One of the common experiences that become a daily adventure for ex-pats is the thrill that, here in the Netherlands, is known as “boodschappen doen”. Grocery shopping! You might think this unlikely to become a thrill, but until you have wandered the aisles of a foreign supermarket and successfully checked items off your list you haven’t experienced the frisson of fear or the exhilaration of success!
When I first moved to America I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the supermarkets. The aisle just dedicated to cereals involved a warm-up and a good pair of sneakers! The whole event of filling my cart took me hours, partly due to the fact that I needed a map to find my way around, but mostly because I didn’t recognize the new products and brands. When you meet the new locals you don’t automatically say, "So nice to meet you and, what detergent do you use?" All these things seem so small yet on that first visit I felt close to tears. The moment it turned from being an overpowering experience to one of humor was when I found a small amount of British items stacked on a shelf; some Cadbury’s chocolate and Irish teabags. My first reaction was quickly tempered from joy to a sense of reality, here were "my" foods next to the Mexican & Jewish sections. Here in the US, I was a minority!
Of course I was soon indoctrinated and the amount of favorite British goods that were shipped over in suitcases became less and less and I soon could dispense with the GPS completely. The irony of all this is that now, as I live in the Netherlands, I occasionally long for those vast supermarkets and the immense selection of goods…. life experiences change us!
Now in the Netherlands my challenges are different, caused primarily by the language. The first time I went shopping it took hours. Not because of the vastness of the stores (supermarkets are tiny!) but because I was trying to work out what ‘wasverzachter’ was! (It’s fabric softener!) After four years I am able to read, and find, most things on the shelves, although occasionally the translator app comes in very useful. Foods are different and interesting wherever you travel. The Dutch love ‘hagelslag’ (chocolate sprinkles), which every Dutch child has on bread for breakfast; ‘Dropjes’ – licorice, salty and sweet; ‘stroopwafels’ – caramel cookies; ‘pap’ – ready made porridge and ‘vla – ready made custard. The Dutch system is anchored in the idea of keeping the small independent stores thriving and so the supermarkets remain small (read that as cramped!) and locals shop at the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, with the weekly visit to the wonderful markets.
What I detest about shopping in a Dutch supermarket is the lack of packing help! In the UK the smiling cashier will help you pack your groceries, or find someone to help and in the US there is always someone at the end of the checkout packing your purchases. In the Netherlands there is no help, no matter how much you have spent or how big the supermarket is. Picture this…. the cashier scans and moves your goods down to the bagging area while you start to pack your stuff in your reusable bags. When the area becomes too full do they stop to help or slow down? No! They just force everything down, forcing, jamming, cramming until the pile threatens to spill over the sides and she smiles and says, very nicely in Dutch, "That’s €80,- and would you like the receipt?" You pay whilst looking frantically at the pile of goods yet to be packed. Now comes the time where you break out in a sweat, as the next person’s shopping is scanned the cashier rams the divider onto your section causing your goods to be crushed sideways as well, and then you are sharing the area with another shopper. The Dutch seem to take all this calmly. I’m the one who is stressed, frantic and leaving Albert Hein with a red face, sweat stains on the back of my t-shirt and a cart full of badly packed bags!