Well, when I first came to Geneva in the late seventies, grocery shopping was an awkward, embarrassing, socially and emotionally dense business.
We lived in a village on the lake and the general store was on the corner just below the church and the old castle tower. It closed at mid-day of course, so you had all morning to prepare your list and practise pronouncing the slippery French words. By the time 3 o’clock afternoon opening rolled around, you were a bundle of nerves, shaky and blotchy. Your list had turned into a scummy ball of grey mush. You were going to blow it. Again.
It was a one-woman show, and the lady behind the counter and in front of her meat-slicing machine and her out-sized basket of baked goods and her tins of tuna and bags of pasta had the understanding and the grace of a dragon in a cave guarding its hoard of gold. There was self-service nothing, and the array behind the carefully-coiffed head was so intricate and tightly-packed that you could not get away with pointing and mumbling.
She spoke not a word of English, and I recall the worst thing being her constant use of “ça va?” Not understanding what THAT meant, the question was more than moot. It became a linguistic and intellectual red-hot poker of shame.
If things got complicated and she started playing with my mind by asking about the thickness of the ham slices or the weight of the butter package I wanted, a quiet line of villagers, armed with wicker baskets, would materialize behind me.
Leaving was also traumatic as she often insisted on the correct change. Fifteen was my worst number and I still don’t like to use it or think about it much.
Today, some forty years later, I visited my suburban supermarket where the shopping experience has become a sad and empty affair. This morning there was only one human cashier (with a huge queue snaking up to her through the shampoo aisle). She looked frazzled.
There were, though, eight automatic scanning machines. They looked plastic and hygienic.
At one cramped, beeping machine, I methodically scanned each of my precious items and was watched carefully by an ex-cashier now turned shopping trolley cop. Not a word was spoken as I searched for the barcodes and filled my two shopping bags. I was doing her job. Slowly and badly.
When the process was finished, she wandered away from her observation post and I received a screen message that a store person had to verify my purchases.
Called back, wordlessly with not even a grunt, she flicked her magic tag in front of the machine. Not a single murmur of praise about my masterful shopping or the clever choice of German asparagus or the lovely bit of fish. No questions about the Chinese 5-spice jar or the chopped pistachios.
Not a single “ça va?”