(George has now written an entire tome of Helpful Hints for shopping, cooking, and cleaning in Europe. This will be the first of many installments, I’m sure.–ee)
Those of you who have followed this blog will know that Erika is in charge of museums, travel arrangements, accommodations, finances, community/police relations, photography, reportage, and the like. That is all well and good, but I should point out that, in addition to eating lunch with her, my principal roles have been to carry heavy things and look after the kitchen.
Usually, the apartments you find on AirBnB or HomeAway (we need a generic term for these private services) have been meant for just-married couples, young people in the first jobs, aged grandparents, or as vacation homes. That is to say, the kitchens will be rudimentary, but there will be plenty of cleaning products. Tourists are supposed to eat in local restaurants. Of course, the reason to book privately rather than take a room in a hotel is to cut prices. I can cook a dinner of baked chicken thighs and legs, braised zucchini, rice with saffron, and a salad, with drinks for less than €10. This would cost €60 at a restaurant. Speaking honestly, we do not much like to be out in the evenings or for breakfast (less than €5 in, maybe €20 out). When we were out and about, we ate lunch at restaurants.
Shopping: “Excuse me, do you speak a little English?”
Shopkeepers have, without fail, been kind to me. I have rarely known how much they should charge, and have often offered a palm full of change for them to pick out what I owed.
Once a woman in a market in Bosnia took a €2 piece for about 100 Marka’s worth of early spring pot herbs ($2 for $1 worth), but it was worth the price for the deadly look she got from the woman I had just spent €5 with for a good-sized bag of several veggies.
The open-air and central markets are the most fun. Sometimes the stall-holders are unhappy if you help yourself, but accepting if you simply load handfuls of produce into your bag. They simply don’t want you picking through or handling the fruit and veggies.
The fish mongers will not allow you to pick up and hand them a fish. They will clean, scale, and fillet what you buy. More precisely, they will ask you questions you won’t understand. When you say, “Yes,” they will do what is usually done with the fish in question.
It saves a lot of anxiety if you allow the locals to do what they expect you to want done even if that turns a pork loin into pork stew meat or sends you home with a cut-up rather than whole chicken. I was surprised several times to see how a butcher’s cut varied from my expectations.
Standing in line: watch for local custom when queuing. If I needed to speak to the stall-holder, I would aim for the end of the line. It’s difficult to ask the woman selling you €8 worth of fish if she has some heads and bones for you to make fish broth with, but I usually ended up with about a kilo of them for free. (Barely cover with water and boil them with some onion, celery, and pepper corns for only about 30-45 minutes.)
People try to be accommodating. Routinely, when I needed a little parsley, not a bouquet of it, the grocer would throw in several sprigs for free.
Grocery stores. Go ahead, Google the location of the local grocery store. Oops, better figure out what the local term for market or grocery store is. In most places, we found supermarkets everywhere, usually German companies, but we did our best to find local shops as well.
To get a cart, you have to put a Euro into a little slot to release a small tongue of metal attached to a chain. You get the Euro back when you plug the tongue back in. A similar arrangement is at the lockers in museum cloak rooms. The trick is to have a Euro available.
The layout in most supermarkets is not a challenge, but you’ll have no idea where anything is.
In many stores you are required to weigh and label your fresh veggies and fruit, and sometimes fresh bread, either identifying it by picture or number. Again, with a little preparation (write down what Google Translate says is goat’s milk yogurt or baking powder and be ready to show it to the shelf stocker), some hand signals, and a lot of goodwill on everyone’s part, I was usually able to get what I wanted. Of course bread crumbs are with bread, not with flour and baking; peanuts are with junk food. By the way, the €1 box of red wine is much better than any bottle for less than €10. Wine that’s more expensive than €10 is uncharted territory for me. Sorry, wine connoisseurs!
An exception to the admonition to routinely agree with what you’ve been asked comes at the check-out. I’m pretty sure that the first question in the markets translates to “Do you have a store card?”(most supermarkets in Europe have fallen into the same lamentable promo systems as in the U.S.), followed by “Would you like to buy a carry bag?” (you are expected to bring your own, but can purchase bags, both plastic and paper, in most shops), and “Do you need your parking voucher stamped?” A vague smile and a gentle “No thanks” conveys that you are mentally incompetent but not a threat. Try to give the smallest bill you can and change if possible. There is usually a little tray where you can dump a pocket-full of coins to let them pick out what they need.
So ends my first installment….