Berlin, Food, USA

Berlin Supermarkets or My Kingdom for a Wegman’s

May 5, 2015
Supermarket shopping

I’ve often said if I were to move back to Philadelphia, it would be a choice between two areas–Center City or near a Wegman’s. For friends in LA, Wegman’s comparable to Gelson’s, only much cheaper and, like, a thousand times better. However, my first forays into the Berlin supermarkets would have me settle for a Pathmark. Or for friends in LA, Food4Less.


There are the nicer markets like Kaiser’s and Reichelt. And then there are the cheap markets, like Aldi, Netto, and Lidl. These are the Walmart of markets. Cheap, ugly, no frills, long lines. Interestingly, Aldi (Nord) owns Trader Joe’s. That’s about all they have in common. (I suppose it would be too much of a fantasy to think they might open a Trader Joe’s here).

To say I was a bit intimidated entering the market is an understatement. Forget the fact that I need to use Google translate so I don’t make the mistake I made last year in Paris when I did a whole load of laundry using fabric softener because I mistook it for detergent. I was like, damn, the detergent here doesn’t produce suds! Smells nice, though. No, there are several other things to consider.

First, there is the shopping cart (or trolley as it is known in Europe). That’s right, the challenges begin the second (literally) you step into the store. Apparently, you can’t just take one and go on your merry way. No, you have to first insert a euro deposit to release the cart from its chained grip. Since I wasn’t exactly sure how this is done, I forwent the trolley in lieu of a hand basket. No deposit necessary. And imagine the look of panic on my face when I went into a Lidl store, only to realize they had no hand baskets. I limited my shopping to what I could hold in my hands. Note that, yes, I have now watched a YouTube video to see how it is done but as of this writing hadn’t put it to the test. You read that right. I watched a freaking YouTube video to learn how to use a freaking shopping cart! Don’t even get me started on the washing machines!

That’s only the beginning of my new Berlin supermarket experience (and compared to US supermarkets, it should be more like Berlin averagemarket). I had heard that when buying fresh produce, that some markets require you to weigh them and print out a label first. If you don’t, you are stared down by the other people in line behind you with the wrath of a witches coven while the checker frowns, sighs, then leaves the register to go weigh it. The scales are, of course, in German. That doesn’t help. So, I thought I would watch other people to see what they do and hope to not look like the creepy guy in the supermarket canvassing the produce department. But no luck. So I only bought what already came in pre-packaged amounts, much larger than I needed. Who cares if I end up throwing away stalks of broccoli. At least I wouldn’t embarrass myself or have an evil spell cast upon me.

Then there’s the selection itself. In the US, you have dozens and dozens of brands from which to choose. Here, maybe a couple if you’re lucky to find the item you want at all. And when you do, the choice is limited. Except for yogurt. Ten percent of the supermarket has to be taken up by all the different selections of yogurt in all different forms (I still haven’t decided if I will be brave enough to try quark.). I can’t find hummus to save my life, but I can get ten different brands of stracciatella-flavored yogurt.

So I’ve got my hand basket full, but not too full. Why? Because Germans don’t use credit cards. Half the stores don’t even accept them (I’m looking at you, Ikea Berlin!). I have never worried about how much cash I had in my wallet because I paid everything by credit card in the US. Starbucks? Credit card. Movie ticket? Credit card. A bottle of water from 7-11? Credit card. This cash thing is a foreign animal to me. So now I always have to have cash on me. Oh, and you want to pay with coins? You’ll get the dreaded stare down from the customers behind you. Yes, having cash is not good enough. You have to have cash bills. Counting out coins takes too much time. So if I didn’t have enough cash to cover everything, I was worried that not only would I get the dreaded stare down, the disapproving looks from the cashiers, I thought there would be a button that would open the floor beneath me to send me into a vat of boiling yogurt! Or worse, quark. So I buy less than I need.

But that’s not where it ends. The cashiers are so efficient that when they ring the items up, they throw them down to the end of the checkout stand where…uh…there are no baggers. In fact, there are no bags. And there’s not enough time to bag the items before the cashier is done, has given you change, and is on to the next customer, whose items are flying down towards you to your pile of goods. Followed by the dreaded stare down.

What’s a panicking expat to do? Toss everything back in the cart and find a space at the front of the store to bag your items (which, hopefully you have remembered to bring or have had to purchase–okay, this is now standard in LA so I’m used to it. The bringing bags part, not the part where you scope out a piece of real estate to bag your items.). You’re so frazzled at this point, you’ve probably put the eggs at the bottom of the bag because the person behind you wants your prized nook to bag their items.

Then, if you’ve rented the trolley you put it back to retrieve your coin. Deep breath. Let it out. Smile. Exit. Only to realize that because refrigerators are the size of dorm room refrigerators, you have to do it all over again tomorrow.

Oh, and the market near me weighs the produce at checkout. One for the win column!

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  • Reply Linda Mrak May 5, 2015 at 7:25 am

    This is great Michael! Who would even think about the fact that food shopping would be so different in another country! I’m so glad I can live and learn vicariously through my friend the expat! Hope you are enjoying!

    • Reply Michael May 5, 2015 at 7:31 am

      Thanks Linda! There will be more to come, I’m sure. In fact, I’m about to go to officially register as a resident – should be interesting.

  • Reply 12 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Berlin | The Nomadic Writer May 27, 2015 at 4:28 am

    […] know before arriving. I won’t include the whole supermarket experience since that has already been covered. But in no particular […]

  • Reply Nilayhan July 9, 2015 at 5:40 am

    I always thoghut that in holland most people brought their own bags or used boxes (maybe just in the town I grew up in). The plastic bags are the worst, they break instantly. Here in Australia everyone uses them, very sad. I have an eco-tote, it rolls up so I can put it in my handbag, it always comes with me 🙂

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