Back home, in the United States, I can buy everything on my shopping list in one stop: bread, lettuce, sunglasses, lawn mower, crutches, paint and car battery. Largely, that’s a reflection of where I live – in the bosom of suburbia. I can be in and out in an hour. The mega box store exists for the efficient (and hence cheap) distribution of goods. I am not a customer. I am simply a person collecting their needs as quickly, and inexpensively, as possible.
One Christmas, I was searching for cinnamon oils to make hard candy. Candy making has been a family Christmas tradition since my husband was a boy in Michigan. I approached an excessively facial pierced (please-lord-don’t-let-my- daughter-go-through-this-phase) young woman who responded “Wow, I have no idea where we keep that.” Her voice and body language under scored the point that I was on my own. As I walked away, with perhaps a bit of customer service conscience, she called after me, “But if you do find it, be sure to come back and tell me where it is.”
Fast forward two years. With a rough idea of what we might eat and a cursory knowledge of my new Budapest city center neighborhood, I set off to explore. My Saturday shopping routine mixes one part foodie paradise with one part scavenger hunt. My husband called after me “Just pick up walnuts and oatmeal”. He might as well have said, “Just pick up a pint of O negative blood and a mince meat pie.” Breakfast in Budapest is the ubiquitous hard salami, cheese, and crusty role. But that won’t work for Pat.
I started with my favorite shop; the cheese shop which is simply signed “Fromage”. In a store the size of my former bedroom closet, I picked through an amazing assortment of French(ish) foods. You don’t order from the cheese man – you sample. Everyone in the store sampled with me. When I asked about olive oil, he whipped out two bottles and a small spoon. I sampled to a play by play of the pros and cons of each. I requested “A slice of the hardest, strongest cheese”. He invited me to try the 1000 day old Gouda – and expected my five shopping companions to test along with me. When he asked if I wanted some homemade French butter I wiped a tear from my eye. Not trusting my voice, I bobbed my head yes.
Next door, I stopped at the Turkish market where I found red lentils and walnuts (yes!) A few doors down, I bought a bag of cookies (the store sold four flavors of one type of cookie – period). I nabbed a pair of eggplants at a vegetable store and ran into the Italian market for canned tomatoes. And so it went as I weaved my way through my neighborhood: brazil nuts here, mozzarella cheese there, soup noodles at yet a third place. Eventually, I spied a store entitled “Bio”. On the shelf were bags of grains – many of which appeared to have oatmeal potential. A group of three older women chatted in a circle – perhaps a mix of workers and friends. They jumped up to help me. Each wanted to demonstrate their English skills. “Is this all?”. “Do you need a bag?” And in response to my question: “Oats?” I received the very simple answer, “Breakfast.” Close enough.
Over the course of a couple of hours I stopped at perhaps fifteen or more stores buying no more than one or two items at each store. It was wildly impractical. I loved it. My purchases morphed as I adlibbed my list based on the best offerings – the most remarkable produce and those things which I could find. The last store affirmed my belief that life is good. In a three foot glass showcase, a man sells nothing but strudel: poppy, apple, pear with honey, apricot, plum, cherry, chocolate cherry. The strudel man prepares everything on his worktable which takes up most of the small shop. I topped my day with two pieces of strudel (and “yes, I’d love powdered sugar sprinkled on top”).
There are times when I wish I could pick up a toothbrush in the same store where I buy milk. Or have my oil changed while I complete my weekly shopping. But I don’t miss the big box venue. When I walk home from the tram, I pass the “Fromage” shop. The owner and I exchange excited waves through the glass window. It reminds me of the way little kids wave at their parents with their nose pressed against the school bus glass. We are happy to see each other for after all, he is my cheese man – and I am his customer.
Categories: Insiders Budapest