Sunday, January 31, 2010

Good Gracious the Groceries!

Phew! Grocery shopping is by far the most culturally difficult part of living in Belgium. I mentally prepare for the challenge every time and put on my imaginary coat of armor. I try to avoid taking Connor with me if possible because the gauntlet's complexity is exponentially compounded with a stroller and a 2 year old.

We are lucky because there are 2 grocery stores within a 3 block radius of our apartment. Meaning 3 blocks is the longest distance I ever have to haul heavy bags. When it is 3 blocks + heavy groceries (drinks are the worst to carry) + a stroller + rain - that equals a panting juggling act - unfun!

The grocery stores close at 8 PM every night and all day on Sundays. No 24/7 convenience around here! This means going during the "after work" hours is a complete nightmare since that is when everyone smushes in to grab groceries.

I don't know if it is a product of living in the heart of downtown or if it is Brussels' stores in general, but the supermarkets are far from glistening. Things seem messy and disorganized. In my store the food is all downstairs so we navigate an escalator before we even reach the produce. And probably most maddening of all, they can't seem to decide where to store items. The crackers may be upstairs one week, downstairs on aisle 5 the next month and aisle 7 the next. Alcohol has changed locations 3 times since we moved here as have the veggies along the produce row. At first I thought it was me losing my mind. But then as I waded through the physical effects of these transfers I realized I was sane, but the grocery store management was not!
Another common complaint is that the store may stock an item today but never again. Nothing is guaranteed so buy it now versus later. For instance, one store stopped carrying sour cream altogether. String cheese only recently appeared. I am still searching for frozen corn and cooking spray.

The stores also do all their shelf-stocking at the height of shopping hours. I am always wading through cartons and palettes yet to be shelved. With a stroller I often have to abort and turn around because there isn't room to pass around the abandoned boxes.

A friend recently told me this was because the stores have to pay 4 times as much in wages for employees to work outside of store hours. It is all enough to make you very cynical.

And shoppers push that cynicism onto their fellow shoppers literally. Because the too-narrow aisles are packed I am literally bumped, pushed, shoved an average of oh 7 or 8 times every grocery run. I actually understand the nudges - the space is too confined. But what really sends me over the moon is that no one says "Pardon" or even acknowledges the assault. It is just accepted as commonplace. Sometimes they even glare - at me! - when they are the ones who careen into us. UGH! Get your elbows out and at the ready. It is like nails on a chalkboard. And I don't trust my French enough to say anything. My heart rate is elevated even now just typing about it.

If you want to shop with a cart instead of physically carrying items through the store then you must rent the cart. All carts have coin operated locks and they are linked together on chains. Stick your euro in the slot and then wiggle the lock free. Pretty clever idea, unless you happen to not have the proper-shaped coin.

There are some good parts though about European groceries...

The bread section is enormous and there is even a fancy bread cutter machine to slice the fresh-baked loaves. Once I got over my initial fear at the slicer and figured out how to locate the properly shaped bread bag it became a joy.

yogurt and cheese aisles leave me speechless with choices and selection.

European milk is not refrigerated. It took me a long while to get used to this. Connor loves it though, so I don't question it anymore. You can honestly buy milk in bulk and store it unopened for several months in the pantry.

There is a lot of Belgian chocolate at the grocery store for affordable prices!
Speculoos cookies and Nutella are special sweet treats. As are applesauce packets you squeeze directly into your mouth.
Another unique grocery practice I had to learn (the hard way) is that most produce you must bag and weigh on a special machine which spits out a price sticker BEFORE you get to the register.

The final obstacle on the grocery race is loading groceries onto the cashier belt fast enough and then bagging the items at warp speed as they are scanned - in bags you bring from home (or you can buy them, no plastic freebies). I feel like I have whiplash by the time I am ready to load up and trudge home.

There are many glamorous parts of living in Europe. But grocery shopping is definitely not one of them! I will miss a lot of things when we move from Belgium...but hey bring on the USA grocery stores. Publix, I miss you. Whole Foods - heaven!


Jenna said...

Oh Reid, I am sorry. That sounds awful! We have complained about the grocery shopping here too, but the things you face are exponentially harder than our dilemmas! And I imagine it would be so difficult to go to the store without Connor with those crazy hours! Just think, that will be one good thing about going home!

Ali Meyer said...

I think I agree with all your statements! It's funny how grocery shopping can be so exhausting!