Grocery Shopping Abroad

Berlin, Germany: 12:30 p.m.

I neared full panic attack mode in the middle of a grocery store. Staring down at the package in my hands, I didn’t know whether I was about to buy turkey breast or sliced liver. In a panic, I placed the indecipherable package in the grocery cart with a bunch of other products with which I felt uneasy.

I finished my rounds around the tiny store. My thoughts were a mess of unanswerable questions and panicked thoughts: “Why aren’t the eggs refrigerated? That can’t be safe. Is this yogurt or sour cream? Do Germans not use tortilla shells?” To make matters worse, I couldn’t look up the translations on my iPhone because I didn’t have international data.

My anxiety peaked after the cashier rang up my items and left them sitting on the counter. “Tasche? Bag?” I asked. The cashier rolled his eyes and pulled a bag out from under the counter. “Ten cents,” he sneered in English. I already had to deposit a euro to use the shopping cart, so in retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised that I also had to pay for shopping bags. The real surprise came later that night, however, when I almost choked on a grape. Apparently,“ausgesät” means “seeded.”

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When I first arrived for a semester in Berlin, Germany, I didn’t even register grocery shopping on my radar. How hard could it be to buy some bread and cheese? I quickly found out that I would experience the most culture shock when buying food, just because the experience proved to be so much more different than in America.

For starters, language barriers make labels insanely hard to decipher. You might be able to guess the products, but the specifics can be a struggle—salted or unsalted, seeded or seedless, spicy or mild, and the list goes on. Plus, most foreign brands are different than American brands, and local cuisine may be unfamiliar to tourists. “You walk in (the store) and you see a leg of a pig sitting on the wall. Like, a whole thigh. You don’t see that in America,” says Cady Welker, a junior studying public health and child and family studies at Syracuse University. Welker spent fall 2014 in Madrid, Spain.

Language barriers also complicate the checkout process. It is typical to experience personal and social discomfort in the checkout line as the close-quartered interactions can show the inadequacies of your language retention. “When people in my line or other checkout lines heard me speaking Spanish to the cashier they’d all turn and stare at me because they heard my horrible accent. It was so uncomfortable,” says Molly Estes, a junior majoring in sociology and communications and rhetorical studies, who spent the fall 2014 semester in Santiago, Chile.

Even the way food is displayed can be different abroad. For example, eggs and milk aren’t refrigerated in many other countries, especially in Europe, due to different health code regulations. And don’t expect to have the convenience of re-sealable packages for your lunch meats or chip bags. In Germany, sour cream is sold with peelable lids that resemble yogurt container lids. Finding a re-sealable package felt to me like winning the lottery.

I noticed people in other countries tend to shop more often than Americans. Many Europeans regularly visit the self-serve bread stations. Additionally, some South Americans stop by fruit stands daily to pick out fresh produce, Estes says. Stores abroad tend to be more specialized—Germans don’t have stores like Wegmans where you can pick up anything from fresh fruit to alcohol to shampoo in only one trip. “When we go to the grocery store in America, it’s kind of a one-shop stop,” Welker says. “In Spain, if you wanted particular things, you would have to go to another store.”  

Store layouts can also be shockingly different. Don’t expect express lanes or self-checkout lanes in countries other than America. Many stores abroad only have a few cash registers, but lines are relatively small. Grocery carts often have to be rented, demanding a deposit that will be reimbursed once you return the cart. Most people bring their own shopping bags or backpacks to carry their food, since many European stores charge five to 15 cents per shopping bag. Also, payment systems are different in every country. Estes says that many South American stores have a strange credit card system. “They used ‘quotas,’ which is basically like credit but specific to that store. So if you didn’t want to pay the total price you could say ‘con quotas,’ which means ‘with credit,’ and you chose how much credit (was) to be charged to your card,” she says.

At the end of the day, don’t stress out about it too much and have fun with grocery shopping. Take the opportunity to explore your host country’s cuisine so that you can get a more accurate taste of their everyday lifestyles.

I know that I definitely gained a sense of self-confidence and independence once I was abruptly thrown into the world of international grocery shopping.

“It doesn’t hurt to try stuff you weren’t normally used to,” Welker says. “Be open to it. You might find something really good that you wouldn’t expect.”

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