Mechanical

Foreign Shopping Adventures

Strangely enough, I had always felt a touch more culture shock in England because the little differences always crept up on me rather unexpectedly. Still, I'm getting a crash course reminder in just how difficult it was for me to adjust to Amsterdam the first time.

If you're a tourist, Amsterdam is wonderful. It's gorgeous, laid back, clean and friendly. If you live here, it's all of those things, plus food stores. Food stores are a trial. If you ever move to a country for which English is not the first language (or even an option), then you had better learn to cook. By cook, I don't mean opening a tin and heating the sludge inside. I mean learning to really cook. Tomatoes aren't just something to slice up for a hamburger or salad, they're an ingredient. This makes them more versatile for a few reasons:

  • Buying raw ingredients is cheaper
  • Buying raw ingredients means you have full control over what you're making
  • Buying raw ingredients means that tin of corned beef hash isn't actually Geriatric Kitty Food

Trust me, you want to learn how to cook. When you buy some broccoli, you know it's broccoli. When you buy a tin of something which looks like stew, it's a crapshoot.

Fortunately, I have a couple of advantages. First, Dutch is the language closest to English¹. Second, I speak a fair amount of French and many French words have crossed over into Dutch (and many foods are also marketed to Belgium, so it's often marked with French). Combine this with the knowledge of a few Dutch words and you really have an advantage in shopping. Case in point:

You might look at this picture and wonder what the hell "tonijn in zonnebloemolie" is, but it was pretty easy to figure out. First, you look at the can and you think about the word "tonijn" and the word "tuna" leaps to mind. Next, you see "bloem" in the last word and any foreigner with half a brain who visits Amsterdam will have it drilled into his/her head that "bloemen" means "flowers" (the "en" suffix is the Dutch plural). "Olie", of course, is "oil", so you have "tuna in zonne flower oil". Again, Dutch is incredibly close to English, so it really is this easy to work the meaning of many things in Dutch. However, sometimes you have to go a bit further. Shopping in Amsterdam
Shopping in Amsterdam This sign threw me for a moment, but I recognised that "ananas" is the French word for "pineapple". After that, I saw "stuk", which I know means "piece" (because you often see signs like "€1 per stuk"), but it's the "jes" at the end of "stuk" which took me a moment. It really doesn't have an analogue in English which I can think of, but it's a very useful suffix. It means "tiny" or "small". So the sign is announcing the price of chopped pineapple.

Moving along finds me typing this up while trying to make a spaghetti bolognese for Leïla, but struggling with ingredients. The spices are tijm, oregano, and basilicum, which isn't too bad. However, the rest is rode wijn, ui, knoflook, champignons, rundergehakt, zout, and peper. I think it will be OK, but even the most basic shopping is a brutal reminder that I truly have arrived in Europe in a way that I never could be in the UK.


1. Actually, you'll find Frisian to be the closest spoken language to English, but Dutch is the closest language which you've actually heard of.

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Dutch
is the closest language to Dr. Suess I have ever seen!

I speak fluent Italian supermarket after living there for three months! They wrap and label even the fresh produce, which is invaluable when trying to learn the names of things.
Even easier for German-speakers

Dutch is even closer to German, so pretty much all the words you mentioned were quite easy to understand. For "bloem", it's easy to remember that it's like "bloom", and what blooms? Flowers do! :)

As a side anecdote, for some reason up until the 60s or 70s people in Austria (and I've heard this about other countries as well) used to call strawberries "ananas". That was a time when pineapple was rather unknown around here. I remember as a small child being confused because "ananas" referred to two kinds of fruit...

Re: Even easier for German-speakers
It's also ananas in turkish ( possibly coming from french) and has funny usages in the slang. Also "Den Haag" is Lahey, again from french
Re: Even easier for German-speakers
(Anonymous)
The latin term for the most common strawberry variety is "Fragaria ananassa"
Look, don't read!
(Anonymous)
Having recently done grocery shopping in Tokyo, I can relate. However, for many ingredients, specially raw vegetables, all you need is to look. Thyme, oregano and basil can be recognized by sight, and so do onions, garlic, mushrooms, salt and pepper. Red wine is in the same bottles (and the same labels) as in France and the UK. Minced meat may be more difficult - not everyone will be able to distinguish between ground beef, ground pork, or half beef, half pork. But one wouldn't mistake an eggplant for minced meat.
It's even more fun when that foreign language has no connections to any western language, and doesn't use the roman alphabet! I love puzzling out languages like you've described, but when reading the can alone is a struggle, you either get really adventurous, just grabbing random shit off the shelf, or else just eat 참치 (tuna) a lot. :)
By the way, do you have any journal entries particularly about how to go about living and working in Korea by teaching English? I'd love to read more about that and either direct people there or repost some of that here.
This post totally wins. I love this stuff. For some reason, I could even piece together tuna, sunflower, oil, etc.

So 'jes' is like 'ito/ita' in Spanish?

This reminds me of my story of trying to find bleach in a Japanese supermarket. I can read Chinese, but there usually isn't enough of it on product labels in Japan for me to figure that out.

The toughest thing about Dutch for me thus far is where to make the syllable breaks. Zonnebloemolie looked to me like Zon nebloe molie, when it is (now) clearly Zonne bloem olie. That makes a huge difference!

Edited at 2010-10-28 08:55 pm (UTC)
-jes
(Anonymous)
When there's a -je ending in Dutch, it's baby talk. Take the word in English and make it sound like baby-talk:

stukjes would be "stukkies". Biertje? Beerie. Kopje? Cuppie. Huisje? Housie. Oobie doobie doo : )

And then there's the fact that when making a real word a baby word, you might be doing one of two things:
you might be making the thing cozy, small, comfortable, familiar, nice.

Or you're making fun of the thing in a patronising manner: small, unimportant, useless, worthless.

The good news? Everything that's been baby-ised has "het" as the definite article. You may not remember if it's de huis or het huis, but it's always het huisje. De bier, het bier? Het biertje. Similarly the plurals are always "de" so you can fake your way around def articles that way : )