Cleanup in aisle three

In Germany, you have to complete physical endurance tests before even entering the shop. True story.

I think one of the signs that you have really settled into the everyday life of a new country is when you are able to go shopping, get the things you want and need, and go home. Before this stage is reached, there is a long acclimatisation period which involves long hours spent in malls or supermarkets staring with blank confusion at a row of shelves, none of which seem to contain anything you might have been looking for. When you first begin having to buy your own groceries in a foreign country, your good intentions to buy the things on your list and the things that look good immediately dissipate on entering the store, because you are presented with an array of items and prices which you simply can’t grasp in your perception of Life As You Know It. 

Every time you turn a corner you are confronted with something new and surreal which only inspires questions, never appetite or desire. What are these sachets of dry powder you are supposed to mix with water and salad? Why can I buy a rotary tool in my local supermarket? How can they sell globe artichokes for 70 cents when they’re £3 a piece in the UK?

And what, for the love of Methuselah, is Schmand?

First on the list, of course, is dairy products. One would assume that there are four, maybe five things you can create directly out of untreated cows’ milk, one of those being milk itself. But coming to Germany, I have realised that the creative opportunities for cows’ milk is endless and verging on alchemy. It is unnerving and yet exciting to find so many dairy products that one simply does not understand. Quark (of which I am rather fond) is a sourish, very thick, yogurt-like thing that you can’t really do much with beyond making thick, gloopy yogurt-like dips and spreads, but my favourite application so far has simply been in a giant scoop on top of a fiery chili. Schmand I cannot explain, and neither can most Germans, but I have ascertained that its selling point is that it has all of the fat of cream but has no flavour, so you are spared all that pesky, luxurious deliciousness that cream tends to offer. My favourite is Handkäse, a pale-yellow, translucent round cheese made almost entirely of milk protein and smelling of everyone’s feet in the world in the same small warm room at the same time. You eat it in the only way which seems really appropriate for such a thing: in a room-temperature chunk smothered in raw chopped onions. And don’t ask me about the ‘Musik’.

The vegetable scenario in German supermarkets is off the chain. I have never known access to such beautiful and affordable veg; radishes are sold in juicy bunches with the leaves attached and carrots are displayed in the wooden crates they were packed in, giving the whole experience a lovely, agricultural feel. At the moment we are knee-deep in Spargelzeit (‘asparagus time’) and the whole country has gone nuts for white asparagus, which has a very delicate flavour but a deeply unfortunate appearance. I will always love a country which can love such an embarrassing-looking vegetable with such unashamed passion. And peppers are sold by weight rather than number, which seems only natural considering that they are the world’s only completely hollow vegetable. In the UK, you also pay for the air inside.

It’s not just the supermarkets which have me pause in wonderment too often for efficient shopping to be achieved. The drugstores are insane too; why Rossman, the German version of Boots, stocks a selection of fine wines next to the baby’s accessories section is a question too intense to consider. Much like how Topshop in the UK has begun selling sweeties as well as poorly-constructed skinny jeans, many German shops seem to get a kick out of selling one extraneous and unexpected product among the other more usual ones. Tschibo, a coffee shop, also sells underwear. A nearby off-license sells watches. Nanu-Nana…well, this is a shop which seems to choose its wares by wearing a blindfold and pointing at the pages of catalogues to compile a purchase order: “Stacy, put in an order for five thousand vases, envelopes and rubber penises, wouldja?”

There are no shopping baskets ever because evidently the staff enjoy watching customers wrestle with armfuls of large glass jars and unwieldy courgettes (yes, I broke a jar of gherkins in Netto yesterday, ok?), but instead you can always use one of the shopping trolleys available; they are the size of a Roman chariot and fill up an entire aisle, usually the one you are at the wrong end of. Fruit and veg is more often loose, which makes it even more exciting to manhandle over to the cashier, but this is so much more pleasant than the styrofoam and plastic coffins in which most UK supermarkets sell two sad-looking trimmed leeks or a ludicrously expensive bell pepper. 

And then, having navigated this labyrinth of dairy mysteries and packet cake mixes and alarming-looking sausages, you feel like Indiana Jones. You are ready; ready to pay.

Except you are not, because the cashier then begins to shoot your items through the bleeper and pelt them towards the back of the room at a furious speed. You try to catch the items you can and cram them into the bags or boxes you have, but however fast you can be you are still too slow, and she is reading the price at you before you have even grasped the first lemon. Then you must take your money out and pay whilst still packing with your other hand and/or elbows, because the others in the queue are ready to begin their transaction and the cashier is rolling her eyes, while a man with a handlebar mustache leans over you to ask for a pack of cigarettes. Finally you stuff the receipt into your ear because you have run out of places to cram things and leave the shop, wondering if anything that you just bought is going to be able to combine to form an actual recipe for human consumption.

That’s exactly what it was like for the first month of my last stay in Berlin. By the end, I was able to find what I needed, pack, pay, and even flick a playful wink at the cashier as I sauntered out of the door. Once you have shopping in Berlin down, you are certainly on your way to becoming a true Berliner – and I am gradually finding my feet once more. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Lidl. I feel a sudden urge to buy a rotary tool.

Rose T