On an evening spent at home, at the beginning of my stay in Berlin, I felt like eating something sweet. As I had nothing decadent enough at home, I decided to pop to the nearest Späti to buy a chocolate bar. The Späti, or in its complete formulation, Die Spätkauf, is a kind of convenience store in Berlin that stays open out of hours.
On the way there, I took the time to make a phone call. I entered Späti while still on the phone and was taking time to choose the chocolate I wanted. At one point the gentleman behind the counter started to speak at me angerly, and with gestures seemed to send me out and finish the call on the street. I interrupted the call and exchanged a few unsavoury words with him, before leaving the shop with my chocolate because I had no alternative place to buy it at that time in the evening.
When I got home and told my German co-inhabitants what happened, the answer I got from them was that my attitude had been disrespectful, as “in Germany, people behind the counter want to be treated as people” and not ignored, as was the case. I realized that even though I said a distracted and perhaps barely audible hallo! when I entered the shop, having been on the phone all the time without trying to make a casual conversation with the Späti’s attendant, had been an attitude that was beyond impolite, too impersonal for what would be expected in this context. My idea that anonymity and impersonality would be normal in a city the size of Berlin turned out to be unmistakably wrong.
The Späti is a convenience store where we can buy newspapers and magazines, the lottery, the occasional soda or beer, a packaged snack, or collect our DHL parcels. Both the store itself, and the person behind the counter – who usually owns the store -, are viewed as a neighbourhood institution.
Going back to that night, as I continued my account about the unpleasant exchange of words between the Späti and myself, one of my interlocutors stared at me with some shock and disbelief, as if I had committed heresy and said “oh no, you don’t want to mess with the Späti”, further proving the symbolic power of this institution in Berlin society.
I have observed that, despite being a big city, Berlin has in its neighbourhoods the centre of the daily life of its inhabitants. One of the things that stands out when strolling through the various districts of Berlin is that there is no clear separation between residential, work, shopping and leisure areas. I have also been observing in the neighbourhood where I live that the street remains dynamic throughout the day, animated whether by traditional commerce and small businesses or by the infrastructure that enables people not to have to move far from building where they live to carry on with daily life in all of its dimensions.
The interaction between neighbours in public space is constant. The green spaces mark the urban landscape. In gardens and parks, people sit and talk while sipping a beer bottle or sharing a bottle of wine; birthday parties and barbecues take place on the lawns among larger and noisier groups. Playgrounds with swings and a sand area, spot every corner, and are the meeting place for parents and young children: children play barefoot with shovels and buckets in the sand while parents sitting on benches or the floor talk to each other while watching over the children. The pavement outside the ice cream parlours are also popular places for parents and children to hang out.
Another traditional area of the neighbourhood is the bakery, in German Bäckerei. This is where one buys bread and rolls daily. The bakery also sells a variety of cakes – slices or the entire thing -, serves coffee, juices, and quick meals for breakfast, such as eggs and sausage. Essential goods that a Berlin home cannot miss, such as eggs, milk or butter are also available. There are less traditional, more gourmet bakeries in more affluent or gentrified neighbourhoods, which announce the sale of the fashionable sourdough bread, the use of organic ingredients, and offer the same kind of small meals as traditional bakeries, but made with rarer and more expensive ingredients such as avocado
The neighbourhood shopping network also includes the pharmacy, pubs selling drinks and the occasional schnitzel, cafés where small groups can be found enjoying their Kaffee und Kuchen, small restaurants and hairdressers… This network seems to be highly valued by both older and younger residents, both Germans and foreigners. The attendants, who often own the business, exchange greetings and short but friendly conversations with customers. These exchanges are a good source of neighbourhood news.
Leaving the heart of the neighbourhood, in only a few minutes we can reach one of the main arteries of the district, whatever is the district, where commerce gains another dimension. These busiest streets and avenues are what the British call the high street. There we find the drugstore, a reference in everyday shopping in Berlin. DM and Rossman are the most well-known drugstore chains. There is at least one – oftentimes more – in every main street. There, toiletries and household items can be bought. There is also the make-up section, photo development section, an area for baby clothing and other baby articles, and a section with some organic packaged goods such as biscuit, cereals spices, teas and sauces, usually cheaper than in organic supermarkets.
The supermarkets are also located on the high street. With or without car parking facilities, the truth is that walking or cycling is privileged in Berlin, because in this continuity between residential and shopping areas, the distances are never long. The types of supermarkets are varied: from discounters like Netto, Penny, Aldi or Lidl, to the more regular ones like Edeka, Rewe or Kaufland. With hygiene products purchased at the drugstore, grocery shopping in supermarkets is usually limited to food items.
The already traditional Turkish supermarkets, located in both residential and main arteries, usually have a colourfull and attractive fruit and vegetable stand outside. Inside, products from the Middle East, fresh bread spreads, and thick Turkish yoghurt, along with fruits and vegetables, attract non-Arab clients.
Organic supermarkets can also be of a smaller size in the heart of neighbourhoods, or they may belong to a chain, and these are usually located in the high street. The best-known chains are Bio Company, Denn’s, Alnatura or LPG. In these supermarkets, fruits and vegetables are privileged by buyers, as well as dairy products and eggs, not only because they are of biological origin, but also because there are regional and local options available.
It has been interesting to observe and talk with our participants about how this neighbourhood and shopping culture and dynamics influence the consumption habits of Portuguese migrants in Berlin. So, to learn more about this, stay tuned to TRANSITS.
Until next time!