Friday, June 18, 2010

Land of Milk and Honey

There is now a supermarket on every corner in Oslo. Well ok, I am exaggerating a bit, but it seems like that. ICA, Rimi, Rema 1000, Kiwi, Spar, Meny, Joker, Bunnpris and Coop are the major supermarket chains, and within each chain there are stores of different sizes that are appropriately named--Mini (small), Maxi (large), Mega (very large) and Nær (Near, as opposed to Far, but there are no supermarkets named Fjern or Langt borte (means ‘far’) and so on. So not only do we have all of the different supermarket chains, we also have ICA-Maxis, ICA-Nærs and Coop-Megas. There are easily eight supermarkets within walking distance of our co-op complex--Joker, Bunnpris, two Rema 1000s; ICA, ICA-Nær, Meny and Kiwi. And if you don’t feel like walking the 5 to 10 minutes it takes to get to them, you can also call them and ask them to deliver or you can go online and order from them over the internet.

This is quite different from the situation I found myself in when I first moved to Oslo. There was one major supermarket and it was about a 30-minute walk from our home and a 10-minute drive by car. It was called Arena Mat (translated as Arena Food) and it was a big deal to go and shop there, at least for me. It was not a very large store compared to the enormous Pathmark stores I used to frequent in Yonkers and New Jersey. Because like many other European countries, most people did their food shopping at the small neighborhood daily stores, which sold bread, milk, vegetables, fruit, cigarettes and beer and not much more. It was a much simpler existence, often a bit frustrating but nevertheless simpler. Most of those stores are gone now, overtaken by the larger supermarkets. The small daily stores that are left are struggling to survive.

Our trips to Arena Mat were always fruitful. I would come home with a big bottle of Heinz ketchup or Hellman’s mayonnaise (American products were like a magnet for me) and it felt like I had won the lottery. If I found Tropicana orange juice or Campbell’s mushroom soup, I was also happy. It wasn’t that the Norwegian equivalents were bad products (if you could in fact find equivalents); it was just that feeling of seeing products that reminded me of home. It was comforting to see them and to know that they had made their way to other countries and that one of those countries was Norway. Arena Mat evolved into another supermarket after some years, bought out by the larger supermarket conglomerates that have sprung up. The families that started these newer chains became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. But that was the 1990s. A lot of people became wealthy during the 1990s. It was a global phenomenon. Norway was the land of milk and honey then. Oil flowed and money flowed and while the oil is still flowing anno 2010, the rivers of money are slowly drying up, thanks to the politicians who are now stepping in to cut (where they can) the social programs and healthcare programs and all the other fringe benefits that a socialist democratic country enjoys. But the supermarket chains continue to spring up on each corner, along with the Deli De Luca convenience stores that overtook the Seven-11 stores (also one of my favorites during the 1990s--they sold Snapple drinks and Haagen Daaz ice cream and every now and then American candy like Milky Way bars). I have to wonder how they’re all managing to make a good living, but I imagine that time will give us that answer. In the meantime we are being exponentially inundated with the same products in spite of the diversity of supermarket choice, because the one thing the multiple supermarket chains have not managed to give us is diversity of choice when it comes to food products. That type of diversity these days is found in the few remaining daily food stores that are struggling to survive. The question is whether they will survive in the land of milk and honey.

1 comment:

  1. It is very sad that the local daily markets are dying under the weight of factory food. It is one of the things I have always loved about Europe - the specialized small markets where I could get fresh, non-factory food. They were ubiquitous in spain last time I was there, but it has been awhile. They also survive in Rome, and somewhat in Amsterdam. When I was in Copenhagen, there were several in the neighborhood. Of course, here in Portland, the closest thing we have are the local chains of organic food, and the farmers markets, which only run on the weekends. There are also community farms which will allow you to pick up seasonal baskets of produce every week. But it is not very convenient. Needless to say, I think the problem of mono-culture food chains, serving up factory delights, is a global problem.