There they sit, quietly and cunningly, on every street corner in every town in mainland Europe…waiting. Waiting patiently for people to wander in naively expecting to pick something up that they need…but it’s never that simple.
Potentially the most terrifying place on earth for an Erasmus student. You walk in and all manner of chaos ensues within seconds of your arrival. Towers of water bottles threaten to engulf you, the fruit and veg section won’t permit you to leave without having some sort of awkward, “I just wanted a banana!” shouting match with the man standing behind the weighing scale. Nobody is man enough to brave the meat counter…
Everybody you meet in a supermarket abroad seems to know something you don’t. This is their territory, and you are the intruder. You wander wearily up and down each aisle, wondering why on earth you decided to put yourself through this torment, and then you realise that your need for food outweighs your British impulse to save face. The labels tell you nothing about what the packages contain, it might as well be written in ancient sanscrit. Four different types of mozzarella present themselves to you in the cheese aisle. Confusion overwhelms you, tears well up in your eyes…you bail. Cheese isn’t necessary. I’ll come back another time.
Suddenly, your remember what it is you wanted. A small jar of pesto. You look up and see a jar, the last jar in fact, which happens to be perched precariously upon the edge of the very top shelf, far beyond your reach as a normal sized human being but vital to the vat of pasta you plan to make that very evening. There’s only one thing for it – you must ask for help.
At least, that is what most normal people would do. I could not face the battle with my linguistically challenged tongue to ask the bored, slightly overweight man in a red apron if he could get it down for me. Instead, I jumped, grabbed it and ran like the wind.
You scan your basket and you realise, I’ve done it! I’ve got everything I need, I have tamed the wild, commercial beast that is Il Supermercato, Hurrah! But do not be so hasty in your celebration. The battle may be over, but you are yet to win the war…
There should be convalescent homes set up for victims of this cruel and unforgiving encounter, and one thing I have noticed on my travels?..It’s always a woman behind the till. She has tired, dull eyes and little to no make up. She doesn’t want to be there serving you, and you don’t want to be there being served by her, so let’s get this over with. With a shrewd, nasal, impatient squawk she asks if you have the store card, and is a mixture of repulsed, bemused and irritated when you shake your head rapidly to indicate you have no idea what the hell she’s on about. What do you mean, you don’t have the store card? You are ridiculous, get out.
Then she begins scanning your items through, silently judging you with every BLEEP, depending on what each item is Things take a turn for the worse when the rhythmical BLEEP ceases and doesn’t like a specific item.You panic as she snatches it back out of your hands and glares at you, because it is obviously all your fault. How dare you. She taps a few keys angrily and grunts when the BLEEP continues once more. You skin has been saved…but not for long.
It’s time to pay, and your mozzarella, loaf of inexplicably small sliced bread and lonely jar of pesto amount to the most random of figures you could ever imagine. Something with 7 cents on the end of it. You hand her a note of a rounded up value, and she tears it from your grasp. Before sniffing, tasting and practically burning it to check if it’s real, she asks if you have the 7 cents, and gives you the darkest of all death stares. You swallow hard. Is it suddenly very warm in here? Sweat tickles your brow as you shakily reach into the zipped compartment of your wallet and shuffle around for the 7 cents. Luckily, you find a 5 cent and a 2 cent coin nestled cosily next to each other. You reach in to extract them but they won’t budge. They too are scared of this terrifying woman and are refusing to budge – you’re on your own, pal! You look up and laugh nervously. She is not impressed. A queue has formed, and they aren’t impressed either. You try with all your might to remove the coins from the most awkward part of your wallet until finally you manage to prise them out and hand them over with sweaty palms. She examines the two coins carefully, and for a moment you think she might bite one, just to be sure.
Eventually she concedes, and forces the till open. After some note rustling, she reluctantly bids you a half-arsed thank you and good day after slamming down the change on the other side of the counter, an enormous hint to leave a tip. You pick up the coins she has left behind and smile awkwardly as you stalk out of the shop, glad to have escaped with your dignity (if only just about) intact.
Supermarkets. Not many foreigners go in…and even fewer come out.