That time an old lady scolded me at the store

Patience seems to be wearing thin here in Berlin.

It’s Saturday morning. The farmer's market is in full swing outside of our apartment––a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it’s truly a phenomenal thing to have right outside of our door but a curse because it draws more people than we’d like during a pandemic. So we don’t patronize the market as much as we’d like and cut through to the corner grocery.

We walk in and I grab a basket. It would’ve been mandatory even if we didn’t need it. Most German stores use shopping carts and baskets to keep track of how many customers are in the store. I’d long gotten over trying to just sneak in without the basket––Handkorb––to grab a couple of things before getting a stern talking-to from an employee. The weight of the rules broke my back and I got in line.

So I’m surprised when an older woman behind me calls my attention while standing in line for the cashier. I couldn’t understand her––not an uncommon thing in the era of the masks.

“Sorry?” I say with German pronunciation. “Zor-ree?”

“You need a basket,” she replies in broken English. This instantly enrages me, the frequent assumption that I don’t speak German just because I don’t immediately understand the stranger I didn’t know was talking to me.

“I have one,” I said, in German, pointing to my blue basket full of groceries.

“She needs one, too,” she says, pointing to my wife, Melanie. “There are rules put in place that we all have to follow!” That’s when I realize what she’s doing. She’s getting us on a technicality.

Enforcing rules on strangers is something of a German pass time. It’s the American equivalent of alienating relatives by reiterating verbatim the latest Fox News talking point. It’s happened enough to me that I can’t blow it off as a lazy stereotype.

“Thanks but there’s not that many people here this morning,” I say, turning back to the front of the line. She scoffs, probably because we’re in a rather long line, somewhat negating my point. But that’s because there’s only one cashier working. Had I not been instantly enraged by the pointless rule-shaming (what was she expecting to get out of the interaction? That my wife return to the front of the store, grab an empty basket, and rejoin me in line?), I would’ve thought of something better to say. I wanted to say, “Ah, I see. Honest mistake. It didn’t occur to us to grab a second, empty basket. None of the employees said anything either. I’m sure we’ve all accidentally broken rules at some point in the pandemic, yourself included. Have a nice day.”

Instead, I switch lines when another cashier opens up and start putting our groceries on the conveyor belt. Melanie goes to the ATM at the front of the store, which doesn’t require holding onto an empty basket. Now we’re following the rules again. But then I see the old woman talking to a store employee and pointing at me.

I wish I had a blueprint of the grocery store I could share with you to illustrate this as best as possible. But based on where this woman is talking to the employee, she clearly turned around with her cart full of groceries, marched down the aisle away from the cash registers, turned back down another aisle stretching about the length of the store––an aisle that doesn’t lead to a cash register––all to tell on me.

Fortunately, the employee doesn’t even look my way, shrugs, and points to the other end of the store, and walks by the lady. I checkout, wave and wish her a nice day, and head home, fuming more than I would like. Of all the things going on in the world, that’s the thing a stranger decided to care about at that moment.

In the end, this kind of stuff doesn’t happen that often. More than anywhere else I’ve lived, but it’s not like we’re constantly being reminded of the rules. On the whole, most people are pretty chill. I know this because our dog, Moses, turns into a small, furry demon whenever we run into a neighbor within our apartment building. (Also known as, his territory.) They don’t lecture us about how to train him (though come to think of it, one neighbor who’s since left did text me unsolicited tips) and generally laugh it off.

But I think tensions are running unusually high. Because a little over a week later, I’m in line at the same store. The woman ahead of me looks over at an employee between us stocking up a wall.

“Please put your mask over your nose,” she says in a uniquely German tone that I can only describe as “I caught you breaking a rule, feel shame, and correct it.”

The guy, early 60s I guess, grumbles something that I can’t make out. But she does and is not a fan.

“I’ll call the police or the Ordnungsamt,” she threatens. (The Ordnungsamt is basically an ‘order police’ that hands out parking tickets and tells people to turn down their music. They’re ornery seniors with a uniform.) “Employees have to wear their masks just as the customers do.”

“It slipped off my nose,” he says, adjusting it. Another older man behind me grumbles something as well. There’s a lot of grumbling and quick-hitting anger going on. But the situation quickly deescalates. It’s not like the US where these things can quickly rage into screaming fights. There’s just a recitation of the rules, some shaming, and at worst some light threatening. That’s it.

This is all to say, I’m glad that Germany announced today that they’ll start letting anyone who wants to get a vaccine get one by June. Once this pandemic is over, I imagine there’ll be a collective unclenching of the buttcheeks the likes of which history has never seen.


What I’m reading, watching, listening to

After finishing Pasta, Pane, Vino: Deep Travels Through Italy's Food Culture by Matt Goulding, I’ve gone back to Born To Kvetch. It’s a fun history on Yiddish by Michael Wex. I’m finishing up my, I think, fourth viewing of The West Wing, and burning through Brockmire. I recommend them all wholeheartedly.

Where I’m published

It’s been a busy publishing week for me. I’ve got two new recipes up at The Nosher––Haluski (pasta, onions, and cabbage) and Aranygaluska, a Hungarian coffee cake I recently learned my great-grandmother, Bertha Stern, made for my father when he lived with his grandparents growing up. I also did a quick write-up on a new album, “Ghetto Songs,” for Alma and my story on Isabel Frey, a Yiddishist turned politician in Vienna, published with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

I’ve also started making some cooking videos, geared toward people like me from a few years ago when I thought I couldn’t cook. I started off with this veggie burrito, the one that got me started in the kitchen and just followed it up with haluski.


That’s it this week! If you think these missives would be mildly interesting to anyone else, feel free to send it their way.

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