Something that differentiates Switzerland from its Germanic cousins to the north is the grocery shop. Now I’m not sure if they are modelled on North American shops or vice versa, but shopping at Coop or Migros is like a trip back to Canada each time I go. Well at least shopping at Migros, where you can’t buy alcohol, as in most Canadian provinces alcohol can only be purchased at state controlled liquor stores or in specialty liquor stores. Outside of Quebec there is no getting pasta, fish, vegetables and a nice bottle of Italian Pinot Grigio in the same shop. No Sir. You need to go to at least two shops.
Nonetheless there is something spectacular about walking into a Swiss or Canadian grocery shop. I know that in Switzerland people generally fall into two classes, irregardless of the language they speak: There are those that shop at Coop and those that shop at Migros. For our German cousins who enjoy digging for their groceries under copious amounts of cardboard in the shop, both Aldi and Lidl are now in Switzerland. I like the Coop myself. Why Coop? I think it has to do with two things. First, I like getting wine and alcohol in the same shop as my groceries. Second, I like the way it’s set up – from the layout it is more like a Canadian shop. It’s kind of like heaven… Isn’t it?
First, you enter the shop and the doors open automatically for you – there is no pushing or pulling. Pleasant music plays in the background. You’re entering a garden of Eden – fresh produce. There they are, beautifully and carefully displayed: apples, oranges, bananas (always #1 on the scale), potatoes, onions, broccoli, tomatoes, fresh herbs, celery stalk and more. It’s a rainbow of colour and textures that is being lightly misted to keep them all looking fresh and brings a foggy spring morning to mind. And there isn’t just produce from Switzerland or seasonal food, no – everything and anything that you can imagine. I think most people don’t even know what to do with half the stuff, which is why you can buy finished meals likes salads and curries with most of those ingredients already incorporated.
Then there is the meat section. Chicken and pork are reign supreme here then there is beef, veal, horse and fish. At some shops you’ll find more exotic meats like buffalo and ostrich. Again for those with little time, most meats are available pre-marinated in twenty different flavours, so they taste nothing like meat. The thing that differentiates Switzerland and Canada here is the price. Meat in Canada costs about a quarter of what it does in Switzerland.
From the meats you make your way to the dairy section where you are greeted by at least three hundred different types of cheese and a half a million flavours of yogurt and well over two dozen grades of milk. The selection is mind-boggling. It’s as if anything you can imagine will be there. Do you want fresh organic milk or standard UHT milk? The funny thing about it is that most people still just buy what they’re familiar with, like ice cream – a parlour can offer a 101 flavours and most people will still order vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. Let’s leave the dairy section and move on to the the non-perishable foods.
If the selection of fresh produce and dairy wasn’t enough to cause some people to fall over or panic at the thought of making a decision then the non-perishables surely will. Countless different kinds of pasta – spaghetti, linguini, penne, pappardelle, fettuccine, etc. all from thirty different producers and three different classes – economy, regular and specialty-supreme. For every type of pasta there is corresponding sauce. Pesto Sicilia, Pesto Genovese, Pesto Basilica etc. Picking a simple pasta and sauce at a Swiss grocery shop has become as difficult as ordering a coffee at Starbucks. And then there are all the international foods which some shops call “ethnic foods” and you can get your Mexican taco kits, your Polish pierogis, Thai green curry sauce and Indian naan bread.
Now what really separates a Swiss grocery shop from North American shops is the chocolate aisle. Sure you can buy chocolate in Canada and the USA, but there are maybe ten different kinds you can choose from. At Coop or Migros there must be almost a thousand. There is the store brand chocolates in at least three quality classes, which according to many is the same chocolate but at three different prices to attract three different types of customers: those who hate to spend, those who stay with tradition and those who are suckers for clever marketing and have too much money. And then there is your Lindt, you Cailler, your Milka and Toblerones etc. The scent of chocolate is so rich here, people have been known to gain weight walking through this aisle.
But we’re not done yet – no, there is still the household items, the pet food, the clothing, the music, books, DVDs, the seasonal stuff and the wine and beer selection. And all of this stuff is of course available at three different quality levels and from twenty different producers.
Once you’ve loaded your cart to the brim – mostly with things you never intended on buying – you make your way to the cash. Here is where there is a big difference between Canada and Switzerland. In Switzerland the people working at the cash get to sit. In North America they stand – there’s no sitting on the job. As you stand there watching the cashier push your newly found goodies over the laser scanner you’re making sure things don’t get scanned twice, that they are at the right price and that you’re ready to pay as soon as the cashier is done, because there is a line up of people behind you, who, like you, have also realized that they have more in their cart than they initially wanted or need and just want to leave as fast as possible before more items make their way into their cart. Now, in Canada this procedure is much the same, but once you’ve paid your groceries are neatly packed into bags (paper or plastic) and put in your cart again with an eager teenager waiting to help you take your groceries to your car. Here in Switzerland you need to scrabble to get all your goods into a bag and off the slightly angled counter, before they get mixed with the next customer’s stuff. If you can’t do this in a timely fashion prepare for “the look” from the person behind you and the deep sigh of the cashier.
If Migros and Coop want to up their competition and create some new jobs for Switzerland’s youth, they should offer a packing service. The growing elderly population would appreciate the help and the bit of contact with the youth of today. It would lower the unemployment levels amongst youth and make expats feel more at home.