Expat Shopping

Expat Shopping
I’ve been here long enough that day-to-day life feels pretty normal and I don’t notice most of the differences. Yet occasionally I’m reminded of my multi-culture lifestyle. Today was one of those days.

The weather was nice, after a day of rain yesterday, and I wanted to get out and enjoy it. We decided to head to the Vredenburg market to pick up ingredients for dinner tonight and stop off at a few other shops along the way. First up was Hema, which can be a bit like Target in that you go in for one thing and come out with a whole bag of other things. It didn’t help that they were having a “vrijmarkt” sale this weekend, with lots of items marked down. I went in for a T-shirt to wear on Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day) this week and came out with a new shower puff, a purple sweater, and the T-shirt (seen above with the crown print on it). I actually got out pretty light, all things considered!

After dodging the numerous people that hang out in one spot on Steenweg trying to get you to answer various surveys, we headed to the Centraal Toko, because that’s another shop I can’t resist going in when I’m there. It’s an Asian market with a nice selection of items that aren’t so easy to find in the normal grocery stores, including good ol’ Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, which I stocked up on, just because. We also picked up another bottle of Sriracha sauce, since we were getting low. I also picked up a can of Del Monte creamed corn, because that’s also a “foreign” food and I get a craving for it occasionally and can’t be bothered to make my own. You know you’re an expat when something like a can of creamed corn is a special treat.

However, the big find was a jar of molasses!!!! I had used the last of my jar of Grandma’s Molasses late last year and had been dreading going to the expat food store on Steenweg to buy more, because their prices are so expensive. They charge twice the amount the toko does for baking soda. A can of Libby’s canned pumpkin cost me more than €6 a number of years ago. I don’t use molasses often; in fact, I probably only use it to make my own bbq sauce, but the sauce just isn’t right without it.

When I see something pleasantly unexpected, I have a habit of somewhat loudly saying, “OH!!” I’m not snobby about what excites me. It can be a church in Mantova designed by Alberti or a bottle of black strap molasses on a bottom shelf of a store in Utrecht. G teases me about it regularly. But sometimes you just can’t contain your joy over a happy surprise!

After also purchasing some ras el-hanout spice blend, some ground cumin, and some spring roll/loempia wrappers, we headed next door to Blokker, another shop with a mix of odds and ends, mainly of the household variety. We went in to look at their food processors, since ours broke a while back, but before we made it that far, we were stopped by the collection of knick-knacks commemorating Queen Beatrix standing down and Prince Willem-Alexander taking the throne. It happens on 30 April, which is also Queen’s Day, a public holiday, so we figured we’d get a little something to commemorate the day. After all, how often do you get to experience a royal change of crowns. We were tempted by the kabouter/gnome, but decided to just go with the more useful placemats (seen in the photo) and we bought some matching coffee mugs, just for the fun of it. They were all 99 cents each, so hardly a big splurge. Still, a fun and useful way to remember the event.

By that point, we figured we’d better get out of there before we bought more silly stuff, so off we finally went to the outdoor market held every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. We picked up some shrimp for dinner tonight and I bought a big bag full of okra for dinner tomorrow or Monday. The toko carries okra, but the stall at the market has better stuff and for less, along with a number of other vegetables that are harder to find here. We were just about out of the market when we heard one of the vendors hawking his fresh strawberries. One more inexpensive impulse purchase and we were done, heading to the grocery store for a few odds and ends we couldn’t get at the market.

So that’s typical expat shopping. We embrace our new life here, buying items for the upcoming Dutch holiday, while also remembering favorite traditions and foods from home, be it America or Italy. With the sun shining and a good mood, it’s a fun way to shop and be reminded of how lucky we are to be able to broaden our horizons.

Adventures in Grocery Shopping

This afternoon around 1 p.m., I decided to head out to the grocery store to pick up the one or two small ingredients I needed for dinner tonight. I thought since I needed so little, I’d just head to the little grocers down the street from us. Then I got there. There was a line of high school students out the door. I forgot that they all converge on the various grocery stores at that time of day.

There was no way I was going to deal with that crowd just for a few tiny items, so I turned around and debated heading home and waiting, or just going ahead to one of the regular grocery stores since I was already out. I decided on the latter, and headed to Plus on Voorstraat. The store has undergone a makeover and reopened recently. I hadn’t been in since the renovation, but had seen a glimpse of the new inside yesterday. As I approached, I started to wonder if it was actually open, since there was a large dumpster standing where the entrance used to be. Fortunately, I saw a couple of students approach the same spot and then turn around and say something about the new entrance. Aha! I guess students are useful for some things. I looked a bit further down the street and there it was, the grand new door!

As soon as I walked in, I could tell they’d done quite a bit of work. It was all a bit fancier — certainly fancier than it had been in the past — and they even had a section that seemed to offer take-away food of some sort, staffed by actual people! What used to be the liquor store section has been turned into a small dining area. The lighting is much more ambient, otherwise known as not so glaringly fluorescent. The shelves are all a bit nicer and everything looks a bit less dusty than it did in the past.

That particular branch of Plus has always been a bit hit-or-miss with me. On one hand, they do sometimes have a few of the more interesting ingredients, including dried lentils and premade pizza crusts, not to mention a decent selection of different types of nuts. On the other hand, there was sometimes an odd smell inside, and stuff really was kind of dusty. The new design of the store definitely makes it more appealing to me and in some ways, it seems more like the grocery stores I was used to in the US, with a wider selection of both food items as well as kitchen items. They now have some simple pots and pans, even! They also have a few small sewing items, as well as some simple tools and things for your bike. It’s not the kind of stuff you necessarily need all the time, but I always appreciated being able to get some of these smaller items as I was doing my normal grocery shopping, rather than having to go to a different store. [To be fair, if you go to the Albert Heijn XL stores, they have all of this kind of stuff and more, but when you live in the city center, you don’t go all the way out to AH XL very often. It’s nice having this kind of stuff local.]

As in the past, Plus also has a few items that some expats may be happy to find. I saw two types of marshmallow fluff, as well as regular marshmallows (white and colors), along with yellow mustard, boxed mac and cheese, peanut butter, and Duncan Hines cake mix. Sadly, no ranch dressing, but they did have some Reece’s Peanut Butter cups and I treated myself to one, since that’s what we usually bought in the US to give out on Halloween. It may be a day late, but it’s still going to be enjoyed! They also stock multiple types of maple syrup, although I noticed the ones in the organic section all cost around €7,75 a bottle (I think that’s around US$10). I think some of the other “foreign” foods were also still pricier than I remember them ever being when they were “domestic” foods. It’s a good thing the Reece’s were the only thing I really wanted or am likely to buy often. Most of the other stuff on offer is stuff that I didn’t buy very often in the US, either.

I’m not sure about their new check-out counters; it seems a bit cramped and awkward now that there’s no more conveyor belt and only one small counter spot for two check-outs. Otherwise, I’m kind of digging the new Plus. I might have to give them another try when I’m doing regular shopping and see how their selection stands up.

[I’m pretty sure this post is one of the more banal ones I’ve ever written, but for fellow expats and those living near enough to Voorstraat to do some shopping, it might be of some use or interest. Now excuse me while I go have a peanut butter cup with my afternoon coffee.]