62: O Shopping Cart, O Shopping Cart

Zebra-striped and pastel-hued pasta in a display window of a Swiss specialty shop.

We are nine weeks away from the return of shopping carts in our lives. North Americans do not think much about shopping carts, where they come from or the specs on their wheels, or how it is that store executives think making customers plug a loonie (Canadian one-dollar coin) into them will prevent anyone from stealing a $146 cart from the store parking lot.

I think of carts. I do. European stores have shopping carts, but none that I get to use, because filling up a shopping cart is a luxury reserved for vehicle-owners, which we are not, at least not any vehicles on this side of the Atlantic. Anything I would put into a shopping cart I would soon have to pull or carry back to our hotel room under my own middle-aging power.

And so, I shop in small pieces, every day, sometimes several times a day, which people remind me is the quaint European way, but there is nothing quaint about it. It is an annoying march into the land of inconvenience.

This shopping-gripe begins with the fact that all the stores in our district have their produce sections at the store entrance, and all the canned or heavier goods near the exit. For the cartless walk-a-mile shopper like myself, this means I spend my shopping time juggling the goods in my shopping basket so as to protect the strawberries from the milk bottles. This is easy at the beginning of the shop, but by the end when my basket weighs in at 15 lbs., it is a hazard to my wrists. On the upside:  I have pectoral definition now that I could only dream of back in Canada.

There is a myth in North America that daily shopping means the food here is fresher, but this is not the case. The Europeans view in-store refrigeration in a more lax manner than do we, and so milk purchased on Thursday can be sour by Saturday, sending us to the store to begin the cycle all over again. Strawberries must be eaten the day of purchase and veggies left in the fridge for two days acquire a mossy sheen then quickly descend into fungal blackness, except for Bell peppers which inexplicably last for weeks, making me think I may have accidentally picked up plastic display peppers.

We are only two people, and I have the luxury of being able to pick my shopping times, but it must be misery-multiplied for double-income couples who not only have to contend with all that I do, but also with the fact that stores here close at 7 p.m. and all-day Sunday, forcing them to rush to the grocer immediately after work, every single day, in a misery-go-round of check-out line-ups. This explains the famously tolerant Swiss’s aggression at the cash till where they are not past physically elbowing their way into any minute gap we North Americans might innocently leave open.

And so, I dream of the day when I can go back to once-a-week shopping excursions where I pack up all 30,000 cubic inches of a standard-sized cart, load it into the trunk of my car and return home where I will not have to ice-pack my wrists and study yoga videos for ways to restraighten my spine.

Reality check: There are European grocery stores that are very much on the same scale as those in Canada/U.S. If we had opted to buy a car here and live in an outlying area, our food-supply system would be simpler. So yes, we asked for this.

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74: Living with language indignities plus can cold sores make you go blind?

The streets of Biel/Bienne, where I am working on a career as a social pariah.

There’s not much more refreshing than having ones personal medical information shouted from the pharmacy desk to the enjoyment of other shoppers.

First a little back-story: I have nearly all of my life carried the virus that produces cold sores – also known as Herpes Simplex Virus 1. This is not the more nasty Herpes Simplex 2 sexually transmitted disease. I emphasize: Not.

Rather, this is the one that produces the little fever blisters on the lip.

I got the virus the same way many did: By growing up poor. It is a true fact that more people in the lower classes have cold sores than in the more economically elite strata, even in supposedly egalitarian Canada. We the poor were more afflicted because we tended to share toothbrushes (yes, I shared a toothbrush with my four brothers – there is no amount of therapy that will reconcile me to this), our linens were laundered less often, and so forth, making the spread of contagion all the more swift.

This is, by the way, the same reason in past eras that poor people succumbed to deadly contagion long before the rich – the poor or orphaned often shared beds, hacking and wheezing on each other through the night. For those who protest, take it up with the lecturers of first-year Sociology and historians of epidemiology.*

But I drift from my topic.**

I went through life looking on the occasional cold-sore eruption as a minor inconvenience until 1985. That was the year that my friend’s son developed a cold sore lesion in his eye. Cue: Ewwwww and Gadzooks!

This is a rare affliction that usually clears up, however, it does put the cornea at risk of scarring, not to mention the conjunctiva and rarely and most dangerously the retina. This is, also, produced by Herpes Simplex Virus 1, which suddenly did not look so benign.

Thus was born The Great Contagion Containment Campaign that continues on even today. We do not pick off each others plates,*** share glasses, straws, forks, spoons, towels, and so forth in my household. I’ve disciplined myself to keep my fingers away from my mouth, especially when a cold sore has erupted. When I prepare food, my hands are washed repeatedly through the process and I only taste-test using a spoon that is then immediately thrown into the dishwasher. I even use surgical gloves when kneading or handling dough. I would no sooner double-dip on any food than I would slice off my baby finger. The prospect of licking batter off my fingers is as abhorrent as eating food off the floor.

I’ve occasionally been accused of taking this too far; that is until I point out that shutting down the disease-highway is a two-way street that benefits everyone, especially as I’m a carrier.

It is, of course, impossible to completely seal off contagion, but in 30 years of marriage, my husband remains in the clear and I’ve raised two boys to adulthood and neither of them has the virus. My doctor is in awe of my accomplishment.

Which brings us to the present: At the moment, I have a cold sore in the corner of my lip. Yesterday, I steeled my nerves and plunged into the pharmacy where by Swiss convention I must speak with a pharmacist before purchasing products that in North America are right out in the open on the shelves where we untrained laypersons just chuck them into our shopping carts with barely a thought. How I miss that shopping experience. But I drift again.

To ease my way into the conversation, I first asked the pharmacist for a cold cough syrup, sending her on the cold-virus track. After she had delivered it, I made a sad attempt to list the brand names of all the cold-sore cremes I know, none of which she recognized. The words cold and sore paired together mean nothing in German or French (or Italian, but I wasn’t going to try that language, I have enough trouble with the others).

I pointed to the cold sore on my lip and said it was a cold-virus-produced blister. A light of understanding crossed her face.

“You have herpes!” she announced.

“No, I do not have herpes. Not really. It’s just a cold sore,” I countered.

The word “no” threw her right off track, but I managed to steer her back in the right direction, at which point she announced even louder, “You have herpes! Herpes!”

And so she continued at increasing volume until I glumly agreed, “I have herpes. Yes. I do.” After all my denials, she gave me that look pharmacists reserve for clients suffering from mental conditions, a mix of pity, judgment and distrust.

She handed me a tube that cost roughly eight times what I would pay in Canada. I did not flinch. I paid, and then I crawled out of there as fast as I could.

Dave thinks this is not so bad. “You’ll never see those people again, and the odds are that no one else in the store understood English,” he said.

Easy for him to say. He works in an English environment all day long. Meanwhile, I’m busy in the community building my reputation as a social pariah.

* If you want to know more about cold sores from a reliable site, check it out at Web MD.

** I am always drifting from my topic. But on another note: You don’t have to be poor to get a cold sore. I wasn’t suggesting this at all. I was just recalling a lecture I heard at university. I do believe, however, that it was poverty that spread cold sores in my family. How else can one explain one toothbrush for five kids. Just typing this triggered my gag reflex. Excuse me.

*** That’s not entirely true. No one picks off my plate, because I am the disease vector. See, there is a positive side to having cold sores. I, however, have been known to pick off my husband’s or kids’ plates, but only with a clean fork.

76: Made in (insert country name here)

Lambswool coats in Biel/Bienne's secondhand shop, made of lambs wool from Africa, but stitched together right here in our little town.

On the second floor of a nearby secondhand shop is a combination book and clothing section. It smells like all secondhand clothing shops do – reeking of the musty battle between laundry soap and human perspiration.

The first time we visited this shop, a traditional Swiss woman’s costume hung against the wall. It is gone now. I halfway wish I had bought it, but what life would it have had? It would be boxed in Canada, taken out by my kids after my demise and sent to – where else, but another secondhand shop. I spared it that indignity.

This is the walk we take to the second-hand shop in our town's charming medieval quarter.

I still like to rummage through secondhand shops. They are pocket-museums of retail, showing the gradual shift of industry from one nation to another as evidenced by the “Made in Biel/Bienne” tags on a rack of  heavy lambs-wool coats in this particular shop. Twenty years from now, the place might be filled with Made in China garments, but that is not as sure a thing as it seems in North America.

Switzerland has an industrious bent, and a more bred-in sense of loyalty to local producers. This mindset is on display in stores everywhere. If there are Spanish strawberries on the shelf, there are also Swiss. Chinese-feather-packed pillows lay next to Swiss-down pillows and you can count on the Swiss retail clerks to enthusiastically explain why only an idiot would buy Chinese when a superior Swiss brand is within reach.

Made right here in our town.

Granted that my cultural moorings are loosened so that my interpretations might be all off, but the Swiss don’t do this with the same politicized notes that one hears in North America. They buy Swiss because they genuinely believe no one can do or make anything better than the Swiss.

It may be hard to imagine, but there was a time that Made in Winnipeg tags were abundant. Winnipeg is the Canadian prairie town where we were born and raised, and it had a thriving industrial sector at one time. We find evidence of this occasionally. At our cottage, we decided to dispose of an old sand-filled sofa by cutting it to pieces and burning it. When we peeled back the upholstery and pried apart the frame, I was somewhat dismayed to see it had Winnipeg stamps on its solid wood boards. We were too committed to our decluttering craze to put the thing back together. I’m a little sorry about that.

 

Good things come to an end, Part One

These are not the high-end shopping carts. They are the "I'm thinking of going to the over $200 cart range, but I'm not there yet" selection. Prices in this batch are in the $150 neighborhood.

We are still more than three months away from our European exit, however, the disengagement process has already begun.

Yesterday, I took one of our two grocery pull-carts out to the canal, dropped it by the shrubs and said good-bye, I won’t be needing  you any more. We have not actually needed it for about nine months, since we replaced this $20 item with a $30 cart. But I drift: My point is that this marks the inauguration of the jettisoning of ballast.

In Canada and the U.S., personal shopping carts are looked upon as a sign of age, but here they can be a sign of status. True, the under-30 set stride out from the stores still carrying their goods in arms, but somewhere around 35 they realize that an easier life free of shoulder-strain is available to them in the form of a pull-cart. That’s when it starts.

But how do the suave make room for an appendage associated with arthritis and decline? They look to status pull-carts, the ones priced over $150. The under-$30 black wire carts clash with those Louboutin pumps. They will not do.

The pricey ones come with telescoping swivel handles, sleek brushed nickel and black finishes, large swiveling shock-absorbing wheels, light high-end metal tube framing, multiple pockets and privacy-protecting tops – you get the picture. Money.

The cart speaks for its owner, saying: I may be over 35, but my cart costs more than your grocery bill for the week. That’s the statement the well-heeled are looking to make in Europe this season.

Signs are popping up that the black and nickel Mercedes look may be on the way out. Yesterday, a silk-scarfed woman in a designer asymmetrical-hemmed  trench strode down our town’s retail corridor pulling an open-top green and cream polka-dot cart, a snappy convertible in the pull-cart world. She was making a statement: Yes, I am toting a shopping cart; don’t you wish you were, too?

It wasn’t too hard to imagine her giving the Audrey Hepburn flip of her scarf and squealing those wheels.

In the meantime, my abandoned cart wasn’t lonely for too long. By this morning, it was gone, perhaps adopted by one of the town’s elderly dog-walking ladies, a group particularly fond of pull-carts. Bet she wishes I had dropped off a Prada version on the pavement.

Culture Chasms in the Change Room

Swiss fitting room - this convenient viewing deck faces onto a bank of mirrors, adding to the viewing pleasure (or horror) of people standing outside.

Just when I think Switzerland has nothing left to surprise me with, someone tries to break into my fitting room.

The store clerk did rap on the change room door first, then quickly rattled the door lever a la Jurassic-Park-velociraptor style, then shoved her hand through the makeshift drape of t-shirts I had over the rectangular hole in the door that the store architect designed to make women nervous. This is in the same tradition that pre-2010 McDonalds architects designed uncomfortable seating to make people hurry out of the restaurant. Somewhere, there is a Cruel School of Architecture, I am sure of it.

The t-shirts hanging from the door still belonged to the store, although I was considering adopting them, but first they were serving as a makeshift curtain because I have a thing about disrobing in front of an audience.

The clerk prattled in Italian while peering inside the coffin-sized fitting room, then tried German.  I opened the door to see she was one of those model-lish retail clerks who could walk down the aisles in her underwear. It would not bother her a bit for with her cinched waist, it would be a catwalk audition, and so she might not understand that women who long ago lost “definition” in their armpits are a little more shy about fitting-room break-ins. She tested out a few other languages on me before explaining in English that

  • The viewing panel into the mirrored change room must always be kept open because
  • the sales staff protected the store from theft
  • by watching the customers inside the “cabines.”

And there you have it. One more reason why Canada looks better every week.

Bratislava bathroom: What the heck is that?

Watching customers undress is the sort of the thing that makes headlines in North America where despite the public’s horror at such a thing, fitting room surveillance is not necessarily illegal. A recreation centre in Calgary has surveillance cameras in their mens and boys change rooms, a fact that they unblushingly defended when a patron went to the media about it.

Retail theft is rampant, so store owners say they are just protecting their business, but it is still discomfiting to think of the minimum-wage  perv leering just outside the fitting room possibly with the iPhone camera at the ready to entertain his or her friends with later.

I put the tops back on the rack and left. Good-bye H & M clothing store. I am sorry to leave behind your lovely fashions and sweet sales, but there are some things I’d just as soon not share with you.

Note: Yes, I have complained about European changeroom culture before.

Second Note: I am positive I saw a video camera in a Bratislava restaurant’s bathroom. Ugh.

Okay, maybe this isn't a camera, but it sure looks like it could be one. Commencing bladder-freeze sequence.