The bottle of oil! The bottle of oil!

The other day, I went grocery shopping. This is pretty mundane, but I like going to this grocery store in particular – it’s bigger, cheaper and it has a wide variety of things. Everything was going according to plan. I even found my favorite goat cheese. When I went to the checkout line, the woman in front of me offered to let me go first because I had fewer items. I piled my groceries onto the conveyor belt, daydreaming about goat cheese and apples and chocolate. Then I realized that the cashier was trying to get my attention.

Her: Something something something something?

Me: *Blink*

Her: Something something something something? (points at my groceries)

Keep in mind, I’m usually a bit more prepared when I need to have a social interaction. But there were two customers in front of me, both of them elderly men, and I was expecting to be left alone for another twenty seconds or so. Of course, they certainly didn’t mind jumping in to help.

Cashier: Something something something SOMETHING? (points at my groceries again)

Me: *Stare. Shake head slightly. Open mouth. Reach hands towards vegetables to see if this is the right first step. Vegetables, what have you done?*

Cashier: No, no, no!  SOMETHING something something SOMETHING?

Elderly man #1: (in angry elderly man voice) The something! The something!

Elderly man #2: (in wavery elderly man voice) Just something something something SOMETHING!

Me: *Stare at cashier. Stare at Greek chorus of elderly men.*

Cashier: *Grabs bottle of shampoo.* Here, here. See? It’s like this. *Holds bottle up straight.* Now do this. *Lies bottle down flat.*

Me: *Frantically look at groceries until I see offending bottle of oil. Tip it over on its side so forcefully that it could have broken right then.*

As usually happens, she pitied me. She continued to check out the guy in front of me and then, when I got to the register, grabbed the oil and gently explained, “See, it’s made of glass. It could have broken.” “Ja, I understand,” I mumbled, shoving groceries into my backpack as quickly as she scanned them. She made a point of being pleased that I counted out exact change. I’m not sure if it’s because cashiers like exact change or because she was honestly impressed that I could count my money like a real grown-up.


A couple of days later, I had another unexpected interaction at a different grocery store.* Again, I only had a few items. The woman in front of me turned to me and (“Oh God,” went my brain) started to talk. I stared at her for a split-second, then regained my composure. No sweat. You can still save this.

Me: “Entschuldigung?” (Excuse me?)

Her: “Something something something?” She gestured in front of her bounty, already on the conveyer belt. She was smiling, and very animated. She waited for me to answer.

Oh! She wanted me to go in front of her.

Me: “Nein, danke!”

Her: Something to the the effect of, “Are you sure? I have so much!”

Me: “Nein, nein, danke.” A pause, and then an extra bonus phrase:”Ich habe Zeit.” (I have time.)

That seemed to be enough to make her think I was worthy of talking to, since it spurred her into a few more sentences, which she transferred over to talk to the cashier. Her attitude, however, was infectious. I felt like I’d really accomplished something that day, even though all I’d done was use very basic German to ward off a real conversation and buy some yogurt. I’ve noticed that more often than not, it’s something of this caliber that can make or break my day here.

*Yes, I’m always at the grocery store. Tiny backpack. Big food dreams.


19 responses to “The bottle of oil! The bottle of oil!

  1. Thank you for this wonderful story – for some reason, it was perfect for my mood this morning!

  2. I am ALWAYS at the grocery store, whether it’s my favorite halal market uptown or the asian market across town or spying tuesday afternoon open air market open in a new spot, i always seem to find myself around food if not awkwardly trying to google translate an unknown pig body part in french to see what it is i might accidentally be buying

    “tiny backpack. big food dreams.” hahaha!!! 🙂 story of my parisian life.

    • You’re brave – I’ve given up on translating meat-related things. It’s fair to assume here that it’s all pork, all the time.
      Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

      • hey thanks! lovin your expat stories, keep em coming 🙂
        translation barriers often make the best ones (but often later and not really at the very moment 😉 )

  3. I totally see what you mean – one small failed interaction, although completely unimportant, can somehow ruin your day….aaaaahhhh. Hate it!

  4. Ha ha ha! I can totally relate to hearing “something, something, something,” and then I give a blank stare.

    In Hungary, people are rather aggressive about lines and don’t really let you go in front of them. One time I forgot to weigh some fruit and print out a sticker receipt and the cashier was pretty irritated with me. I felt very defeated. But when people are nice, and I can have a pseudo-conversation in Hungarian, it is rather exhilarating!

  5. This made me laugh out loud! I know exactly what you mean…there’s a fine line between successfully pretending you speak fluent German and failing miserably!

    I, too, am always at the grocery store! It probably has to do with the fact that I only bring one bag, haha.

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      • tell me about it!!! I know!!! I lived in Germany for a year, and I know many German people. There is always a way something MUST be done! and in their Germanic tone of voice, it always sounds like an order and…. “if you don’t do it, I will shoot you”… kind of thing…. 🙂

  8. Very amusing. Lidls. They have their own special way of doing things don’t they? My husband was once ‘told off’ by the cashier for packing at the till and not at the blue shelf by the window. He’s never been back.

    • I’ve never seen anyone get told off for doing that, but the cashier (and everyone else in line) will stare at the person witheringly until they’re done. I like to take my time in line to see how silently angry I can make everyone else 🙂

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