Everywhere on earth has somewhere like Lidl
. It's the place near the welfare offices, where the poor people shop in small values for items that were bought in huge bulk. The place that wastes no time on ambience, customers, heating, even on shelving. A wooden pallet on the floor containing 500 tins of Polish corned beef is enough - the real attraction is the price.
The first time I went to Lidl, my mum took me, and I was surprised by how similar it is to shopping abroad. You know that disorientation you feel when not a single package in an entire aisle says anything you recognise, in the colours you're used to letting rest in your supermarket peripheral vision, or even any labels in your own language. Similar products, but with ever so slightly wrong names. I bought a packet of Jaffa cakes yesterday, only they were fairy-sized, in a pack, not a tube, and they were called Mini Orange Sponges.
This spring, I'd waited a few times in Lidl car park while the ex signed up for her UB40 at the council offices across the road. But I'd concentrated my energies then on posing with my new secondhand car, and seeing how many pikeys I could persuade to wink at me by wearing ever more revealing outfits. This is not at all the same thing as Shopping at Lidl.
So, shattered after a two hour detour through the wrong Thames tunnel, last night I decided to break my commute at Limehouse Lidl, in the hopes of buying some Germanic looking crap. Germans do Christmas food well, don't they?
The first thing that hit me was the clinging, uncared for damp smell. This is like walking into Iceland a day after they switch the freezers off.
The second was: no shelves. Lidl will dump the packing box on a crate on the floor, saw off the top and bung a price sticker on. Bish bosh. No arranging of the organic pasta sauces so the labels face outwards.
Then the lack of organisational theme: summer flip flops next to battered Advent calendars, next to alien breakfast cereals that feature unfamiliar cartoon monkeys, next to Swiss cheeses. Of course I say a lack of theme, but whoever placed the lighter fuel alongside the cheap bottles of Schnapps must have had some sense of humour.
I hadn't leapt back in horror at the size and texture of a fat uncooked Bratwurst for a good twelve months, so there was a welcome sensation. Some of the less exotic products did attempt to translate themselves for the uninitiated - just as whenever I go to France in winter I get reminded that truly no lie, the rosbifs
love to eat rotted food each Christmas (mince pies? plum pudding?
), so the mince pies here had helpful subtitles: pastry cases with mincemeat inside. I dunno, still sounds a little rotted to me.
Clutching my stack of comestibles (mini orange sponges, apples in metric weights, Magenbrot and bon-bons mit sahne), I queued with the other plebs. And queued. And queued.
Because at Lidl, there's only ever two people on checkout, and they can take all the time they want to, knowing full well there's nowhere else you can go if you don't like it. Even Kwik-Save is pricier. Inching past the special offer Stollen, marzipan fancies and other utterly non-english sweetbreads, I began to notice the unhealthy pallor of my fellow shoppers. The way a cut glass accent sounded wrong. How many people were clutching multi-packs of Eastern European branded lager. People in thin looking unbranded clothing, with acne, rosacea, and pinched expressions.
I once rented a flat in Berlin, during reunification, and the interminable queues at Lidl made me recall being poor and going over to the East in order to feel richer for a day; before the border controls dropped entirely, and during a particularly cash-strapped spell. In West Berlin I was just a hick Britisher with crappy German, who used to get spat at on the U-Bahn if I spoke too loudly in English, and wore the wrong fashions (white instead of black - horrors!) (Christ, I loathe Berlin, but that's another story
...) Behind the Iron Curtain, I was suddenly transformed into rich decadent Westerner. I minced up to the largest department store, where elaborately made up, grandiose assistants gave you a chit that allowed you to approach the one single triangular stack of tinned fish in the store. I followed the shopping spree with a trip to the restaurant of the most expensive hotel I could find, and stuffed myself with the finest bacon, eggs, cold gravy and lumpy mash, because that's the most expensive thing they served. From that point on, I decided not to glory in my wealth, but to stick to feasting on fried chicken in Kreuzberg. Brrrr.
Back in Limehouse, fourteen years later, as I paid for my wares (in cash - coins - putting your food on Visa as I'd normally do seemed to express a wanton and unseemly frivolity), I was interrupted by boozer number six in the queue returning to quibble about his 50 pee money off coupons. I left the change and got out of there.
Perhaps I should buy a cheaper flat, something that still allows me enough money to shop in a place that sells Clementines.