Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Challenging my notion of Flexibility

The other night we Skyped with our friend Kurt who's been living in Vietnam for six months and trying to make a go of a new business venture there.  I asked him what food he misses most from the U.S. and, with no hesitation, he said cheese.  Apparently the Vietnamese are not much into dairy products in general and the only cheese he can get is gummy in texture and tasteless.  So imagine his delight when a friend visited recently and brought along a two pound brick of Tillamook cheddar.

The conversation with Kurt got me thinking.  Not so much any more, but when I moved to Denmark I found grocery shopping incredibly challenging and sometimes anxiety-inducing.  First there was the fact that I had to insert a refundable deposit coin into a slot on the shopping cart and remove a chain on the next cart and stick it into my cart.  I thought, Let me get this straight, you want me to come in to your store and spend a bunch of money but you can't even loan me the cart, for free?  Nope, it takes either (the equivalent of) a $2 or $4 coin to use a cart.  Yes, you get the money back, but still, it takes some extra planning.  Fortunately it didn't take long before I was accustomed to this ritual and made sure never to leave home without coins.

Then there was the small size of the markets and just not the variety of products that I'm used to (I've since realized that this is not such a bad thing).  But it was trying to find items that I relied heavily on in the U.S., such as canned black beans, steel cut oats, and really good tortillas and salsa that really sent me reeling.  Yes, if you can't tell, I MISS MEXICAN FOOD!  But that's another story.

Finally, I remember going to the checkout with my cart full of items, putting them on the belt and having the checker hold up a flimsy bag of potatoes and ask me a question in a language that sounded like gibberish (at that point I understood ZERO Danish).  Turns out, I was supposed to weigh the potatoes on a scale in the produce section, print a sticker with the weight and price, and apply it to the bag, before taking it to the checkout.  Oops.  Instead of laughing it off and going with the flow, I was flustered, sweating, and swearing I would never go grocery shopping again.

It's actually quite amusing to look back and see how far I've come over the last 18 months.  While I can't have an in-depth conversation with a checker (never see the locals do that anyway), I can ask for a bag, say that I don't want cash back on my ATM card, and tell them thanks and have a good day/weekend...in Danish.  Progress!

But my point really is that I live in a Western European country, not Asia, where shopping for food must take on a totally different meaning. Kurt said that he simply can't ask a question to someone working in the market because there are no English speaking employees.  This is where I am spoiled.  In Denmark, if I really can't find the words in Danish or don't understand something, 99 percent of the time Danes speak English.  Good English.  I'm impressed when I ask a Dane for directions or help and they answer perfectly, and then casually mention that they haven't spoken English in 10 years (it's happened more than once).  Danes are extremely humble people, and when I remark about their gift for English, they usually give credit to a) learning it in school b) American or British TV shows with Danish subtitles and c) radio music with English lyrics.  While this may be true, they are still a population that excels beautifully at a language that is not their mother tongue.

Kurt's everyday experiences in the grocery store make mine look like a walk in the park.  Deciphering labels and trying to figure out what a vessel's contents are is the worst, he said. This can be an adventure, but it can also be highly annoying when all you want is a jar of jam or a can of chopped tomatoes.  Also making things difficult is the almost complete lack of western products like mayonnaise and cereal, whereas in Denmark these items are a given.

Kurt does not seem to be bothered much by these daily road blocks, and why should he?  While we sit here in Denmark with minus temps and snow everywhere, he enjoys sunny 80 degree days and the adventure of a life time.  I might also add that Vietnamese food is delicious, and I'm sure if he wanted he could eat take out every day for mere pennies.  But that still doesn't take away the sting of going without a morning bowl of Cap'n Crunch.


  1. Oh, but I do think the Asia/Europe difference totally changes your starting point mindset. If I was off to Denmark, I would EXPECT to have similar (or at least familiar) foods in the market, so it would be frustrating to realize how different things are. If you had moved to Vietnam, you would have gone with the expectation that nothing would be familiar. Your starting mindset can really impact the overall experience.

  2. A lot of grown up Asians lack an enzyme, which means they get a sore tummy when eating dairy products. That´s why you can´t seem to find cheese there.

    Had good fun reading your blog today:-)

  3. I found the supermarkets in Denmark to be very old Soviet-ish, and I swear I saw shrink wrapped bread and long life yogurt on my first visit ;)

    After years and years here we still find supermarket shopping a soul destroying affair and try to grow as much produce as possible just to get the soul back into our food. We buy from small vendors wherever possible, and find the middle eastern bazaars to be a great way to buy food, the contact is more personal and we can find gems and great quality cheap fruit and vegetables.

    We aim not to import our home favorites from our countries of origin because our task at hand is to BE here with what we have got, but this took some doing. And yeah, I miss my tasty wholesome breakfast cereal.

    I wouldn't blame any one for wanting to ship food into Denmark to get by, and in fact, we worked out that we could order a full months tins and packets online from abroad and we'd still end up paying the same prices as we do every week in a normal Danish shop. It's the price of things that gets to me, and the generally not so fresh edge to a lot of what is on offer.

    Okay, moan over. But it is a common problem that newbies encounter: what to buy and where to find the stuff that is worth it.

  4. Alissa, how very true. It's quite correct that if I moved to Asia my expectations of food shopping would be drastically different than in Europe. I suppose I naively thought things here would be closer to home than they are.

    Kira, who knew? Thanks for the info.

    Babs, I really like your comment and can relate a somewhat to the "soul destroying" aspect. We live in a small town so do not have access to the middle eastern offerings you do, darn it, but we are SO HAPPY to receive our weekly box of organic fruits and veggies from Aarstiderne.