Last week I walked to the Aldi store in our neighborhood, filled my cart with the things we needed, which all turned out to be liquid and heavy. A six-pack of sparkling water 1.5-liter bottles. Flat water for C, who thinks the tap water tastes funny (it doesn’t, but try telling that to my daughter). A liter of milk. You get the idea.
I bring my cart to the checkout, where I know from past experience there will be no English, and that’s fine—I see the total on the register, I pay. Alles ist gut, ja? But nee, ist nicht so gut.
There’s a conveyor belt just like at every other store you’ve ever been to, but there’s no room at the end for your items to pile up until someone bags them. That someone is you, by the way; where do you think you are, Kowalski’s?
And I know I’m the bagger, and I’m ready, see my reusable bags, opened and ready for me to pack in my cart? But the woman behind the counter eyes my bags suspiciously as if I’ve hidden some jars of Nutella in there that I don’t plan on paying for, and she leans over and checks to see my bags are empty, and indeed they are, but now my bags are toppled over, and with a scowl she starts plunking my heavy bottles on TOP of my bags, crushing them further to the bottom of the cart. So now my cart is full again, my bags are flattened under all the containers, and that’ll be 12 Euros, please, and I swear there’s a look of triumph in her eyes. So I pay, and roll my cart over to the window, where I unpack all of my things onto the dirty floor and start the bagging process over again.
The problem may be bigger than the frumpy frau at Aldi’s. At Ikea last week, after a two-hour tour of their massive store, C and I unloaded a cart full of things that soon piled up at the end of the roomy counter. I was doing my best to bag them in the bright-blue cheery Ikea bags. C, meanwhile, looked like she was about to faint, so I sent her off to find the restroom. Out of the corner of my eye I notice that the clerk behind the counter is taking each of my three large bath towels, opening them completely, scanning them, and dumping them in a heap at the end of the counter. They were neatly folded upon arrival, but now all three are a jumble of terrycloth.
The clerk tells me the total. I hand him my Visa card, but he says that’s no good, so I give him a Master Card, but again he won’t take it. “Cash only, please,” he says, and now I’m really sweating; I have 40 Euros in my wallet and 150 Euros of stuff half-bagged, and a long line of people waiting to check out behind me.
“I won’t be able to pay for all of this,” I say, trying to mentally rank my pile of household goods by need, not want; keep the towels, return the bathmat… But he says, “Cash machine is on the wall, miss,” and I turn and sure enough there’s an ATM down the hall.
I’m uncertain how to proceed, keep bagging and let him move on the next customer? Run to the ATM with my stuff strewn all over his counter? I ask him, but something gets lost in translation, and I thought he said he was going to check out the next person as I bag, but now I see he is just sitting on his chair watching me bag my stuff, cool as a cucumber, and the woman who is next in line is making annoying little tsk’ing sounds with her mouth.
I give up on bagging and dash over to the ATM. For once the ATM is kind; it accepts my PIN, it gives me my cash, and I return to find my clerk has helpfully moved my items off the end of his counter and is checking out the next customer. Confusing, but no matter. I pay, then turn my attention back to my cart. And I see that it’s Aldi all over again.
The clerk did not continue my pattern of taking items off of the counter and putting them into the bags; he has taken my bathmat and comforters and placed them on top of the bags, crushing them down, requiring a repacking job.
C comes running up to me, her cheeks now a more natural color. This check-out has taken so long she couldn’t imagine I could still be here fussing at the end of the aisle. She helps me refold the towels and repack the bags. She takes one heavy bag and I take the other, and out into the rain we go.
But back to Aldi. If you’ve ever been to Germany, you may have noticed that Germans have great love for fizzy water. They drink it all the time. Restaurants don’t greet you with a glass of flat ice water; they wait for your drink order and give you what you ordered. If you ask for water, it’s going to be fizzy and you’re going to pay for it. Friends have cases of it stacked in their pantry. Even the reusable water bottles we bought for the girls are made for fizzy water; they have a special valve that keeps the pressure from the bubbles from leaking out. I’ve never seen such a bottle in the states. A few weeks ago in a boat I forgot my water, and Helga gave me hers, and though it was green-yellow like Gatorade, sure enough it was mixed with fizzy water.
Fizzy water is fun; it feels more sophisticated than flat water. But M and I have discovered another reason why Germans may be drinking so much of it. If you buy it at Kaiser’s, the grocery store that’s a step up from Aldi in cleanliness, selection, and checkout demeanor, you pay just 65 cents per 1.5 liter of the most common brand on the market. But get this. Aldi sells those same bottles, same size and quality, for 19 cents each. Small wonder then that everyone is shopping at Aldi and drinking fizzy water. Us included.
So drink up, kids. We’ve got some shopping to do.