In Zagreb, I do most of my grocery shopping in a Spar Supermarket on Vlaska Ulica, a few blocks from my apartment. As I mentioned in my previous post, this mundane activity allows me the perfect vantage point from which to view Croatian culture.
Grocery shopping in Croatia is weird. The people have no spacial awareness or consideration when navigating the aisles. Often while I pause to examine my options on a shelf, someone walks directly in front of me to peer even closer, almost as if I were invisible. Other customers walk into me with their carts. Not a casual bump; they actually walk into me unless I take the initiative to step aside. It would be funny if it weren’t so repetitive and strange.
The Croat consumers are also very pushy upon entering the check-out line. When it is my turn to approach the cashier, the person behind me often edges closer and closer until we are standing side by side at the check-out counter. Sometimes the person behind me clutches money, hand outstretched to pay before I have even begun paying.
The most interesting thing I have noticed is a strange kind of consumer competitiveness, which can probably be best described through examples. Once, I was looking at wall hooks in Mueller, a department/grocery store.
There were no other customers in this particular corner of the store, but it seemed that as soon as I paused to inspect my options, another girl appeared at my side, inspecting the very same items. She reached out to snatch a pack of wall hooks before quickly walking away. I would discount this as a coincidental need if the same situation did not recur: me standing in a relatively isolated part of the store, then suddenly another customer appears by my side with an interest in the exact same item.
I recall another example of this competitiveness while shopping in Spar.
One day as I approached the storefront, I noticed a woman stalled in the entrance, seemingly unsure of whether or not she wanted to enter. I swerved past her and began my shopping. The entrance of this particular Spar contains dairy products. I crouched in front of a refrigerated display and began looking at different brands of gouda and mozzarella. Not even thirty seconds after I passed this woman, she marched into the store and happened to have an exactly identical interest in the cheese I was inspecting. She edged closer and closer to me, competing for this particular section of cheese. I was forced to back away, giving her full reign. I waited for her to choose a cheese and leave before continuing my deliberation about gouda versus mozzarella. During this entire encounter, the woman never looked at me, never specifically acknowledged me as an opponent in her quest for groceries.
On a seperate occasion, I was looking for ranitidine in a pharmacy. I stood in line to ask the clerk, but I also happened to be in a position where I could thoroughly search a section of the store dedicated to indigestion. After a few minutes of shuffling through packets of acid reducer, the woman behind me in line suddenly developed a need for acid reducer as well. She edged closer behind me, and shuffled through the same packets I was considering. This was a relatively large display, and she reached for the same exact packet, the same exact medication amidst a sea of other ailments and options.
It’s almost as if the interest of another customer immediately assigns value to an item. And therefore, a valuable item must be fought over, must be acquired before there isn’t any left. My friend has intelligently pointed out that this may be a residue of Communism; this self-preservation in a society of lack. She also has hypothesized that this may be a result of looking foreign: maybe the Croats notice that I dress differently, and therefore they are curious about the items that a foreigner wants.
To my surprise, this behavior does not feel offensive or purposefully selfish. It simply feels deeply embedded and slightly oblivious, and it only makes me more curious about Croatia.