The market hums with activity. The Czech workaday has just ended, and everything from the self-serve booths to the harried-cashier lines is overflows with oddly stoic Czechs loaded down with dinner sandwiches and breakfast. And being a silly American, I try desperately to walk away from this, towards the food.
A note of explanation: whatever is directly in front of the door in a Czech supermarket is usually not how one gets to the food. It is the check-out counter. Thus, when I walked directly forward and try to find a way past the crowds, I am walking away from the stacks of baskets off to the side. You would think, after nearly two weeks feeding myself here, that I would remember to look for these stacks. Unfortunately, I am not at my best when confronted with food whose ingredients are written in a foreign language.
After my routine disentanglement from the wrong direction, I pick up a basket and orient myself towards the food.
American supermarkets all seem to be designed by a crack advertising formula. You enter and are ushered among fruits and vegetables, and you circle around the edges of the store to find bread, meat, and cheese, with everything else in the middle.
There does not seem to be a set formula for supermarket organization here, which, for better or worse, makes every new market an adventure. Will the bread be so close I’m tripping over it? Will the frozen food by front and center or tucked in the corner? Will I ever find reasonably priced pints of ice cream?
That said, shopping here is not particularly difficult for an English speaker. American brands are nonexistent, but much packaging has a way of showing its contents to the shopper. Fruit and vegetable selections are similar, and often superior.
I myself often spend a ridiculous amount of time wandering the aisles, searching aimlessly for something I can maybe cook. I was not aware upon my arrival of how small my repertoire was, until I made my first exhaustive meal-focused shopping expedition and, upon my return, realized I had only three items.
Thus, every time I begin weaving through the unapologetically hurried shoppers and the fluorescently lit shelves, I enter with a new resolve to buy only foods I can make a decent meal of.
Then I find that I have unknowingly gravitated (following American-bred instincts) to the fruit section, where my favorite types of fruit are less than half their American prices, and often far superior.
After a “reasonable” collection of peaches, plums, apples, and whatever else catches my eye, I resolutely move towards the pasta section…and oddly end up surrounded by cookies and chocolate. The best, most gourmet European chocolates and cookies which cost a small fortune in the States are rarely more that 1.50$ a package. Including my favorite but (usually) prohibitively expensive Hit cookies.
After adding three or for dollar packages, I turn and make a beeline for frozen and refridgerated foods. Here I can usually pick up something, and dodging other shoppers can find food approximating a healthy meal. However, this is usually the point when I realize I haven’t yet bought bread.
In the states, bakery-made bread is hoarded behind counters, and the accquirment of multiple baguettes, buns, etc must be performed through what I’ve always found to be the judgemental medium of a grocery employee. Fresh bread is relatively rare, and costs accordingly.
I have seen a single bakery assistant since my arrival here. She emerged from “behind the curtain”, wheeling a rack of bread taller than she was. She proceeded to dump a half a dozen sheets of freshly made baguettes into a gigantic basket, which stood in the middle of the floor.
This took place, not in a neighborhood store, but in the food division of one of Europe’s largest department stores. The groceries are kept in the basement, and above are four floor of shoes, appliances, toys, and much else.
Fresh bread. Several times a day. And each beautiful, fresh piece of tempting bread costs under a dollar.
As such, bread has instantly been propelled into being my favorite food. I frequently am overwhelmed with guilt when bread that, at home, I would consider nowhere near too stale to eat, is supplanted by freshly baked loaves.
At this point, my arm is usually weighing me down and, because the aisles are too small to make a cart practical, I am getting very tired and hungry. As such, I tremulously make my way towards the overflowing registers.
These are usually nowhere near as difficult to get through as they would seem. The clerks are there to do one job: get you through the line as fast as possible. They are not there to make small talk, to greet you, to bag your groceries, or indeed to smile. They are here to get you your food and take your money.
And now we come to what, for me, is the most nerve-wracking part of grocery shopping. Not the paying part: that is usually smooth.
The problem is, my Czech cashiers casually take my food, scan it, then toss it to the end of the counter and forget it existed. It is my responsibility to provide bags, and to organize my groceries in the bag. And it is my responsibility to do this before the speed-racing cashier has begun to throw the next person’s groceries on top of mine.
Needless to say, I have given many cashiers and customers an unreciprocated, guilty smile, while apologizing in English in order to avoid the complications of bad Czech skills.
The area where American stores have cigarettes, made-for-tv items, or ice is always filled with Czechs bagging their groceries at a counter. I cannot for the life of me figure out how they get their food to the counter without dropping it everywhere, and how they get so much of it in the bag so quickly.
Maybe I’ll never know.