Cultural Lessons Gleaned In a Grocery Store

Van Stolkpark Lake on Adventures in Expat Land

This morning Husband and I decided to take advantage of the glorious autumn weather by taking Oli on a long walk through nearby woods.

The sun is out, the air is crisp, people are out walking, jogging and cycling; it’s an all-around gorgeous October day.


Lake in Van Stolkpark from the Back www.adventuresinexpatland.com

After an hour of hiking through the wooded parkland, meandering along canals and climbing up and down a couple of the only hills in The Hague, we headed home.

As we rounded the corner of our little street, it dawned on me that I ought to get my errands out of the way. Daughter is returning this evening from a school service trip to Thailand and I leave early tomorrow morning to spend the entire day at an international fair in Amsterdam, so I decided to set off to the Albert Heijn for groceries.

Better to pick up what we need to get us through the next couple days than face the wrath of a seriously jet-lagged teenager facing peanut butter deprivation. I’m just saying.

Now I’ve written about my beloved Albert Heijn grocery store before. Several times, in fact. (When I did a search on my own site, even I was astonished!) I know I’ve mentioned it before, but never realized how often. My favorites include this beauty on Filet Americain and of course my ode to the store assistant manager

Given the limited size of my refrigerator and pantry storage area, I tend to shop the European way, meaning almost daily. I’ve come to find that find spending time in an AH is an exercise in observing a microcosm of Dutch life.

So no surprise that today I was gifted with yet another lesson in the difference between Americans and the Dutch.

As I was selecting a cash register line to check out, I heard a voice on the store announcement system. Squinting my eyes to help me focus on listening to the subsequent message delivered in Dutch (trust me, it really does work), I recognized enough to grasp that there was a problem with the pin-code payment system.

As I turned back toward the elderly gentleman ahead of me in line, I saw above our heads a small sign obviously typed on a computer and printed out; from what I could gather, the pin-code system was out for the entire store.

The Dutch use a debit pin card with personal code tied directly to their checking account for nearly all payments, ranging from a 1€ kopje koffie to a 6€ parking fee to 20€ for groceries all the way up to a several hundred € furniture purchase.

It is accepted virtually everywhere, in small shops and large department stores, and everything in between. It’s even used to pay your bills securely online, in concert with a handheld security identifier gadget you receive from your bank.

The pin card is akin to the American combination debit/ATM cash withdrawal card, only its use is even more prevalent throughout Dutch society. Whereas Americans might have a combination credit/ATM card, the Dutch keep their credit cards entirely separate.

In fact, they tend not to use credit cards unless for very large purchases such as expensive air line tickets, home appliances, and the like. All in keeping with their ‘living within your budget’ approach to personal banking; imagine, the concept of not spending what you don’t have!

In the 2 1/2 years I’ve been here I’ve only witnessed someone using a credit card to pay for groceries twice, and both times they were foreign. Probably either just visiting or new to The Netherlands and not yet in possession of their own pin card.

But I digress…

My eyes darted quickly to our cashier completing the payment transaction with a customer who was indeed paying with cash.

A complete left-right head swivel confirmed that the little signs were dangling above each of the check-lines. Our fate was sealed when I verified with the man ahead of me that we couldn’t pin anywhere in the store. Nee, een systeem storing, he replied calmly, indicating a system malfunction.

So that was that. It was cash or nothing.

You couldn’t whip out your checkbook and write a check because they don’t exist here: too antiquated.

Stuck in a long and ever-growing checkout line, I anxiously checked my wallet for cash. Given the ubiquitous nature of the pin card, I rarely pay with cash. Fortunately, I had withdrawn a larger amount of Euros than usual a couple days earlier before I picked up Oli from his recent stay at the dog kennel, so I was set.

As I bagged my groceries (yet another difference from the US), I looked around. The people in the checkout lines appeared nonchalant, as did the eight people waiting patiently in line to use the lone ATM cash machine in the store lobby.

No one appeared perturbed or irritated. No one was complaining to their neighbors in line, or bitching to the store manager on duty. No one left their shopping basket or cart, frustrated or huffing off in disgust.

They just continued about their way picking up their daily groceries, prepared to pay the small amounts in cash.

Talk about crossing cultures…


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