Wednesday, October 14, 2009

a narrow focus

much of my life in germany was focused around grocery shopping.

you wouldn't think it would be such a big deal. but it ended up being, if not always huge, still a daily ordeal.

one reason would have been the same, regardless of place. i was at home with a toddler, for the first time in my life, for the first year there. those of you who have spent a lot of time at home with a toddler - even without being a stranger in a strange land - know how important daily routine is to survival.

without a daily routine, and a reason to get out of the house, getting out 'for fun' means that the window of opportunity between nap time constraints has to occur when the entire food/sleep continuum is at an optimum and you're already prepared with all the equipment ready to go - well, at that point in time, who's really going to notice if, at 3 pm, you're still in pajamas, the kid's still in pajamas, and your afternoon coffee turns into an afternoon irish coffee, and before long your hard-working partner's wondering why there's all the empty whiskey bottles in the recycling?

it's a slippery slope. that was my first reason to go to the grocery store every day. i had a sum total of one friend in town, and she worked every day. i could go to a park, but i couldn't understand anyone if they started talking to me - plus, that first winter was freezing cold and featured lots of snow. i couldn't spend a lot of time browsing at boutiques, even without buying anything, with a wiggly toddler.

but grocery stores, apart from fulfilling a useful-family purpose, are heaven for little kids in germany. every where you go, there's free stuff! there's always a bit of meat for them at the meat counter, a sample of cheese at the cheese counter, and everywhere, the chance of picking up an inexpensive, freshly-baked soft pretzel, covered in salt. one of those is worth at least half hour of patience from a small child. and, apart from these 'legitimate' giveaways, i can't count how often some random person just gave t. a candy or cookie.

[the first time that happened, it totally freaked me out - when traveling with j. in austria, before we moved to europe. initially, my american-urban-myth-filled head pictured only cyanide/razorblade apples. then i realized that people - especially grandmother-types - in germany just have an inexhaustible well of sweets in their bags, ready to pass out at a cute glance from any little kid. the most amazing disbursement of this type happened once while we were in the checkout line. a woman ahead of us finished paying, reached into her purchases and opened up a bag of chocolates to be able to hand one back to t. we're not talking little jolly ranchers, here, either, but pretty nice chocolate bars or cookies or other treats.]

apart from my mental health, there was a logistical reason to go to the store everyday: our refrigerator, for a family of four, wasn't much larger than a dorm fridge, with a small freezer on bottom. we purchased a middle-of-the-road fridge from a standard appliance store, and the whole thing was not taller than me (5') and not much wider than maybe 2 feet. and that included the separate freezer unit. (we did see a big, silver, double door refrigerator for sale one time. it was advertised as an "american-style refrigerator!")

anyway, you could not fit any milk container larger than a quart in it. which is fine, because - that's the biggest size of milk they sell, in general, in germany. cheese comes in 100g units or so. that's like - 1/4 of a pound. there's no 2 lb baby loaf or gallon of anything. everything comes in these teeny quantities, because everyone has teeny refrigerators, so everyone can only buy these teeny quantities.

there's also just a different style to shopping there. people expect to have fresh bread. they expect to have fresh cheese, and fresh meat, and fresh eggs. even if you get most of your staples at large store runs, you still expect to go out several times a week for fresh bread. most people still buy their bread at the bakery, separate from the grocery store. the culture and the size of your refrigerator work together here, keeping you going to the store every. damn. day.

these daily trips became something of an ordeal. you have to understand that part of this was my own stubbornness. stuck at home all day with a toddler meant i wasn't getting any exercise. so, instead of taking the bus down to the big supermarket in the mall in wetzlar, i always walked to the small market nestled within the wetzlar old town.

which would have been great, except that it was the opposite set up for successful exercise. that would have required decent equipment and a route designed to reward me for my effort. instead, we had one stroller (we really came to germany with minimal things) - one that was great for collapsing as we got on and off trains bound for distant lands, but was not good for daily shopping with. it had no basket of any kind and tiny wheels, which made it hard to go fast or maneuver. not to mention that the perfect route would be to go uphill to get to town, while everyone was still fresh and happy and unladen with lebensmittel. but of course that was not how it worked. we lived half-way up a monstrous hill, with the old town right at the base of it. so i went down first, and up last, once i had several heavy cloth bags full of groceries hanging off the handles and sometimes balanced in t.'s lap. and, of course, all the streets were charming cobblestone - which, when you're pushing a stroller, is almost like working through gravel. almost.

so these daily trips were both the focus point and major frustration of each and every day. every day, we'd head down the hill. every day, fight our way back up, with me sweating, cursing, leaning into the wobbly rickety stroller, telling t. to hush as i tried to concentrate on pushing him up the hill. or, worse yet, discovered he'd fallen asleep on the ride home, so that i faced either waking up a still sleepy/grouchy toddler at the foot of the stairs of carrying it all, stroller, toddler, bags of groceries, up 1.5 flights of stairs.

and yet - it all was worth it. not just because i still had moments where i could look up at the 400 year old buildings and realize, deep down inside, that i was living in europe, where i had wanted to live for so long. it was worth it also because, after a few months, i started to get the town. as a foreigner, i know, but still - i knew folks. the fabulous blond checkout lady at the small store knew me, asked about the kids, commented (slowly, she could tell i was very linguistically challenged) on the day and how it was. the lady at the bakery knew me, and my laden stroller, and always had a cookie for t. the guy at the post counter in the stationary store knew me, and my clumsy attempts to request stamps or shipping for the US. it must have become apparent that we were 'the americans', because folks who knew a bit of english would start asking me things. the lady at the cheese counter, for example, one day asked me how to tell tourists that they should pay up front for the cheese she sliced and bagged for them. 'they always try to pay back here', she confided in halting english. 'how do i tell them where to pay?'

i had learned this before, when we moved to maine - that there are some communities that you have to prove that you're going to stick around in before people start opening up to you. i had to show up, day after day, rain or snow or shine, toting my toddler around, to prove i was worth trying to get to know. it can feel isolating at first - but the reward, of course, is that i bet if i walked into that market now, today, and the blond lady was working, she'd say 'oh! how have you been? and where is your little son? oh, he has grown so much!' as if i had only been gone on vacation, and certainly hadn't returned to another country for almost two years.

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