Up to Adventures in Karlsruhe.

How (Not) to Shop in Germany

One of the first things we did after arrival was to go shopping. Our apartment came stocked with basic utensils, but no consumables -- not even a roll of toilet paper. It was also lacking in a number of necessities, such as adequate storage space. The same day we moved in, we found a local grocery store so we'd have dinner and breakfast; the next day we tracked down the Wal-Mart (yes, that's right) Supercenter and spent over a hundred Euros on basic necessities. We managed to last a full week before we had to go back to Wal-Mart again.

It's kind of interesting to go shopping in a foreign country. I've done it before, to pick up a picnic lunch, but that's a simple problem. Bread, ham, and wine are easy to spot. But when you're living there and you need things like dishwasher soap, life becomes a bit more interesting. I now have a much greater appreciation for the problems faced by new immigrants to the U.S.

Finding the aforementioned dishwasher soap wasn't too hard. We managed to spot a box with pictures of sparkling dishes on the front. At Pat's behest, I picked it up and worked my way through the label. My German is very good, much better than I would have guessed before we came here. I can read and make sense of almost anything without resorting to the dictionary, and can have successful complex conversations (though I often find myself nodding my head and saying "Ja, ja" when I don't completely understand). So I was able to deduce that we had the right stuff. Into the cart it went, and on we plowed through the store. What do you have to have to get started? Laundry soap, bar soap, hand soap, paper towels, toilet paper, hand lotion, milk, cheese, bread, wine, pasta, pickles, tomato sauce...the list seemed endless. Over and over, Pat would hand me a package and ask me whether we were buying what we thought we wanted.

By the end, we almost had more than we could carry. In Europe, it's customary to provide your own shopping bags, and we'd brought quite a few, but they weren't sufficient. Fortunately, one of our purchase was a roll of trash bags, so we could use a few of those to get everything home. Even Xandie helped carry stuff.

As the days passed, we fleshed out our original stash, found more shops, and got settled in. The apartment was supposed to come with a can opener, but it wasn't to be found. After waiting a week for the manager to find a replacement, Pat bought one. Of course, some things we couldn't find, so we had to get substitutes; others turned out to be different in various ways. A jar of pickles turned out to be sweet, not dill; we still haven't found true dill pickles. Low-fat milk is 1.5% instead of 2%, and lactose-free milk is very rare, but soy milk is easy to find. Coke is expensive, often more than the same amount of beer. Bread is dirt cheap, as are dairy products.

We suffered a few unexpected adjustment problems as well. Despite the humidity, our skin seemed to be getting very dry. We had plenty of lotion, though, although we had to get used to how long it took to rub it into your skin.

It was perhaps two weeks after we arrived that I picked up the lotion bottle and reread the label. "Cremeseife", it said. When we bought it, Pat had handed it to me and asked me to verify that it was lotion. Now I looked again and the light dawned: "Cremeseife" is two words run together: "Creme" and "Seife". "Seife" means soap. We had been rubbing cream soap into our skin and letting it stay there! In the stress of the first day's shopping, I had somehow completely missed that very obvious detail.

Another trip to Wal-Mart revealed that the Germans have a very easily understood label on the proper bottles: they say "Body Lotion" (in English). Two days later, our skin was fine. A week after that, Pat figured out that our supposed laundry detergent was actually water softener.

Today, Pat went grocery shopping on her own. She came back with what she thought was some sugary pastries, since that was the picture on the box. It was actually vanilla sugar sticks for your coffee.

So if you're thinking of going shopping in a foreign country, we suggest that you adopt the handy system we've developed: buy one of everything you see in the store, take it home, open it, and give the rejects to the homeless. Just remember that sometimes it's hard to identify stuff even after it's open. And whatever you do, don't rub it into your skin.

© 2004, Geoff Kuenning

This page is maintained by Geoff Kuenning.