Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Grocery Store Marathon

Last week while shopping for lunch, my Swiss friend Jan turned his nose up at the Italian strawberries on display at the local grocery store.

“I’ll wait until Swiss ones get here,” Jan said, as if eating an Italian strawberry would somehow be sacrilegious.

Unfortunately, since it was only mid-March he was going to be waiting awhile. And as he was shopping in Switzerland, where there are usually only one or two choices at the most, it was either the Italian strawberry or no strawberry, the only other option being heading to another grocery store for better luck.

But for him, no strawberry it was. The Swiss are very good at self-restraint. If it’s not good enough in their eyes, they just won’t bother with it. They won’t go looking elsewhere. They won’t settle for second best. They’ll just forget about it. One or two choices are sufficient in their eyes. Any more and they just can’t handle it.

A good example of this is another Swiss friend of mine who lived in New York City for a year. Never mind what he thought of the dirty streets, (the Swiss clean theirs at least once a day), think of what he thought of the grocery stores.

“I just couldn’t believe the butter,” was his main comment when asked to compare living in Switzerland versus living in the United States.

“It’s just butter,” he said, still somewhat in disbelief, “but they’ve got a whole aisle for it.”

His solution to dealing with the butter madness? Shop at CVS where the entire dairy section is limited to one fridge. And for an entire year, that’s where he bought groceries, never mind what kind of nutrition was the result.

In America, the Swiss stick to the convenience stores. But what about the American in Switzerland who is craving a ranch and onion flavored chip in a grocery store where the chip “aisle” is the length of one shopping cart? Well, here the only way to triple your choices is to triple your grocery stores.

As Americans, we are used to choices. In fact, we are so used to choice overload that we don’t even notice the ridiculousness of an entire aisle that’s devoted to cereals. Or chips. Or sodas. For example, in Switzerland you can usually get a cola, a lemon-lime, an orange, or a grapefruit soda. But that’s where the choices end. There’s no root beer, dr. pepper, cherry cola, strawberry, frutti tutti or any other crazy combination that Americans crave.

Yes, not only is grocery shopping a more frequent affair due to my American urge for choice, but it’s a more frequent affair as well because of the lack of preservatives in foods. And not only might I visit three different grocery stores in one week, I may visit three different grocery stores in one day.

Now back in the U.S., I might shop at various grocery stores. Kroger. Ukrops. Food Lion. They all got a share of my business from time to time. But it was only because one was more convenient at the time of my weekly shopping pilgrimage. Because really, the products offered were about the same. You could get a Coke anywhere. Or 2% milk. Or that bag of Rold Gold Pretzels.

But here, I’ll trek on foot to Migros, Coop, and Manor all in one day, just to buy the milk with the preferred milk fat. Now that I’ve been in Switzerland almost a year, I’ve tried almost all the variations there is to know about and I have my favorites. Since they don’t all come to me in one store, I go to them.

Chips from Manor (the green bag seems to be a mix between Doritos and tortillas—excellent), cheddar cheese from Coop (the only store to sell cheddar). 1.5% Milk and Pepsi from Migros (the only store to sell either.) The list goes on and on.

Yesterday, for example, I wanted to make potato soup. This was no easy matter and involved going to three grocery stores on foot in order to find all the necessary ingredients. And bringing a full cart of groceries up two flights of stairs to your apartment is no piece of cake either. I figure here in Switzerland, you don’t have to choose between going grocery shopping or working out. They are one in the same.

Even for a simple lunch during the work-day, I’ll find myself at two grocery stores. The pre-packaged salad from Coop. The chocolate bar from Migros. The daily treks to grocery stores never end. Except of course on Sunday, when the stores are closed. Then you are out of luck and find yourself scouring the fridge for anything that hasn’t gone moldy, which, if it’s been more than two days since you shopped, is highly improbable. But not to worry. By not grocery shopping, you are saving yourself a lot of calories burned. And hopefully that thought alone can get you through to Monday, when the grocery store marathon will start once again.


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