I was talking with my friend T the other night. She’s about to leave Deutschland to move back to California, and naturally she’s very excited. There are many things she’s looking forward to, and one of them is shopping convenience – that she can grocery shop in one store at 3am if needs be and get every single thing she needs in one place.
We lived in England for four years and grocery shopping there was also simple: go to the nearest enormous Sainsburys or Tesco’s and get every item on your list, plus numerous impulse buys. It was fairly affordable because of competition and monopolies, except when you went off-list and came back with organic dark chocolate, Jamie Oliver frying pans or the latest bestseller: all delightful but not actually necessary to a person’s survival. Everyone in our village shopped at the huge Sainsburys round the corner, to the detriment of our local high street which was a sad, characterless place full of charity shops, estate agents and take-aways.
In comparison, shopping in Germany is a less convenient experience. The big supermarkets that stock everything you need (for me this would include chickpeas, lamb, coriander, fresh fish and various tinned beans) are expensive. Even Wal-Mart, which is a budget shop in the US, is not at all cheap. I shopped there when I first moved here, because I knew it was affiliated with Asda, a UK budget chain, but I could never get my weekly shop under €100. Wal-Mart’s now folding here precisely for this reason – it can’t compete with the cheap German supermarkets, and expats and Germans alike find it expensive.
So then I made my paradigm shift and started shopping like a German: getting my basics at the pack-’em-high-sell-’em-cheap shops like Aldi, Lidl, Norma or PennyMarkt. You can get most things here, but not everything. Aldi sells no fresh meat, and no baby food, so my normal weekly shop involves going to Aldi and Lidl. But I can’t get anything “strange” at these shops so for the aforementioned chickpeas and tins of beans I have to go to the more upmarket Edeka or MiniMal. And then for even weirder things, say like bicarbonate of soda or baking marzipan or fresh fish or Weetabix, I have to make a 30-kilometre round trip to Wal-Mart. And not for very much longer – I’m going to have to find a new source for all these things.
Aldi and Lidl have just started stocking a few organic things, but till a month ago I needed to visit my local Bioladen for anything organic. Then there are the twice weekly markets in the town square. If I bothered to get my mineral water and beer in glass from the bottle-shop instead in plastic from Aldi, that would be another place to go.
All of this is very lovely and good for the soul and the environment if you have time, but it’s irritating in the extreme for working people. When T finishes work, often after 8pm, the shops are closed. She has to fit in all her grocery shopping and retail therapy on Saturday, not to mention housework, seeing friends, doing sport.
On the other hand, I love my retail-free Sundays. Thanks to Catholicism and some strict regulations, no shops can open. Instead of trawling a mall, or rushing through a grocery store, we actually do something with our Sundays. This weekend, we rode along the river to a Biergarten, had a great lunch, and rode home again. So much healthier and more satisfying than our turgid English Sundays on Guildford High Street.
There has to a balance somehow: extremely convenient 24/7 all-round shopping is great for workers, but may mean the weaker of us do nothing else. In Germany, I’m forced by law not to shop, which is perhaps the only way to stop me.