Some Notes on the Experiences of Travelling
2: Capitalism, part one

You never notice certain things until you leave for a while. An example: I live in a fairly typical (I think) small town in the Midwest. It's got a population of about 30,000 and it is right up against (borders touching) another town with a population of about 60,000. In the immediate vicinity of my house, say five minutes driving, there are:

Fairly conventional list, I'd say. OK, maybe you don't live quite as close to the Mall as I do, but I'm betting this isn't raising any eyebrows. All of these places are open until sometime in the evening, early or late depending on the owner's wishes. A few, such as Wal-Mart, the convenience stores, and one of the grocery stores are open 24 hours. If I wake up at 3 a.m. and for some perverse reason I have a sudden need for a bottle of OJ and a jar of peanut butter, I can go get that. My wife has a nagging cough and I need to go get her cough syrup so we can sleep at night, I can go get that. While in the process of preparing dinner we suddenly discover we're out of ginger (and you've got to have ginger, man!) I can rush to the store and get that too. You get my point.

Well, that isn't necessarily so in other parts of the world. As I mentioned in a previous essay, we did spend a couple days in Germany. Specifically, we arrived Friday afternoon and left Sunday morning. We stayed in a little part of Berlin called Spandau. Gorgeous area. Cobblestone streets, lots of little shops, and an outdoor market in a little square, right around the corner from the hotel.

My wife loves Germany and Berlin. She spent a year there as an exchange student when she was in high school and had been dying to go back. She's fluent in German, and had plans to act as our native guide in the area. Well, as I'd mentioned early, the Black Plague swept through the party. By the time we'd made it from the train station through the subway to the hotel, she got ill. As in, "can't take a breath of any kind without having a violent coughing fit." She made it to dinner, but afterwards when the rest of the party wanted to walk around and explore, she had to go back to the hotel. Shortly thereafter, she sent me out for cough syrup, cough drops, and bottled water (you can't get water in Europe. They guard it like gold. No water fountains, and you can't get it in a restaurant without asking).

So out I went. As I said, this area was filled with shops. I found a drugstore where the pharmacist spoke English and got the cough syrup (Wick Formel 44. Very strange.), found a small grocery and bought the water, then ended up in Woolworth's and purchased cough drops. Eucalyptus flavored, right in the candy aisle. Everything was in German (which I can't read), but I finally decided on these because they had a little cross on the individual wrappings. So, I take this and get it all back to the hotel. By the time I finished with all this it was about 6 o'clock. The market was closing up shop. I dropped off the stuff, got Lisa medicated, then went back out to look around some.

I wandered around for a while, then noticed the stores closing up around seven. No biggie. I met up with some of the rest of the party, and went and had a drink. Lots of pubs around.

Saturday Lisa pulled it together to guide us to some of the sights (Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, and a couple others). By three thirty she'd become fatigued, as well a few other folks in the group who were also sick, so we headed back. Made it back to the hotel by four. Lisa's out of water, so she asks me to go get some more. So out I go.

And had no luck at all. Everything closed at four. Let me make that explicitly clear: everything, the pharmacist, the grocery stores, the department stores, everything closed at four. In the afternoon. On a Saturday. And furthermore, they wouldn't reopen until Monday. I'm standing in one of the major cities on the European Continent, and I can't find a place to buy a blasted four-mark bottle of water.

On the other hand, I did find out that all the restaurants were open. And all the pubs were open 24 hours. Priorities, people. So what could I do? I found a Burger King, the sign on the door proudly stating that they were open until 1 a.m. every night. The place was packed. Young, old, everybody was there (did you know you can buy beer at Burger King in Germany? but that's a different essay). I bought the biggest damn Sprite I could and brought it back to Lisa. It worked. She felt better, we watched a little Leno on one of the English-speaking channels on the TV and went to sleep.

But this experience did leave some unanswered questions. What do the Germans do when they run out of ginger when fixing stir-fry on Saturday, or they when need to buy a bottle of cough syrup, or when they suddenly develop a hankering for double fudge ice cream at 2 a.m.? I don't understand. Are there not enough people to work these late hours? Berlin has a population of 3.5 million. I live in a town of 30,000 and we can keep a grocery store open 24 hours. Why not in Berlin? How is this possible? Why is this possible? Are there not enough young, poor people willing to work bizarre hours available to fill such jobs? Is this a deliberate lifestyle choice? Is there not enough demand on the part of the public for later hours? What's the deal?

Perhaps what it comes down to is that Americans are lazy. No, not lazy. Unwilling. Unwilling to plan ahead, to check and see if they need anything for dinner, if they're feeling like weird ice cream for dessert. We are unwilling to plan ahead, and stores everywhere are willing to cater to that. And I appreciate them for that. God bless America, Land of the Unprepared.

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