A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
OK, OK, Albert Heijn doesn’t always get the best rap. Probably one of the first things you’ll hear about the place is the wonderfully amateur youtube sensation ‘you’ll have a terrible time at Albert Heijn’, and your inclination for the place probably won’t increase from there. Sure, it’s a supermarket, and you’re thinking that by nature they’re not exactly the most inspiring of locations, but those of you who think that are clearly doing it wrong. Supermarket visits can be adventures my friends; I’m not saying good adventures per se, but adventures nonetheless. So if you thought your local Albert Heijn (there’s one on every street in Holland) was merely another place where pimply teenagers went to earn minimum wage to pay for… Dutch things… then think again! The Albert Heijn empire is so much bigger and more complex than you can even imagine bigger complexes could ever be! Introducing Albert Heijn XL…
I’m a functional supermarket shopper in Holland. I’m the kind of guy who walks into a place with a pretty good idea of what I want, and based on my implicit understanding of supermarkets, I can usually find my way around the aisles without too much hassle.
At the end of filling up my basket with stuff for a few night’s meals, replenishing breakfast supplies, and maybe enlisting some study-snack stroopwafels from the abusively-sized baked confectionery section, I’m usually on my way to the cash register within ten to fifteen minutes. Although the small trauma of queueing and then being rushed to get-your-items-into-a-bag-and-pay-at-the-same-time awaits me, I’m not altogether perturbed by this. I have my strategy; it’s taken time to perfect but it’s working. Fully paid and on my bike home from the supermarket, I often detect a mood of liberation in the air. Just think, I won’t have to come back for perhaps four or five days!
But this was before I knew that you could, infact, spend four or five days inside a supermarket, and not even make it to the fresh fruit and veg. Walking into Albert Heijn XL is perhaps most analogous to walking on a salt lake, alone, with a bright blue shopping basket, squinting into the distance for any signs of life. The vast, seemingly insurmountable expanse of grey-tiled flooring between aisles is only matched by the perilous heights to which the walls continue to rise, veritable cliffs of produce (when you find them), which no-one could ever hope to reach, no matter how tall and Dutch they may be. In this crazy labyrinth of packaging, there is a city of cheese manned by an army of sharply uniformed cheese-experts. There are moving mannequins of reindeers, out of season but ploughing on for the good of the economy. Just when you thought you had reached the end, there is a whole section for clothes and homewares! You find yourself cowering in the corner after an hour, unsure how to get out, like a trapped pigeon in the Herengracht kitchen.
It’s not enough to say that you feel small here, it’s more useful to suggest you get an educational understanding of the farcical meaningless of your existence. Albert Heijn, who is in effect an Orwellian Big Brother, provides you with self-scanning machines to track you and your budget as you shop; you’ll be relieved to know in real-time how many discounts you have made with your Albert Heijn discount card. This is matrix-style shopping, humans and goods are both completely reduced to numbers. The most pernicious trend? The growing Albert Heijn youth movement; replete with their own child-sized shopping trolleys. In the throes of a full-scale panic attack, I hurtled through this capitalist wilderness with ever-greening pallor. On payment, which seemed more like sacrificial ritual, I was presented with a toy wrapped in plastic, which turned out to be a plastic miniature cone of McKain’s french fries. I had sated Albert and received my reward. I was allowed to leave.
So here I am now, reflecting on the experience, knowing at some point I will have to go back for one reason or another. What should I do? How should I prepare? Maybe it will seem less harrowing a second time round. I survived, and maybe in a few weeks I will be accustomed to this form of shopping, and go in search of bigger and better supermarkets to conquer. But if I learned nothing more from this experience it is that behind every supermarket there is, in fact, a bigger supermarket, and that the more you try to fight it, the more it fights you back. That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger, and I feel the regular Albert Heijn now feels like a powder room compared with its gargantuan overseer. The lesson learned: stick to the street market in the centre: cheap, good, less psychological trauma. And while you’re there enjoying yourself over a coffee, think of me my friends, out in the badlands, gone in search of the mythical XXL.