The Race for Space is Over (but not the way you think)

It took social distancing to finally put me at ease

Embarking on my first trip to the grocery store after the corona outbreak, I am pumped up with anxiety. It’s the same grocery store where I have shopped for years, but entering it is suddenly daunting.

Will it look the same? What kinds of precautions are they taking to protect people from the pandemic? I picture cashiers in full hazmat suits, outfitted with face masks and helmets with clear plastic face shields and latex gloves. They’re probably taking customers’ temperatures, too, like they did in China.

My imagination is fired up with images of overcrowded Italian hospitals, bursting morgues and orderlies pushing sick patients on cots down New York City streets. But as the escalator deposits me unceremoniously at the grocery store entrance (what kind of grocery store has an escalator?), the fanciful images evaporate. It looks pretty normal, actually.

Yet once I’m inside, clear indications of the virus make me stop. Posters that usually boast maps of farms of locally sourced produce, weekly specials and a pitch for the sushi bar now give detailed instructions on how to behave in these troubled times. Entry with a mask only! Keep 1.5 meters’ distance! Just in case you don’t know how far that is, thick red lines have been taped to the floor to remove all doubt.

I pull my mask from my purse and put it on, pushing my cart cautiously into the store. I head to the organic produce aisle, where my shopping tour always begins. Methodically I fill bags with apples, bananas, grapes and a few avocados (hoping they’ll actually ripen for once instead of rotting instantly overnight. When my daughter is with me, she won’t allow me to pick them out, because apparently my penchant for plant murder (link to your flowers article here) extends to vegetables).

So far, so good.

Pushing on to the coffee and bread aisles, I become aware of an atmosphere that is somehow quieter but can’t quite put my finger on it. Everyone is wearing a mask; does that keep people from talking? Maybe that explains the unusual calm.

Onwards I go, headed for cheese. Cottage cheese, cheddar, Gouda from hay-fed cows. I still feel a little guilty buying dairy products since I used to be virtuous and vegan, so to make up for my downward slide I buy extra amounts of cheese and milk exclusively from very happy cows: organically raised, hay-fed and smiling, like the ones seen grazing off the sides of the Autobahn in the Alps. At least, I think they’re smiling. It’s hard to tell from the distance. Also, they’re cows.

Not until I arrive at the canned goods aisle does it hit me.

Forget the masks, stripes on the floor and admonishing posters. It’s the people! For the first time in my life, at least my German life, I am experiencing shopping as a non-contact sport.

This is because Germans have a completely different sense of personal space, consisting of approximately one-twentieth of the area that an average American is accustomed to. I tried to change this when I moved here, to expand my comfort zone (or in this case, reduce it), but I failed miserably. I’m just hard-wired to need space. In large amounts.

Now that’s what I call space! Photo by Katerina Kerdi on Unsplash

I grew up watching Bonanza, the Waltons, and Star Wars (the real Star Wars, not those silly new ones, the remakes – or was it prequels? Isn’t that a sweetener, anyway? Whatever). All of these shows and movies clearly demonstrate just how much space Americans need between themselves and the rest of the world. A lot. We’re talking deserts, mountains and galaxies here. There’s not enough tape in the world to indicate how much we like to spread out.

Seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Imagine my state of mind when I arrived in Germany and was suddenly surrounded by bumping, pushing, shoving, line-cutting, butt-slamming shoppers. I discovered that I had turned into an obstacle in other people’s way, always having to be on the lookout to clear out quickly or pay the price in a pound of flesh, Merchant-of-Venice style. Remember those wildebeests that trampled Mufasa in the Lion King? Yeah. Like that.

“What was this?,” I thought to myself. “An entire store of rude beasts?” No, it was an entire country.

I decided to retaliate with the polite American’s weapon, and I am talking big guns here: the venomous dirty look. I planted my feet apart, squinted ominously, frowned and fixed my piercingest gaze on the offender, only to discover that Germans don’t speak glare.

Go ahead. Glare a hole in the wall all you want; they ain’t lookin’. Believe me, I tried this often, in all variations, furiously furrowing my brow until it hurt, frowning more and more viciously until my cheeks ached, and yes, in extreme situations, even exhaling very loudly. That always worked for my mom, but somehow, it leaves the Germans cold.

Contrast my need to be surrounded by the Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada or the Milky Way to feel comfortable (or as a very reasonable compromise, reached after much inner haggling: one meter in each direction) to the spatial perception of your average German shopper. Their sole concern is that you are standing in between them and that cut-price bottle of wine – so you’d better get out of their way NOW. They communicate this by bashing their cart into your rear end. Any expectation of an apology or even a mild acknowledgement of the bruise freshly under construction on your backside goes unnoticed.

Your reaction and thoughts to being hit by a cart are by default inconsequential. You came between a German and the product of their desire. If you can’t figure out whose fault that is, go look in the mirror, asshole.

This attitude prevails at the checkout counter, too, where things can get a bit more tense than in the pasta aisle. I once had an immensely gratifying bitching session with another American expat who explained to me how he dealt with a particularly pushy (literally) woman at the checkout counter. She was a plump, grandmotherly type who had no business shopping on a Saturday anyway (go during the week, for crying out loud, while the rest of us are working to earn your pension) and she was chomping at the bit to move her cart up to the conveyor belt to unload her groceries. My American friend was in the way, so her natural reaction was to shove her cart into him to make room.

Exasperated, he turned to her and declared in German with an unmistakable, heavy American accent: “Meine liebe Dame, der Krieg ist vorbei!“ My dear woman, the war is over!

Humble grocery cart or lethal weapon? Photo by Alfred on Unsplash

It’s worth taking a moment to savor the irony in this encounter: An American tells a German woman that the war is over. At the checkout counter in a grocery store. The German woman was appropriately dumbfounded, too. From that point on, I sincerely hope she realized that her grocery cart, properly wielded, was indeed a fearful weapon that was not to be pushed lightly.

So here I am now, in the corona-gripped grocery store, delighting in the newly-won free space that surrounds me. I develop a real swagger in my step and swoosh my way over to the pasta aisle. After a short sojourn there, I notice a man waiting patiently while I debate the virtues of a box of whole grain penne rigate versus a bag of spirali.

Waiting – patiently. Now there’s a word combination that just doesn’t get used often enough.

I look slyly askance to monitor the presence of the would-be pasta peruser. He’s still standing there. I bask in the glory of the moment.

Loaded up with pasta, I head jauntily to what has become the acid test during this pandemic: the toilet paper aisle. Unhindered by any little old cart-shoving ladies, I casually pop a 10-pack into my cart. It was the only one left.

Next, I breeze to the baking goods aisle. Since everyone seems to have turned into an amateur baker since the outbreak, there are only scant traces of flour on the shelves but no actual bags of it. I do need salt, however, and spread out my elbows to take up as much space as possible. Because I can. There’s nobody next to me.

Over the past 30 years of living here, I unsuccessfully tried to accommodate people’s lack of personal space. I closed my eyes and earnestly tried not to care when I felt like I was going to suffocate or could smell the cigar breath of the pot-bellied man standing behind me in line. What an odd turn of events that it would take the outbreak of a world pandemic to keep people at bay.

Should’ve thought of that sooner.

I’m going to enjoy it as long as it lasts, especially since the grocery story is pretty much the only place I go regularly these days. I have rediscovered the joys of pushing my cart around like I’m in a grocery store and not a racetrack. At last, I feel relaxed, unhurried – and right at home.

Brenda Arnold

4 thoughts on “The Race for Space is Over (but not the way you think)

  1. Claudia says:

    I was missing your posts (badly). I’m glad you’re writing again and filling us with joy. I love your texts! Well done again.

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