An American’s Guide to Grocery Shopping in Germany

Mini grocery store in the Cologne train station

Now that we’ve been in Europe for over three weeks, I would say I’ve gotten my bearings in many regards. I’m now used to taking trains, trams, and busses (or walking) everywhere I go, and I can roll with the unpredictability of weather that can go from requiring coats and gloves to shorts and flip flops overnight.

But one cultural clash that continues to plague me is grocery shopping. I swear, it’s the most harrowing thing I do here (well, that and ordering food from waiters who obviously think I have disgraced their establishment by choosing to dine there). Sometimes it seems like EVERYTHING is different and I am constantly making direly embarrassing mistakes. Then again, some things about grocery shopping in Germany are undeniably awesome, like the fabulous deals on chocolate and local wine, or the fact that they don’t hand out plastic bags like it’s going out of style.

So if you ever intend to spend time in Germany as an American, plan to prepare some of your own food, and need to purchase it at a grocery store, here is my step-by-step, sort of tongue-in-cheek (but also kind of serious) guide for how to grocery shop, from what I’ve learned in our first three weeks in-country.

  1. Before you leave your house, arm yourself with reusable grocery bags. Otherwise, you will be paying to purchase them at the store (since plastic grocery bags are not a thing here) and by the end of your stay in Germany you’ll find yourself with 87 canvas bags.
  2. Walk to the store, because you don’t have a car.
  3. Enter the store. Attempt to pull a cart from the line, only to realize that they are all chained together. Fiddle with them for awhile to see if you can unchain one. After about 5 minutes, figure you probably look like one of the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, give up, and opt for a basket.

    (Realize later that you had to insert a Euro to detach a cart.)
  4. Marvel at the beautiful array of fruits and veggies, especially those different from at home, from plump heirloom tomatoes to purple asparagus.
  5. Semi-stalk another shopper to determine whether or not this is the kind of German grocery store where you have to weigh and label your own individual produce. (I didn’t do this at a Hofer in Vienna and was very pointedly informed by the checker that since I did not weigh and label my single tomato, I could just leave it right there at the register instead of buying it.)
  6. As you wander the aisles, impulse-buy at least one fun-looking European product, like chocolate with currants or a mysterious pink cheese.
  7. Snicker at all the products that are comical to American sensibilities, like the breads with the word “Dinkel” on them and…these?
  8. Do the mental calculus of trying to figure out what familiar, no-recipe-needed dinner you could throw together with the ingredients this store provides. Settle on something easy like pizza. Get through adding mozzarella, tomato sauce, and toppings to your cart before realizing they don’t sell pizza dough here, or anything close to being suitable for a pizza base. (Unless you want to try to make pizza on a croissant, pretzel, or Vollkorn bread.)
  9. Put everything back and start over. This time, decide you’ll make some other easy meal–chili, let’s say–only to realize that they don’t sell any beans, corn, or chili powder.
  10. Cry.
  11. Buy a frozen meal and pray you can figure out how to cook it in Celsius.
  12. Get in line behind the 19 other waiting customers. When you reach the conveyor belt, arrange your items on it like tightly-fitting puzzle pieces in a feat of engineering that could only be German.
  13. Okay, get ready. Here comes the hardest part: checking out. 
    The checker lady (who, by the way, is sitting, not standing, behind the counter like in the U.S.) will now slide your items across the scanner as fast as humanly possible and push them into the holding pen at the end of the counter.

    Here they come!
  14. Scramble to open the bags you brought, load your items into them in some halfway logical fashion, and pay your bill before someone behind you groans audibly in frustration at your slowness. (Yep, this has happened to me, too.)
  15. Heave a sigh of relief and pat yourself on the back as you walk out. You just got through grocery shopping in a foreign country! But…
  16. Since your kitchen is the size of an airplane bathroom, there’s only so much you can keep around at once, so get ready to do it all again tomorrow!
  17. And finally, remind yourself that this will get easier and it’s all part of the experience of living in another culture for awhile.

6 thoughts on “An American’s Guide to Grocery Shopping in Germany

  1. You are a brace soul. I would probably just cry as I walk in. Lol. I look forward to a post about your most “creative” meal.

    Miss you!

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