Grocery Shopping In The Fatherland

One of the things I love to do when I go to a foreign country is to go to the supermarket.  A bit weird, I know, but I love seeing all the different products available and there is always the chance to buy some weird candy. However, when you move to a foreign country and you need to shop for all those essential items, like food, the supermarket becomes a little less fun.

A typical German supermarket

When I first moved to Germany, almost three years ago, I knew only 3 or 4 words in German and none of them related to food.  I also knew not a single soul living in Hamburg so I needed to tackle the supermarket all by myself.  For the first 6 months, I shopped almost exclusively by the pictures on the packets and looking up words on a translation app on my phone. It was pretty tough going and of course, I brought a lot of things I never meant to. Even when I eventually gained the vocab to go shopping I still needed to learnt how things were done.  For instance, learning that Weizenmehl means flour was the easy bit.  Now in Australia, we have two types of flour; plain flour and self-raising flour.  In Germany, the flour is numbered.  The flour I have in my cupboard is type 405. This is your standard flour, but it can’t be used for everything, so if you are into baking you need to get your head around what type of flour you need for which recipes. It is a nightmare.

Also, in Australia we are lucky that with the exception of some summer fruits most fruits and vegetables are available all year around.  This is not the case in Germany.  In Germany, they still stick to having only seasonal fruit and vegetables available.  I thought this was a lovely idea until I realised that pumpkin is only available for a few short weeks a year. Pumpkin is a staple vegetable back in Australia and it is available all the time. Now, I love my pumpkin and learning to do without having it a couple of times a week was difficult.  Also, in Germany, they do not sell cans of pumpkin soup.  If you want pumpkin soup, you make it yourself during the time pumpkin is available and you freeze it.

Then there is the fact that not everything is sold at the supermarket.  Supermarkets in Germany are actually quite small when compared to the large supermarkets we have back in Australia. Germans still love to go to multiple shops to get their shopping done rather than do it at one big store. Bread, for instance, is not really sold in supermarkets and most certainly is not sold sliced and stored in a plastic bag.  In fact the only people who want their bread sliced and stored in a plastic bag are the foreigners and so this type of bread is named as such.

Seriously, only foreigners buy this stuff.

For Germans, their bread is a source of pride and therefore is brought fresh every single day from the bakery. When you taste German bread you will know why and will never buy the plastic wrapped stuff ever again.

Whilst everything is not sold at the supermarket, alcohol is. In fact the place that is reserved at the checkout for candy often has small bottles of vodka and schnapps next to the Mars Bars.  Also, it is quite a culture shock to see teenagers lined up at the checkout carrying a crate of beer. The age limit for beer and wine in Germany is just 16 and is 18 for the hard liquors. I still can’t used to pimply faced teenagers lining up at the checkout with a couple of crates of beer.

At least the checkout itself is the same, well it looks the same, kinda.

At the checkout

The first thing any Aussie will notice is that the checkout chick is not a teenage high school student.  To work the checkout at a German supermarket, you need to complete a three year TAFE degree known as an Ausbildung (further education/training).  Most checkout chicks in Germany are middle aged to bordering on retirement age. Also, everyone brings a bag with them.  If you have forgotten your bag, you will pay 10c for every single plastic one you need.  Then, one of the hardest things to get used to for an Aussie, you will pack that bag yourself. The checkout chick will not do it for you.  She will throw your groceries down the checkout aisle at a sometimes frightening speed as you scrambled to pack all your groceries before she starts serving the person behind you.  Don’t pack your groceries quick enough and the person behind you’s groceries will just be thrown down the aisle next to yours and they will be there glaring at you impatiently to get out of their damn way so that they can start to pack their groceries. The checkout is one of the most anxiety inducing places in the whole supermarket.

So, that’s a quick look at grocery shopping in the Fatherland.  It does take quite a while to get used to and even after three years, I don’t feel like I have mastered it.

For those of you who are expats, what is the most difficult thing you had to get used to at the supermarket? Have you actually mastered the art of supermarket shopping yet or are you like me and hoping that nobody notices your mistakes?

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19 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping In The Fatherland

  1. Loved this post! :)

    I definitely agree about the check-out part. Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure to put things in your bag AND pay at basically the same time, all before the cashier starts to ring the next person up. It’s taken a lot of practice, that’s for sure.

    I have gotten in trouble at the supermarket for not reading things thoroughly. I was once excited to see pumpkin in a jar, hoping I could use it for baking (since they don’t have canned pumpkin here, and it’s always so much work to make pumpkin puree from scratch!). WRONG. It was PICKLED PUMPKIN. And it was just as awful as it sounds.

    • We used to pickle squash ourselves at home – delicious if done correctly. Should work with pumpkin as well, with garlic, lemon, pepper and ginger maybe. It just is savoury then, quite a letdown if you were expecting something completely different I assume. Pumpkin pie just definitly is NOT a German tradition :)

  2. Interesting observations. Guess we should go shopping together some time. Because quite obviously I see things differently.

    The bread for example, it is there. The white sliced variety you were probably thinking of we call Toastbrot. But there’s grey sliced bread as well – wouldn’t buy it unless forced to ;) And Knäckebrot, and Pumpernickel, and Aufbackbrötchen if you want those :)

    Fruits and vegetables out of season: we have much more of that now then we had when I was young. Strawberries all year, peppers, tomatoes, apples, mangos, pineapples – you name it. Maybe not every supermarket has everything all the time, but pumpkins you should be able to get all year these days. At least these Hokkaido-Kürbisse. Environmentalists recommend buying locally and within season, because the goods are better (harvested ripe) and you save the long transports. Germany compared to Australia is a very small country, and our climate is much colder. Modern trade, the EU and maybe the climate warming changes things, but traditionally we didn’t even have tomatoes in winter, they just don’t grow here very well.

    The hyper-fast checkout is rather new. It was introduced with the new scanner cash-desks. Since they do not have to type the prices any more, they can be really fast. I is not a German tradition, I thought that was imported. It may work with somebody packing for you, so you have time to pay meanwhile, but I think it has ben optimized, from a capitalist viewpoint: time the customer spends walking through the rows looking at the goods raises the probability he or she will buy more. The time spent at the checkout after the goods are scanned is wasted. Speed it up: more throughput, more profit. And if they indeed can save the packers and make the customers pack themselves in a hurry, well, gained even more. I hate it and try to take my time, I am the customer after all – and I bring my own bag, there’s enough plastic floating about already, don’t you think?

    Happy shopping!

    • Hi, I really like your blog and I find it quite funny what you write about my fellow Krauts.
      The thing about the check out is that you usually just put your stuff back into the shopping cart at the check out and put it into your bag as soon as you are at your car(or if you are on foot, somewhere between the check-out and the exit )

  3. Interesting to read this! I’ve lived in South Africa for 3 of the last 4 years. Although everything is in english (with the exception of aisle labels which are often in Afrikaans) there are still some mysteries to solve as an American shopping there.

    Americans are used to eggs being refrigerated, and while I have adapted and do not refrigerate mine at home, I still find myself mindlessly wandering to the dairy section when I’m looking for eggs.

    There are also many different kids of flour- cake flour, self rising flour, bread flour,brown flour (which is not exactly wheat flour, but close) I’m never sure which to get.

    In the produce, very little produce is free, where you can choose what you want from a bin, because this is perceived as ‘dirty’. Everything is prepackaged, which is annoying because I might not always want the predetermined quantity of whatever, like say, I may not need 2 heads of cauliflower. And bad spots are usually turned away from where you can see them, so sometimes you get the produce home, unwrap it only to find that the thing is rotten on the side you couldn’t see. And, for what bulk produce there is, you have to take it to a clerk somewhere in the produce section and have them weigh it and put the sticker on it, whereas that is always done at the checkout in the us (no sticker). It may seem like a small difference, but it turns stressful when you’re the idiot checking out who didn’t get their produce weighed already and everyone has to wait while the checkout clerk scurries over to the produce section to weigh and sticker the idiot’s bananas and onions!

    But, like you said, its also fun to try weird candy!!

  4. Great post! I feel like I’ve more or less mastered the German supermarket, and maybe even seen the effects of globalization change which foods are offered and in what seasons over the past 5 years that I’ve lived here.

    But I still remember once mixing up laundry detergent and dishwashing detergent — they look just the same and the vocabulary is similar enough that I just couldn’t tell them apart! It took a few rounds of laundry not getting clean before D took a look at what I had bought and laughed. :)

    But the mega-fast checkout still stresses me out a bit. I have a system down that mostly works, but it still feels kind of hectic!

  5. Ha, just today we were at Rewe and Julian made some joke about not having his wallet and my heart started thumping. I have this totally irrational fear of being caught at the kasse having done/doing something wrong.

    As for the speed of those checkouts – I will never forget my sister, scoffing at my warning, and then having to field all of the flying products as the check out guy scanned them through.

  6. nice opinion of german shopping. i have a little trick for you: go always shopping with the einkaufswagen and at the checkout you don`t pack your bags, you throw everthing back in it. because there is always a place to pack your bag in silence at the end of the supermarket. that`s the german way

    • We do that now! Even better, use one of those big, blue Ikea bags to line the trolley with, throw everything in there and then heft the whole thing into the boot of the car. (Obviously, that is only because we drive to the shops down here.)

    • Yes, that’s the 21st century way to do it. Since the introduction of scanners trying to bag in real-time is strongly discouraged and mostly reserved for elderly people for whom it is too late to change their ways.

  7. I quite enjoy your expat posts because it makes me see my “home country” in a new light… while I have mastered the art of shopping in the US. It’s quite different, indeed.

  8. Slightly off topic: Why ‘fatherland’?

    Intended reference to the cashiers or no deeper meaning? Each time I visit your page I can’t help but notice your choice of words.

  9. The “copper counting” drives me insane! Yes, yes, good to get rid of small stuff etc, but when you pull out your portemonnaie after the cashier is finished and then start counting…deep breaths… ;-)

  10. I will NEVER get used to having to pack all my groceries at the speed of light while the next customer bretahes down my neck!
    I don’t know where you shop, but my Rewe sells tins of pumpkin soup. The one I’ve never been able to find is cream of chicken!

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