Monday, March 25, 2013

Indecision in the Land of Overabundance

By Heidi Noroozy

Tram drivers in Gotha, GDR
Photo by Felix O (CC BY-SA 2.0)
It’s 1981 and I’m on my way to Marxism class in the tooth-shaped University Tower on Leipzig’s Karl Marx Square. The tram is an old rattletrap from a bygone era, with its hard wooden seats and worn-out shock absorbers, and it’s packed with students and early bird shoppers. Outside the window, Soviet-style slab buildings rub shoulders with once elegant stone mansions, filling gaps left by long-ago bombs. The war has been over for 36 years, but wounds heal slowly in the East German heartland.

In this drab landscape, a spot of color bobs along the sidewalk, a bright yellow object poking out of a woman’s bulging shopping bag. Bananas. My mouth waters, and I don’t even like bananas. But it’s been months since my neighborhood supermarket has offered any produce more exotic than onions, potatoes, cabbages, and those dessicated oranges from Cuba that the locals call “Castro’s Revenge.”

The tram shudders to a stop and in seconds I’m the only person left on board. The crowd surges toward the banana lady. Someone must have asked where she bought the coveted fruit because she points down a side street and soon even the sidewalk is bare. I’m still such a novice at this socialist shopping gig, I don’t bother to follow the crowd. By the time I reach the shop, there won’t be as much as a yellow peel left.

In the decade before the Berlin Wall came down and the two German nations reunified, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) suffered a serious shortage of exchangeable currency. The burden this placed on international trade meant that many items began disappearing from the stores.

Bananas: once a coveted luxury
item in the GDR
A supermarket run could turn into guessing game. Would the shelves be well stocked or half empty? Would they have real coffee that day or only the cheap stuff, mixed with chicory to make it go further? Maybe there’d be a note taped to the dairy case warning customers that they were allowed only one package of butter per shopper. Hoarding was verboten.

Mangelware,” the shopkeeper would say with a disinterested shrug when I asked after a newly missing item I’d seen only the previous week. The word means “scarce commodity” and explained everything from an empty meat counter at the butcher’s shop to the absence of ethnic specialties on the menu of my favorite Hungarian restaurant.

Sometimes the problem wasn’t Mangelware but a scarcity of labels. At my neighborhood grocery store, certain non-branded food staples came in plain white paper sacks with their contents printed on the front in purple ink: rice, flour, and sugar. Occasionally, the factory would run out of ink, and you had to feel the package to figure out what it contained. A lumpy bag was rice, a grainy one held sugar, and the soft, squishy one was most likely flour. More than once, I bought a grainy-feeling bag only to discover it held cornmeal and not the sugar I’d expected.

Early on, I realized I had to develop some new shopping strategies. Back home in the States, if I ran out of milk or bread, a quick drive to the supermarket quickly remedied the situation. It would never have occurred to me that, on arriving at the store, I’d discover the items I needed had vanished from the shelves.

In the GDR, I learned to shop like the locals. Whenever I saw an item that was in potentially short supply—toilet paper, packing tape, or those elusive bananas—I’d buy it on the spot. Who knew when I’d see it again? Over time, such “opportunity shopping” became so ingrained in me, I forgot how to do it any other way.

When I left the GDR at the end of my two year stay, I spent the flight home dreaming about all the long missed food I’d get to enjoy. I planned to make thick peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and suck the sweet juice out of California oranges. And I’d buy ten packages of butter if I felt like it. It would be a year before I could face cabbage and potatoes.

Too many brands!
Photo by Tara Whitsitt (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
But the first time I entered an American supermarket, my enthusiasm evaporated into a cloud of anxiety. I wandered about the air-conditioned space, feeling a bit shell-shocked—such abundance, so many choices, way too many brands. How to decide? I knew there had to be some strategy to help me find my way through this confusing maze of brands, but I couldn’t bring it to mind. The cereal aisle was the worst, with its bright colors and loud labels. What I would have given for a plain white sack that I could poke with my fingers and decide whether it held cornflakes or Rice Crispies. I fled the supermarket without making a purchase, too overwhelmed to figure out this simple dilemma.

My shopping amnesia turned out to be short-lived and days later I was picking items off the shelves and tossing them into my basket without a second thought. And yet, I don’t really want to forget those moments of utter helplessness when I entered the supermarket and didn’t know what to do. The echo of that reverse culture shock reminds me that not every place is blessed with such riches, and many people around the world have to make do with far less.


  1. Heidi, when I came to Italy in the late 1960s-early 70s, shopkeepers kept everything behind the counter. You had to ask for what you wanted, and the shopkeeper chose something to show you. It was only 25 years post-war, and the shortage mentality existed still. You never had many choices. After two years, I went to Paris, and I was overwhelmed. I went into Galeries Lafayette and was unable to by anything. It actually made me nervous to be among all those choices.

    Today, some of those shops still exist, but there are many fewer choices in general at the supermarket--except in the pasta aisle. I still get nervous when I enter an American supermarket.

    1. It's interesting, isn't it, how quickly we can adapt to having far fewer material things and choices. Yet the switch back to overabundance is far harder. Thanks for sharing, Patricia.

  2. I feel the same way in cereal aisles in the States--too many choices! How do you decide what to get? :)


    1. The only thing you get oodles of choices of here is pasta (I wrote about that on Italian Intrigues and, in some shops, gelato.

    2. I think I could get used to oodles of choices if the items were pasta and gelato.

  3. Oh, I have had this experience many, many times. When I was growing up, my sisters and I thought of the US as the land of the giant shopping center. It was always overwhelming to visit the States and be confronted with someplace like Baskin Robbins. :) The worst culture shock was when I came "home" for college after living in Pakistan for 2 years. I remember standing in the toilet paper aisle of the grocery store with my mouth open, just staring until one of the friends I was with started teasing me. We were used to one or maybe two choices on the black market. How does anyone decide what the best toilet paper is when you have 30 or more choices?

    1. Jenni, that's so funny. We used to say--during my first stint in Italy--that toilet paper here came in three forms: waxed paper, crepe paper, and newsprint. Now we have lots of choices, not 30, but but many.

    2. So true, Jenni. And I still haven't figured that one out. :)

    3. Patricia, I never experienced the waxed paper kind, except once in the UK. But we had the newsprint variety in the GDR (sometimes even the real thing when toilet paper became Mangelware).

    4. I'm laughing because in different places in the Third World, we used to make a similar comparison, and newsprint was one of them! We joked that the other choices were sand paper and brillo pads. They weren't really, but sometimes the toilet paper was pretty rough. I would have loved waxed paper or crepe paper in comparison!