After seven months of shopping at the sparse but efficient German Lidl (motto: Lohnt sich = Worth it!) and Aldi, the Supermarkt seems less foreign. Today I reflect on the differences I have now come to accept (more or less).
1. I’m here but I can’t just walk in? What do I need to do first?
Just like at the post office and several other must-visits in Germany, many grocery stores have a sign to say we’re on the honor system for parking, usually limited to an hour. I have to put my plastic parking clock on the dashboard to show when I arrived to the nearest half hour. Then I fish for a Euro coin (or sometimes a two Euro or fifty cent coin) so I can unlock a grocery cart to bring in. This is not so much to ensure that I don’t steal it like in the U.S., but rather that I bother to return it to its ranks when I leave. Of course, I’ve already brought reusable bags so I don’t have to buy plastic ones when I check out.
2. Wait, wasn’t I just here?
Yes. I was probably here two days ago if not yesterday. My refrigerator is small, many products have short use-by lives, I have to pay in cash (or with a European pin-chip card), and there are only two check-out lines if I’m lucky. Often the two people at the registers are the only two people working at the store. There’s no need and no good reason to stock up on anything or waste time here. So several short trips in a week does the job. I just have to make sure each week that I have enough food for Sunday, when every grocery store is closed.
3. I don’t need a kayak or an espresso machine. Where’s the food?
The German grocery stores (in my area anyway) are tiny! And yet they somehow manage to be even more junked up with “stuff” than those back home. But it’s all limited to a wide middle aisle. The perimeter of the store has everything I need: cereal, bread, produce, meat, dairy, baking supplies, and hygiene and cleaning products. The next loop in has the rest: snacks, canned goods, frozen foods, and drinks.
4. How do I get my bread and rolls?
All of the bread in Germany is delicious and fun to buy! I’ve seen two ways in different stores: a cool way and a cooler way. The first way is to use a small rake to guide the rolls or loaf of bread to a rut on the side of the bread case. The second involves not seeing the bread at all but only pictures of the bakery choices. It’s similar to a vending machine: I press the button next to the picture of what I want as many times as I want that item. In both cases, I bag the bread and put it in the cart. UNLESS I want a loaf sliced. Then I take it to the bread slicing machine – the coolest thing since sliced bread itself. The bread goes in, I close the lid, pull the handle, listen to the machine go, and then bag the sliced bread.
5. I don’t like pork that much. Now what?
Well… There are other meats, but pork products are by far the most prevalent. Salmon is also very common and very good. As most of the country is land-locked, it’s also usually the only fish that can be found. Beef can get very expensive if not chosen carefully. I usually look for chicken or turkey but do find myself buying pork or salmon more often than I did before. So in short: Learn to like it.
6. Where was that thing I saw here last time? I want to buy it again.
There’s not really a good answer for this one. Produce is basically only available in season and product selection in general is limited. This can actually make shopping easier sometimes because I don’t have to consider and compare too many (if any) choices. Sometimes a particular item will be on the shelves for a few days or a few weeks and then will disappear. This mostly applies to soups and snacks, but definitely happens with fruits, meats, and every other kind of food as well. If I see something I really need or want, I have to pick it up now. And if I want something specific that’s not here, the other option is to go to the butcher’s shop, the bakery, a specialty store like the Italian supermarket, the farmer’s market (held almost every day somewhere in town), or a roadside stand. The Supermarkt is strictly for convenience shopping. What you see is what you get.
7. Erdbeergeist means strawberry ghost, right? Is it as awesome as it sounds?
It is not. It’s a clear liquor that smells like sweet ripe strawberries but tastes terrible, incredibly without a hint of strawberry flavor. I can, however, also buy beer, wine, sparkling wine, liqueurs, liquor, or any other kind of alcohol you can think of at the grocery store. Or I can find them at the Getränke (drinks) shop, a separate store in town that sells at least equal amounts of water, soda, and other non-alcoholic drinks.
8. Why aren’t the eggs in the refrigerator section?
I don’t know enough about eggs or food safety to answer this one, but it seems to be okay. Anyone have an answer to this one?
9. And where are the other two?
… I thought a dozen was the definition of a standard unit of eggs, but the cartons here and in the fridge only have room for ten. Explain that! Maybe it’s an extension of the metric system. Anyway, it took me a while to realize the discrepancy.
10. That’s it? How did I save so much money?
I guess I used to buy a lot of snacks and shortcut kits. Think about it: Here I just buy bread, produce, meat, dairy products, and a few other things. It’s not particularly expensive to buy only the essentials and combine them into meals. There aren’t that many pre-prepared or frozen foods or snacks, and of those that are here there are only a few choices. So a handful of way more expensive items from a small selection that I may or may not like is not worth it.
Now to get that Euro back from the cart and be on my way! Bis bald, Supermarkt! (See you soon!)