My family recently visited Prague, and my Dad, visiting Europe for the first time in his life, made the the astute observation that “everything here is like the United States, but there’s always something just a little different.” In other words, all is not what it seems at first glance! This is certainly true of grocery shopping.
Once a week I back my rarely-used Honda out of the garage and head to Tesco, the British-owned “hypermarket” located on the outskirts of the city in a brand-new Nakupní Zona, or big-box mall. Sometimes I am able to talk my husband into performing this task on the weekends, but usually, as the self-employed member of the family, it falls to me to forage during the week when the stores are not quite so crowded. On the weekends one can barely move in the discount outlets as sophisticated young urban Czechs eagerly snap up consumer goods by the armload to take back to their outwardly dowdy rent-controlled apartments in the city.
During the week Tesco, and other grocery stores are largely populated by babičkas: tough, gray-haired old ladies who made a lifetime pursuit out of shopping for scarce goods under the Communists, and they’re not about to stop now. No matter what time of day or night you’ll find them in the stores, poking the bread, which is sold loose and unwrapped in large bins, inspecting the vegetables, and gossiping in the aisles. Sometimes their husbands come along, pushing the carts and bagging the groceries in a state of mute servitude.
In the United States we shop once a week, we shop in bulk, and we don’t come back until we absolutely cannot assemble a meal without more provender. Why do you think we have those big cars? They are for hauling cases of macaroni and cheese and Diet Coke home to our pantries and garages. In the Czech Republic things work in an entirely different manner. Not only are apartment kitchens and refrigerators dollhouse-sized, but many people still get around almost exclusively by public transportation, an obvious limitation to the amount one can carry home.
Apparently no one clued the British in on this. Tesco offers huge carts from outdoor stands. You release your cart from the others by putting 5 or 10 crown coins in a slot. Oddly enough, these carts have some kind of ball-bearing mechanism which makes them roll in every direction but the one in which you would like them to go. The more groceries you put in these carts the harder they become to steer. Thus, the parking lot is usually full of people frantically trying to stop their carts from rolling into parked cars, or into the path of traffic. I generally give up and push my cart sideways, then go home and take a Tylenol and put ice on my neck muscles.
Anyway, once you’ve obtained a cart and rolled past the slightly nervous-looking, but unarmed security guard into the store, it’s time to start shopping. Tesco is sort of like Super Wal Mart. Like its counterpart in the United States there is a little of everything. However, the order in which things are shelved is entirely Czech. Trash bags, for instance, are sold with trash cans, and not with Saran wrap and paper goods as you would expect. Paper plates and napkins are with party supplies, not with paper towels and Kleenex. Shoelaces are with sporting goods, not with shoes–I still don’t get that one, but I’m open to suggestions. Band-Aids and toothpaste are sold, but for any medication, even aspirin, you have to go to a pharmacy–and there isn’t one of those at Tesco.
There is a large electronics section, but everything interesting is kept behind a counter with, at most, two salespeople, and neither of them are very nice. Even camera film is kept behind this counter. Appliances abound, and in some very unusual colors. Tangerine vacuum cleaner anyone? Or how about a toaster in kiwi green? Many of these appliances are actually very cute because they are all made smaller than their American counterparts to fit smaller living quarters. I have never seen such a small washing machine in my life. It looks as if it were part of one of those Little Tikes kitchen sets for preschoolers.
My son’s favorite part of Tesco is the fish section. Huge carp–a rather unattractive bottom-feeding fish found in the River Vltava– swim around in big tubs. You pick out your carp and the salesperson fishes it out and dispatches it for you with one swift blow of the knife. (You do know it’s fresh that way, but I have never had the nerve to consign one of these fish to its fate, personally.) Other, smaller and less intimidating fish swim around nearby, as do lobsters of various sizes. It all looks and smells rather–fishy.
The Czech Republic has a pretty good selection of fruits and vegetables, especially for those who enjoy turnips and onions. No, I’m quite serious about this, the root vegetables are excellent here. Nice flaky potatoes are 7 crowns for a big 5 kilo bag. And the apples are awesome! None of your bland Golden Delicious here. Nearly every kind of apple is grown and sold in this country and they are all sweet, flavorful, and fresh. Other fruits are sold, but sadly, do not quite measure up. However, there are lots of frozen vegetables and fruits from France and they are really good.
You weigh most produce, or to be more accurate the fruit and vegetable weigher does it. My Tesco has two of these–one is friendly and one is downright hostile. How many vegetables I buy can sometimes have a lot to do with which prodovačka is on duty that day. The Czech Republic has been a humbling experience in this regard. Everyone’s bigger than me and they really are businesslike! Quite a contrast to Latin America.
On to the pastas, which are numerous, mostly Italian, and located (logically enough) by the sauces. What strikes me as strange is that in a country almost entirely devoid of Latin food, and even of spicy food of any kind, there is a large quantity of Old El Paso salsa mixed in with the pasta sauces. Well, OK, it is the same color, but do people actually eat this on pasta? I really want to know! I am delighted by the presence of Ragu pizza sauce, a staple for my family since there is no pizza delivery service, or at least not in my part of town.
The biggest section of Tesco by far is the drinks section. Bottled water is very important here because many people have old lead pipes that make the water taste bad and may even be dangerous. Even in our brand-new house I prefer to drink bottled water “just in case.” There are also a huge array of fruit juices and “Eis Tee” from Germany.
Most important is the beer section with a wonderful variety of delicious beers from various parts of the Czech Republic and abroad. Beer is sold by gravity–weaker beers are knows as desitka for ten percent gravity, and stronger ones as dvanactka for twelve percent. You can also buy light–meaning light in color–beer, or dark, or half light/half dark, or practically anything else you could dream up. No beer costs more than about 15 crowns per liter-sized bottle, or about 40 cents. The wine section is extensive and wine is really, really cheap. A bottle of quite decent Moravian table wine cost about 60 crowns, or less than two dollars. Good French wine might cost about 6 dollars if you were really splurging.
Before Christmas I had a good laugh at Tesco. There is always some sample product given away–sausages, crackers, whatever–and usually by good-looking young women. Two weeks before Christmas there were an especially delectable pair of young ladies wearing Santa hats and giving away generous shots of vodka and schnapps! Their booth, festooned with fake snow, was surrounded by a crowd of happy men, sampling both sets of wares.
We move into the oddest aisle in the store–an entire section of preserved fish. Along with chocolate, this makes the second food which is considered to be a food group unto itself here. Little fishy eyes peer mournfully from rows of jars. It’s really off-putting, and to make matters worse I can’t find the anchovies!
There is an aisle of health foods, which include all the packaged cereals, a lot of small packets of nuts and raisins, and several types of cookies. Some of the jellies and jams are in this aisle, and some are around the corner in another section. I cannot explain why some are healthy and some are not.
Finally, after picking up some exceptional instant hot chocolate and hazelnut cappuccino mix (yum!) I head for the checkout. There must be thirty or forty checkout aisles at Tesco, but never more than five or six checkout clerks. This is totally inadequate, because people seem to come to Tesco primarily to check out. I can’t imagine going to the trouble of shopping there in order to buy a loaf of bread, eggs, and margarine, and two beers, but people do this all the time. Needless to say, there is no express aisle. I usually have more in my cart than anyone else there, but the babičkas who have presumably taken the Metro and bus all the way out there to buy their jar of fish have to wait for me all the same.
The prodovačkas hoard their supply of plastic bags jealously, and will usually only hand them out three or four at a time, no matter how obvious it is that you will need at least ten or twelve bags. No one helps bag the items, and scanners make the checkout move pretty quickly, so it’s a real race to get everything up on the belt, then charge down to the other end to bag it up before the prodovačka pushes everything off the end on to the floor. Inevitably you are forced to beg for more bags. Why is this? Is there some kind of black market in Tesco bags that I don’t know about? Should I be saving them up for resale rather than merely using them to bag the kitty litter?
Finally, I struggle to push the cart the length of the store and out to the car (see above.) If my son is with me, we stop at MacDonald’s for a restorative hot chocolate before heading home. This gives me a moment to contemplate other shopping experiences in other worlds: the tin-roof covered market in La Paz where I bargained with cholítas for vegetables with Quechua names; the semi-modern supermarket in Guatemala where someone once offered to sell me a baby; the muddy, fly and beggar-infested market in Lusaka where I bought my giardia in vegetable form; the Supermercado Don Juan in San Salvador where little bag boys who should have been in school worked their tails off and practiced their English on me; Giant Food in Washington, DC, where no one ever seemed to bring their kids unless they were totally exhausted and screaming bloody murder…
Well, OK, Tesco isn’t so bad, it’s just different!