In Athens, my weekly trip to the grocery store is always somewhat a mindless, somewhat mechanical part of my everyday life. I know exactly which aisles I need to go to pick up my essentials for the week and the exact amount to sustain me until my next trip. When traveling abroad however, the grocery store or market can be a daunting place. This is especially true if you don’t know the language or the culture of the country you are traveling in very well.
Getting groceries seemed easy enough at the beginning, but I soon found out, there were many things I didn’t know about something as simple as buying food in another country. The first thing is, many markets in Italy do not want you to touch the produce. Instead, you have someone assist you in choosing which products and they will grab them and weigh the produce for you. Since I did not know this, I unwittingly started grabbing all the pristine, fresh fruits and veggies and shoved them into my cloth market bag before the woman running the stand quickly reprimanded me.
In a more conventional grocery store (at least the ones I’ve experienced in Italy and France) you must weigh your produce in the produce section, print a label from the scale, and put the label on your fruits or vegetables. This is because the self checkout areas and cash registers do not have the scales built into them as we are used to seeing in the US. I learned this the hard way when I grabbed a bunch of fruit and vegetables and brought it up to the register to have the confused clerk try to explain to me as nicely as she could in Italian that I had made a mistake. Since I know very little Italian, she ended up having to leave the cash register to go do it herself. All the while two older women behind me angrily spoke Italian and gestured back and forth between the scale and the register before turning to each other to no doubt talk about my foolish blunder.
One final trick to somewhat understanding the markets and stores in Europe is to always bring your own bags since most groceries stores do not provide bags or will charge you for using both plastic and paper bags. Most museums and monuments sell cloth tote bags in their gifts shops for less than two euro. It makes a great souvenir and it makes your life much easier when you are traveling and need to carry something that doesn’t fit into your already stuffed suitcase. Just because we get grocery bags for free in the US, doesn’t mean that they aren’t costly to the environment, so make sure you really get your two euros worth by continuing to use it at home!