Tuesday, June 30, 2009

You know what the funniest thing about Europe is; it's the little differences --- Grocery shopping edition

When you relocate countries you discover---and it's really entirely foreseeable if you spent even a moment thinking about what it is that you're doing, switching countries, and what the consequences of that are likely to be---that life in your new country differs from life as you were used to it in dozens of ways that were entirely unpredictable. (Which isn't to suggest that I had, in fact, spent even a moment thinking through the consequences of what I'm doing.) Not just that they don't speak English, unless they do, but if they do that they drive on the other side of the road, or perhaps that their summer is your winter, and all the other touristy stuff, but rather it's the complete rearrangement of conventions forcing upon you the realization that you really are in another country. That people from other places than where you're from have ways of doing even ordinary things that are as sensible as the way they do them where you came from, or even superior. That your old life involved assumptions and choices you didn't even realize you were making.

I came to Germany from the States having been warned that grocery shopping's an ordeal here. Whereas in American people mostly go to the Kroger's, or the CostCo, about once a week and while there purchase every non-takeout food item they'll eat at home, in Germany they're reputed to be determinedly old-fashioned, so you go to the greengrocer for your produce, go to the dairy for milk and cheese, the butcher for your meat, etc. I was kind of excited, actually, about this, but it's turned out not to be the case, really. There are large supermarkets with aisle upon aisle of food, although for produce you do have to go elsewhere, to the local equivalent of a bodega.

And then, twice a week, you can shop outside, on the streets along the Kanal, when they set up the Turkish market.

Now, in the American metropolitan areas I've lived, we had farmers' markets, but they were decidedly bourgeois affairs, full of heirloom tomatoes and locally-grown organic produce that cost only three times as much as its equivalent in Safeway. The kind of places full of domestics-of-a-certain-age praise without understanding the chance to eat food that was grown without the aid of pesticides, swiveling between too-serious-for-Sunday theory-class types who proclaim themselves Very Concerned About Issues Surrounding Food, all the while mingling with the rest of the upper-class urban conspicuous consumption set. (Hey, don't knock it---having a stereo that's visibly expensive only lasts a year or so before it's visibly last year, which is an obsolescence problem not present with the heirloom tomato or peach.)

It's an entirely different thing here, starting with the name. Rather than honoring the honest profession of the farmer who grows the food, here its derogatory nomenclature follows the despised immigrants who sell the stuff (and whose loathsomely foreign-inflected Deutsch is of course light years superior to mine). It's also a weird mix of green market and street fair---someone scopes out the high-traffic booths at the ends and sets up selling fresh juice and grilled corn on the cob, and there's a cart or two selling artificial gemstones threaded on leather-string necklaces and Papierstrasseseifeunternehmen-brand soap in oversized chunky blocks---with a bit of the old country bazaar mixed in, booths selling textiles advertised with specifications I don't think I'd understand any better if my German were perfect, and more than a few places selling fashionable headscarves.

Mostly, though, it's cheap. Oh my gosh is it cheap. I went today with paper money in my left pocket and coins in my right, and two large bagfuls later, I hadn't reached into my left for anything more mercantile than the surreptitious relief of an urgent itch. Granted, coins in Europe actually stand for legitimate denominations, and a pocketful of clinky money is quite likely a serious amount of scratch. But that doesn't obviate the point that for under twelve euros, I got:
  • About thirty white-cap mushrooms (2 euros);
  • Two big bunches of scallions (1 E);
  • A kilo of cherries (2.50);
  • Three avocadoes (1);
  • A liter of yogurt (0.79)
  • Six peaches, at one euro a kilogram;
  • Three big leeks and one large eggplant, for a little over two, probably; and
  • Two unripe plantains.
I need to get tofu and cheese, too, and I already bought eggs---all of them cheap in stores---but that's probably all the food I'll get this week. And the euro sticker makes it look better than it is, but even converting from a little under twelve euros to a little under seventeen dollars, that's a damn sight better than Safeway prices. Better than anything I'd ever found in any food store in the metro areas I've lived. And look, I read Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein's blogs, including the one they do about food, and I've read Michael Pollan's book and I follow Marc Bittman, and yes yes yes, I am myself Very Concerned About Issues Surrounding Food, including why it costs so damn much for Americans to buy plain old ordinary grows-on-trees food, at least as contrasted with prepackaged value-meal food. But this isn't that kind of blog post---it's not even that kind of blog---and even if it were, I don't know a damn thing about why it is this way in the States. Presumably something with the system of distribution or the regulatory regime or marketplace consolidation has gone very wrong, but I refer you to the talented writers linked above who, unlike me, actually know something and may have something to say on the subject. All I'm sayin' is that a pocketful of change bought me two bags of fruit and vegetables, big bags, overloaded ones, that I had to switch back and forth between my arms as I made the rather short trip home.
Unrelated postscript: Mahmoud, your flow's like death in my sleep... I can't feel it. Snap! oh yes he did!

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