“Can we bring you anything that you can’t get there?” is a common question our visitors from the UK ask. We usually spend a good ten minutes, both of us running through supermarket shelves in our minds’ eye, but almost always to no avail. Aside from the odd big pack of Yorkshire Tea bags, it would seem we want for nothing.
Does this mean we have become so acclimatised that we no longer dream about products from home? It is true that our habits have altered somewhat over the three years of living here, adapting to local trends and tastes: Nivea creams and cleansers fill our bathroom shelves; quark has become a family staple and these days a potato salad just isn’t quite right without a good share of gherkins. But I’m not sure that is really it: rather, being able to reel off such a short list of these examples seems to me testament to the fact that the vast majority of our consumption – edible and beyond – has remained pretty much the same. Our limited demands have less to do with acclimatisation and far more with globalisation and the ubiquity of internet shopping.
In these modern times, I can head to any large supermarket in Berlin and find a whole range of products from home: baked beans; white sliced bread; tomato ketchup; shortbread biscuits; a Cadbury’s cream egg. And for those more idiosyncratic British culinary inventions – Walkers crisps; pot noodles; Christmas pudding – I need only peruse the shelves of a large department store instead. The same is true viceversa, too. British supermarkets are awash with Stollen, Lebkuchen, and strongly spiced Wurst. So it would seem that people in developed, industrial nations have developed a taste for the exotic, and demand for international products is on the up and up.
You could say this striking availability of products is simply a capital city thing. Down the road to Oranienburg, you will once again be limited to Dr Oeteker pizzas, Erdnussflips and Spreewaelder Gurken. But even for those living more remotely, internet shopping with promises of international delivery and globally accepted credit cards, has transformed their consumer experience. From the comfort of my Berlin settee, though it could really be anywhere in Europe, I browse my favourite UK high-street clothes shop; stock my bookshelves with contemporary British fiction, and order vast supplies of Christmas treats from Marks & Spencer, all with one quick and simple click. I could even start ordering those Yorkshire Tea bags online, but it is nice to have something to ask friends to bring.
The trend also extends to our consumption of media. When I lived in Berlin as a student, nearly ten years ago now, I spent hours earnestly pouring over German newspapers, dictionary and vocabulary book in hand. Often, I would station myself in front of my flatmate’s TV for the evening news, which would sometimes, in passing, mention events in the UK. Once in a while, I would treat myself to an incredibly expensive Guardian newspaper and stretch it out over a week, only half-understanding unfolding political dramas and idling wistfully through London exhibition reviews.
Living here a second time round, now with my own laptop and internet connection but without those final university exams breathing down my neck making me anxious to be constantly improving my German, I lazily get my daily news fix from the Guardian online. In the evenings, I tend to watch the UK news on the computer (we still don’t have a telly). And so it is that I only half-understand German political dramas, if I am aware of them at all, but am fully informed on the goings on at Number 10 Downing Street. Though my length of stay this time is longer, I am not nearly so eager to be immersed.
From all of this it seems the expat experience is no more one of longing for home news and comforts: indeed, Amazon delivers within 24 hours and the BBC has a breaking news ticker, so anything close to longing is seriously curtailed. Though rather reassuring to know that you can get most things, almost anywhere, it could be that this gives expats fewer reasons to adapt their tastes to their new shores. If we newcomers can stick so reliably to what we know, I wonder what implications, if any, this has for the future merging of cultures.