No Such Thing as a Pizza Aisle and Other Supermarket Realizations
Moving to another country can be an interesting transition, especially when even the basic things you were used to, such as the primary language around you, have changed. There are many culture shocks you can expect when relocating, but the strangeness that first became most apparent to me was FOOD.
I moved with my husband, Ian, from rural Alberta, Canada, to the Netherlands. Specifically, Groningen (the first ‘g’ is pronounced kind of like you have something stuck in your throat).
We moved for Ian’s job, but arrived around the same time as all the university students, so very quickly we were surrounded by young people who have a lot more energy for partying than we do. That being said, we’re aged twenty-five and twenty-seven, but act like we’re middle-aged. Because of this, having a downtown apartment when you’re in bed by 11 p.m. on weekends is made loudly unacceptable by all the drunk wanderers in the street below.
But, as I was saying, one of the first things we noticed was the food. After sleeping off the jet-lag upon first arriving, we walked to the supermarket. Now, they call it a supermarket, but it’s smaller than most of our tiniest grocery stores back home. At home, you can expect to see at least three different brands of the same item (a good example would be barbeque sauce). Here in Groningen, there’s one choice for each thing
Our first goal was to find a couple of meals to get us started. We didn’t bring much with us in our move, so everything was going to be from scratch. “Bacon,” I said immediately. “Bacon and pancakes for breakfast.”
Little did I know, it would take us several minutes of intense searching to realize “bacon” is not a thing here. BACON, YOU GUYS! Sure, they have sliced pork, but it’s not the same. Trust me, we tried. It’s not the heart-attack-in-a-pan that I’d been excited for.
Accepting our losses in the fried meats department, we moved on to the breakfast aisle. Besides bacon, cereal is my go-to to start the day. I excitedly explored the aisle, awaiting the sixty brands of cereal that awaited me as they did back home. Instead, I found this:
No family packs, either. I’d have to buy a few boxes just to last the week. No bulk buying here.
“Alright, alright,” I said. “What about pancake mix?” Ian picked up a box. Dutch pancakes are not the light and fluffy buttermilk things we have at home, no. They’re flat, almost like a crepe. “That’s fine,” I assured him, “I guess I like crepes too.” He patted me on the head patronizingly, because his family is Dutch, and he knew what to expect when moving here.
I looked for syrup next. Syrup. Like, maple syrup. The good stuff. That stuff that gets Canadians up in minus fourty degrees to shovel their driveway while peering into the bleak wintry darkness through frost-covered eyelashes. The syrup however, like the bacon, was non-existent here. Weeks later, I found a tiny (and very expensive bottle) of Canadian maple syrup. I bought it despite the price, but when I drank of the sweet nectar of the maple tree gods, I found it did not taste anything like the syrup we have at home.
Mourning my losses, but deciding to be an adult about the heartbreak, I moved on to the pizza aisle.
YOU GUYS, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A PIZZA AISLE. It’s just one freezer with a pile of frost-burnt, thin crust pizzas. As a household of frozen pizza experts, I admit even Ian felt sadness for the lack of rising crust pizzas. In general, there are not a lot of frozen foods in the supermarkets in Groningen. Everything is fresh, which is admittedly great, and much healthier. Plus, they have a lot of fresh, pre-prepared meals, so all you have to do is stick it in the oven or on a stove. Even their spices are pre-mixed. While you can still find individual spice containers like paprika or oregano, most of their spices are mixed and labelled for their usage, such as “Salmon” or “Spicy Chicken”, etc. While I feel that removes a bit of the creativity of cooking, I have to admit it’s pretty efficient. And if there’s anything I’ve learned about the Dutch, it’s that they love efficiency.
As a lover of baking (let’s be honest, I just love eating the baking) I looked for all the supplies I would need to start again: flour, baking powder, chocolate chips, etc. Then I realized very quickly that most of that is inaccessible, or found in very small portions. The largest bag of flour, for instance, is 1 Kg. The largest bottle of vanilla is 38 mL. Oh, and I still haven’t found a bag of chocolate chips anywhere. They don’t really have a baking section, per se. The brown sugar, for instance, can be found in the coffee section, which I’m happy to say is an entire aisle dedicated to caffeine.
Now, there are other weird things us North Americans are used to finding in a grocery store that either don’t exist here, or are in very small portions. Ketchup chips, as I expected, remain a Canadian thing. Thank goodness they still have microwave popcorn here! I’m not sure I could live without it. Eggs, like in most places outside of Canada, are un-refrigerated. Their candy and snacks section is HUGE, though. Thank you, Dutch. I appreciate that you love candy as much as I do. Ian’s favourite is that dairy is life here. Every imaginable cheese, yogurt and cream is at your fingertips (my stomach hurts just thinking about it).
We got our frost burnt pizza, our four tiny boxes of cereal and some familiar Dutch snacks (stroopwafels and hagelslag) and went to the self-checkout counter. With our basket filled (there are no grocery carts here–there’s absolutely no room for them. Besides, you have to carry all of this home and up three flights of stairs later), it was time to check out.
Now, the Netherlands pride themselves in being environmentally conscious. We didn’t know that until we saw everyone else had a reusable bag. They don’t hand out plastic bags in their supermarkets. (As another tip, most supermarkets don’t accept credit cards, only debit). We bought some reusable bags, paid the Canadian to Euro exchange rate, and walked back down the cobblestone streets to our apartment, doing our best to stay out of the way of the dozens of bicycles on the shared pedestrian-cyclist roads.
Needless to say, we’ve survived the initial culture shock. I’m sure there will be more things that surprise us the longer we live here, and I’m excited to find out what they are. I am most surprised, though, with how much I truly enjoy putting chocolate sprinkles on bread.