turning an unappealing shade of black. The more I peeled it, the faster it changed colors. I put it in salted water to stop the change, but nothing helped. I gamely continued on, I mean it’s a potato for goodness sake, how bad can it be?
As the potato boiled, the water turned yellow. When I took the potato out and began to mash it, it turned green. My 6-year-old informed me that she would not be trying it, because it looks disgusting and besides that, she does not eat green potatoes. No amount of butter and cream could salvage it. When even I couldn’t eat it, the 6-year-old chimed up – “see, I told you it wouldn’t taste good.” It tasted like fibrous wood pulp. So what was this color-changing root? I am still not 100% certain, but I know we won’t be trying them again.
Let’s wander over to the dairy aisle next. This is my next source of near constant consternation. In Germany, it was the yogurt. It was several months before I realized that quark, however tasty, was not in fact strawberry yogurt. The sheer volume of yogurt, cream cheese and cream related products made my head spin. In my local Italian grocery store, the yogurt selection is manageable, but the soft cheese selection is overwhelming.
My first Italian cheese mistake was a happy one. I thought I grabbed a container of fresh mozzarella, but instead I had grabbed a container of burrata. Because they do look similar, it wasn’t until I cut into the burrata and it unexpectedly oozed across the counter that I realized there was something different about this cheese. I took a bite of the inside and it tasted more or less like butter. After much consultation on Facebook, I went ahead and ate the cheese in question in thickly spread gobs on slices of fresh pizza Bianca. It was heavenly. I’m sure it’s not the most waistline friendly breakfast around, so I’ll save that for special occasions.
After maneuvering through the produce and dairy sections, you’ll most likely wish to round out your meal with some meat. This is where some of the most memorable mishaps will occur. All meat looks about the same when it’s sitting there uncooked in the meat case. Of course it’s labeled, but I don’t even know all of the cuts of meat in English. This is where all those years of playing charades can really pay off. I would like the (point to body part here) of an animal that (insert animal noise here). It’s the moment in your grocery shopping experience where you need to lay down your pride and embrace your inner preschooler.
Even then, mistakes happen, like the time in Germany when I grilled the marinated fat on a stick. In the German meat counter, there are usually several pre-assembled options for a quick meal to make at home. Several of these are variations on shish kebabs, or meat on a stick. On this particular occasion, I saw a lovely piece of what looked like steak in a thick marinade sauce on a stick, ready to throw on the grill. As I began to barbecue the skewered and still unidentified meat, I noticed that it was mysteriously and quickly diminishing in size. Then I tried one. It looked beautiful, it smelled delicious, but it tasted a lot like what I discovered it was – pig fat wrapped around a skewer. The dog was happy that evening. Everyone else ate peanut butter. Although the name escapes me, it is a common addition to backyard barbecues. My neighbors prepared it for us much later, cooking it to extreme crispness and the children happily devoured it.
Sometimes the interesting additions to the meat case make the trip and the inevitable embarrassment worthwhile. In both countries, I’ve encountered many items I have no earthly idea how to prepare – from duck, goose and rabbit to sheep heads, pig heads, ox tails, tongues, tripe, and various organ meats. If I’m feeling particularly adventures, I’ll give one of them a try. It’s a fantastic culinary adventure.
You may need a few other items, and here is where I’ve found the biggest difference between shopping in Germany and Italy. Every item in the German grocery store is in the same place every single time you go to the store. The aisles are spacious enough for two carts to easily pass. It is a low stress event.
Finding additional items in the Italian grocery store is a bit more complicated. It’s not just that the aisles are smaller, it’s that every single time I’ve gone to the Italian grocery store, at least one item that I purchase on a regular basis is not in the same place it was the last time I bought it. I feel like I am constantly playing hide and seek here. Sometimes I’ll locate the item, and sometimes I won’t. My shopping list has become more of a suggestion than a guideline.
Now that you’ve more or less found all of the items on your grocery list, you’re probably ready to check out.
In Germany, the lines to the grocery checkout are fairly orderly. On a busy day in my local Italian grocery store, the lines crisscross back and forth through one another as they serpentine haphazardly around the store. It’s important to figure out which days are going to be busier, and avoid the stores on those occasions.
Once you reach the clerk in either country, you need to be on your game. Unlike stores in the US, you are your own bagger.
The clerk quickly scans your items, often finishing faster than you can empty your cart. You then race to the opposite end and begin to bag your groceries – or just throw them in your cart and sort it out in peace at your car. I thought the German checkout clerks were fast, but then I came to Italy. It’s not that they are faster than their German counterparts, I’d say they’re about equal in speed. What the Italian checkout line has over the German checkout line is a split loading area.
In Germany, I was racing the clerk, trying to bag my groceries quickly enough to avoid the scorn of both the clerk and my fellow shoppers. The Italian clerk just keeps going. Invariably the person in front of you is still sorting the groceries, and the person in front of them is still adjusting their bag, and your groceries are starting to pileup at the entrance to the bagging area. Somewhere in the middle of your attempts at bagging, the clerk reads you your total, and waits patiently as you dig through every pocket for spare change. But don’t expect the same level of patience while you hunt around for exact change in Germany. Unless you’ve counted out your change before hand, just go ahead and give them the larger bill.
You’ve done it, you’ve survived your trip to the grocery store. It’s time to head home with your purchases, but don’t forget to return the cart and grab your deposit on the way out!