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It is the subtle, day to day differences that bring home the fact you are not in Kansas anymore, but living in a foreign country. Our trip to the Dutch grocery store Albert Hein yesterday made this all too clear.

First, the entire store is like a never ending Dutch lesson. Even if you know the basics–banaan, sla, brood, kaas, melk, (bananas, lettuce, bread, cheese, milk)–a more robust lesson is available on the back of any packaged good, from ingredients, company messaging to instructions. For example, by reading the description on the back of Ezra’s Weleda children’s toothpaste,  I learned an important collection of words that later came up in conversation and impressed my Dutch husband.

The Dutch tend to buy only what they need for the next few days and the layout of the store reflects this. The aisles are closer together, and most people shop with a small hand basket you can carry or roll on wheels with an extended handle, rather than the full cart to which we are accustomed. This tendency to buy just a little is also a reflection of preferred transportation methods of many shoppers; they buy only what they can take away by bicycle, carry down the street with two arms, or easily haul on and off the tram.

Of course, there is a universal similarity in the way a store is laid out; fruits and vegetables, dairy and bread on the perimeter; the farther in you go, the more processed the food becomes. But, in a Dutch supermarket,  the bread, dairy and cheese sections receive a disproportionate amount of real estate. I imagine the pasta, cheese and vegetable sections of an Italian grocery would similarly receive more space.

One thing that continues to throw me off is the metric system over here. Liquids are measured in deciliters and liters rather than ounces and gallons, and an egg carton offers up ten eggs, rather than our customary twelve.

Although most grocery stores are of this smaller scale, The Dutch have caught on to the Costco concept as well. A large store called Sligro, with a  parking lot full of cars and not a single bicycle in sight, is for large scale shopping by businesses, mainly restaurants and hotels. Here, you can buy 10 kilos of ground coffee, excessively large trays of meats and cheeses, commercial cleaning supplies, etc. I pushed an unwieldy cart through the store that even makes the American shopping cart look small as I accompanied my current manager on a shopping trip for the church kitchen. Although Sligro is geared toward businesses, I was offered a free Sligro membership through an Expat organization. It’s as if they think we might just buy half the store and put it all in storage in our expat basements and second freezers.

Back at the more Dutch scale neighborhood grocery store, we headed to the check out stand, in line with 20 other people who waited with noteworthy patience to purchase a handful of items.  Although I still have the desire to have a well stocked pantry, I find myself going to the store more often, and purchasing less, as if trying to do it the Dutch way. Each time, however, a few canned goods slip their way into my cart which I don’t need immediately, and my proverbial pantry grows.


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