Despite the best efforts of globalization to make supermarkets around the world look the same, the grocery shopping experience remains wonderfully shaped by local culture.
Aldi Supermarkt, Berlin – November 2013
Both main compartments of my backpack were stuffed full with food items as I approached the checkout counter, mentally preparing myself for what was ahead. “Today,” I thought consciously, “you are not going to get nervous. You are going to stay calm and make it through this thing.” I would never previously have imagined that I would need to psych myself up for a mundane task like paying for groceries. Since moving to Berlin, however, this anticipation had become a regular feature of my weekly supermarket trips.
I started unloading the food from my backpack onto the conveyer belt, which immediately zoomed into motion. The cashier grabbed the cereal box and swiped it swiftly across the scanner while reaching with her other hand for the sliced ham. It had begun. I unceremoniously dumped out the remaining contents of my bag. The carton of eggs hit the counter with more of a thud than I would have liked. I took two big strides to the other side of the cashier where my purchases were waiting to be restuffed into my backpack. The cereal went in. The broccoli went in next. The cashier was picking up speed, so I picked up speed too. Ham, in. Cheese, in. Bread, in. Carton of milk – yikes! I had to pull the broccoli and bread out to squeeze the milk in at the bottom of the bag beneath them. Precious time lost! Then for the tomatoes – but no, TIME UP.
“Zweiundzwanzig, neunundneunzig, bitte!” The cashier sang the cost of my purchases sweetly, as if she hadn’t just been engaged in full out warfare to scan my groceries faster than I could bag them.
Still struggling with a tub of grapes, I gave the cashier 30 euros with the expectation that I would have a few more seconds to stuff groceries away while she got the correct change. The bills in her hand turned magically into the correct change while I blinked. She reached for the next customer’s bread with one hand, glaring at me with beady eyes as I fumbled the change, my backpack, and the still-unpacked chocolate bar and bananas and tried to move to a different counter to continue packing. The bananas tumbled onto the floor. Then a few coins skipped out of my sweaty hand to join them on the ground. My heart was pounding, fingers flailing. I had not remained calm. I had failed, just like the week before, and the week before that.
Extra Supermercado, Rio de Janeiro – June 2014
The red shopping basket weighed down on my arm as I surveyed the line options. How lucky! A checkout counter with just two people waiting! I jumped into the third spot in line, happily noticing that neither of the two customers in front had many items in their baskets.
Five minutes later, I hadn’t moved. I peered over the shoulder of the large man directly in front. The lady being served was picking up each plastic bag of groceries and packing it into a second plastic bag. An understandable decision. Just the other day I’d seen a plastic bag snap from the weight of nothing more than a bundle of bananas. Still, she seemed to be moving rather slowly. Finally, the last bag was rebagged, and she stood back to admire her bagging work. And then waited. And then paid. And then grabbed each of her rebagged bags and slowly lumbered away.
Could have been faster, but no problem. The man in front of me only had three items waiting on the conveyer belt so it would be my turn in no time. The conveyer belts at Extra never work, so the man pushed his chocolate bar down the counter for the cashier to pick up. She picked it up, turned it over to find the barcode, scanned it, scanned it again, and slowly placed it down on the other side. The man pushed his orange juice down the conveyer belt to where the cashier could pick it up. She pushed back her hair, and then picked up the orange juice. Repeat. The man pushed his loaf of bread towards the cashier. She scanned this final item, and then the man decided it might be a good idea to move towards his grocery items and begin putting them in bags. He picked up the chocolate to put it in a bag, but then decided to pay first. He pulled out a credit card and I swear time slowed down in front of me as the movement of the card from his hand to the cashier’s hand lasted a minute. The cashier read every number on the card before sliding it into the machine. The food items sat on the counter unbagged. In my head, a little voice suggested offering to bag all three items for the man. That seemed impolite, so I didn’t. The same little voice suggested telling the man that he could bag his items while waiting on the credit card transaction. Definitely too impolite, so the little voice just screamed louder and louder in my head while my face remained passively unmoved on the outside. The man stared at the cashier, and the cashier stared at the credit card machine. The credit card sat around getting impatient too. Finally, a little receipt chugged out. Then the man really swung into action. The chocolate bar went in one bag. The orange juice in another bag, which went into a rebagging bag. The bread went into the first bag with the chocolate.
The cashier looked down at the conveyer belt, where I had already laid out my items in the order in which I wanted to pack them into my backpack. I was already standing past the scanner, backpack open like a big mouth waiting to gobble up the groceries. I was ready. The cashier picked up her phone and checked her texts.
Aldi Supermarkt, Berlin – February 2014
Everything slid seamlessly from the cashier’s hand into my hand and into my backpack, waiting like an open mouth to gobble up the groceries, which I had lined up in practical packing order. The cashier stated the total cost. I already had my palm out with a bill. She magicked it instantly into the correct change as I swung my bag onto my shoulder and neatly pocketed the change and receipt. I looked at her and she looked at me. Her single small nod said it all – “congratulations, you have made it in Berlin.” I marched off triumphantly, bananas zipped safely in my bag.