No curve was too sharp for them and their bicycle. No puddle was deep enough to stop them. -- Friends by Helme Hein

16 February, 2012

The Grocery Store

At the risk of sounding like a disgruntled stay-at-home-mother, I'm going to talk about grocery shopping because it is the single most frustrating thing about living in Denmark. Food is a large part of my daily existence (probably yours too?) and getting it is no easy task in Denmark.  Everything from service to price to selection to long, long lines becomes a point of contention, and the reason why I have, more than a handful of times, walked out of a store empty-handed in total frustration.

We live in the city, and city grocery shopping is different than suburban grocery shopping.  It means I have to walk (no big deal) and usually deal with smaller stores with less selection and visit more often.  In most places around the world, people shop daily because the food spoils within a few days.  In Denmark, I go shopping 4-5 days per week, which probably only compounds my dislike for the stores here.  I wish I could say I went so often because the food was amazingly fresh, but no, I can only carry so much when also toting a 20-pound baby. 

The cost of living in Denmark is notoriously high and food gets no break from tax hikes.  On my $40 grocery bill total, I paid over $8 of that in tax.  That's a 25% tax on food on top of the 45% income tax, the $200 bi-yearly media tax, and the $10 per month antenna tax (whether you've got a TV or not)! One has to ask where all this money goes.  

Here's a little sampling of what I bought today and the prices:

approx. 2 sticks of butter = $4 (thanks to the recent addition of the world's first fat tax)
half loaf of whole wheat bread = $3
1 cucumber = $1
10 organic eggs = $5.50
1 liter of yogurt = $3
1 grapefruit = $1
1 avocado = $1.25
1 liter of milk = $2
1 zucchini = $1

Those prices may not look like much individually, but they add up quickly.  We used to pay around $500 per month for groceries in Tokyo, and we are now spending close to $1000 per month. I do believe we should spend a high percentage of our salary on food because it’s not just something that fills our bellies, but it also nourishes our body and soul.  Healthy food=healthy bodies=fewer doctors visits.  Sounds like something a state run health care system would promote and possibly subsidize.  I could get behind the fat tax if the money gained on foods like butter, cheese and meat was used to offset the high cost of fruits and vegetables, but it is not.  It just seems like greediness to me.

I expect to pay more for "exotic" foods that provide me the comfort of cooking food that is known to me, but the prices on these items due to import taxes are criminal: 

1 tube of wasabi paste = $7
10 sheets of nori = $7
small jar of bland salsa = $5
small jar of natural peanut butter (about 1/2 the size of an Adams jar) = $7
half size package of plain tofu = $5

When you consider these items hardly taste anything like the original and are made in neighboring Holland, you begin to realize you are getting ripped off.

But even more frustrating is that I did this shopping at three different stores because you can never count on one store having everything in stock.  I'm not picky.  Basics like grains, vegetables and dairy vary from store to store.  Each store usually only has one or two brands to choose from and will possibly be out of stock of the one you are looking for.  Or it will be out of date!  I know this can happen in remote places where food doesn't turn over quickly, but come on, in the middle of the city?!  Right now, at the dead of winter, the vegetable selection has been reduced to about 10 choices: soggy looking asparagus from Brazil, small potatoes, celery root, big potatoes, onions, gold potatoes, turnips, new potatoes, tasteless hothouse peppers, and a few more varieties of potatoes.  You get the idea.  I promise I'm not being overly dramatic, it's really that sad.  I know it's winter, I know it's best to eat locally grown produce, but I also know from living in Japan that winter does not have to mean a dearth of fresh vegetables.  Japan introduced me to daikon and lotus root, among other lesser known root vegetables, all grown in the winter.  A wealthy country like Denmark should be able to stock more than potatoes in January.

Just like any place, there are high-end stores and low end stores.  Most of my frustration comes when I visit the low-end stores--narrow aisles crowded with palates of un-shelved goods with no room for shopping baskets (let alone a stroller) and terribly, terribly long lines.  You can count on seeing only 1 or 2 checkers at most in a store.  Each line is about 15 people deep, taking 10-15 minutes to get through.  (I use the term "lining up" in Denmark loosely: A new checker opens up?  The 10 people in line behind you peel off and go to the new stand, rather than politely offering the new spot to the person who has already been waiting 10 minutes in front of you.  Grandmas will take your spot if you aren't standing with your nose in the back of the person in front of you. Danes don't do lining up well.) And once you do reach the front of the line, you can expect nothing but the most brusqueness of service.  Danes have a particular brand of customer service.  It goes something like this:  I'm not really bothered by what you need.

I definitely benefit from the high tax rate while living in Copenhagen, but where do we draw the line?  It just seems like too much.  Maybe I'm just extra grumpy because I had to schlep home a heavy bag of food 1/2 a mile while carrying a 20 pound baby and wearing 5 pound winter boots because it's 25 degrees F (-3 C) outside.  Or maybe I'm just a spoiled brat who is used to modern conveniences and needs a little perspective on just how good I have it. 


Scott and Heather said...

First off, you are NOT a spoiled brat and second of all, I love this post. Parts of it remind me of Switzerland and France so much and other parts not so much. We were always blessed with gorgeous grocery stores, but the prices at times were ridiculous. In Geneva, we discovered the equivalent of Costco and that was helpful at times when we wanted to buy our staples. Do they have that there? Sending you warm wishes on your chilly day! xoxo

Sara Moss said...

I agree with Scott. We love you Latter, and know that you are amongst the few uber resourceful women in our circle of friends. And that you are taking all the tedious (sometimes physically taxing) nuances of being a stay at home mom in a foreign country in stride. When I lived in Spain it got to be a routine for shopping. Four or five days, (all walking because petrol was astronomical to/fro with grocery bags), up cobblestone paths and sometimes all for not if the shelves weren't stocked. But I didn't have a 1yr old and I didn't have 1C weather. So, I applaud you. (I know you didn't blog for sympathy). Email me your Denmark mailing address. I think this blog warrants a USA care package! What are your top 5 "Oh God Please May I Have This" items? (BTW avocados on the East Coast here are $3 each, so my Boston friends feel your pain). But $5 for peanut butter? ACK! So, again, email me your mailing address and Wish List