Albert Hijn

You’re probably thinking of a person when reading the heading of this blog post. Well – you’re not fully right. Albert Heijn is one of the biggest Dutch supermarket chains in the whole Netherlands. They even expanded their stores to Belgium. Walking and cycling through Amsterdam, it feels like you could go grocery shopping every 20 meters (might be familiar for you with our retail giants Migros and Coop 😉 ) – my implication: they’re huge and very well known. However, as you have probably guessed correctly, Albert Heijn was the founder of the first supermarket in a small town in the Netherlands.

If you’re asking yourself what kind of cultural practice I’m inferring, you guessed correctly – shopping in a supermarket. Wondering what’s unfamiliar about this one? Let’s begin with what is familiar. I would say that all supermarkets in the world – or at least in the EU/USA – are quite similar. You go into the store, get lost between the shelves and finally have to ask someone from the staff where this one thing is that you’ve been looking for for 30 minutes and then find it exactly where it would have been most logical. Well, that’s how it worked in Amsterdam. But why did I choose this topic: I think you will agree with me after the above explanation that shopping for food as a cultural practice is actually very familiar. At least the act of going shopping. But what about the institution and the products behind it? It’s very unfamiliar to us in another country.

The first thing I noticed is that no matter which supermarket you go to, whether in Switzerland or in Amsterdam, the first thing you come across are fruits and vegetables. Have you ever wondered why? I haven’t found a logical explanation yet (if you have an idea, I’m open for suggestions). Second, of course, I noticed the other products. Yoghurt is available in the tetra pack, just in vanilla and fruit taste. Imagine – no coffee yoghurt. After one week, I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Thirdly, I noticed a resemblance to American supermarkets. It’s been a while since I was in the USA, but I still remember some things. For example that they have a huge selection of the same products, just different brands. So shopping got kind of overwhelming. On the other hand, the packaging: products are wrapped in plastic, over plastic, over plastic. I’m not saying that Swiss supermarkets are saints. But if you can buy single carrots wrapped in plastic, I get a tantrum. Furthermore,  it you can buy mushrooms, potatoes, carrots etc. in any prepared form. Diced, in half, quartered, in slices, with or without spices and so on. In addition, you can buy strawberries, raspberries, blueberries etc. all year long, because the Netherlands has huge greenhouses in the northern part where they produce many fruits and vegetables all year. Of course, it might be good if these products are produced directly in the country, but is it really more environmentally friendly if everything comes from greenhouses – regardless of what season it is? I would say no. I went to Amsterdam with the idea that the Dutch are conscious of environmentally friendly food production or of protecting the environment in general.  However, I had to find out that unfortunately this was not the case. But how did I deal with this problem?

Although the juicy red strawberries looked very tempting, I simply decided not to buy them. On the whole, I didn’t really have much trouble adjusting or changing my behavior. Because I was already aware of the problem to a certain extent in Switzerland and already there I didn’t buy products that were simply not in season or the packaging was totally exaggerated. Nevertheless, the whole thing in Amsterdam was on a different scale. So I took good care of what I bought and that became a habit. I must honestly admit that I have become even more conscious now than before. So I would say that unfamiliar becomes familiar by first being open to perceiving something unfamiliar, being interested in it and seeing commonalities and differences between what you are used to and what is new. And in the end, it is important to be open to develop a new view on a topic and to adapt one’s behavior.

Melanie Wahl

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