Shamefully, I have to admit to having, on occasion, ranted about people in service jobs overseas being too friendly. Yes, too friendly! Like the cashiers in Florida supermarkets who chatted about the weather and bid me good day. Or the London baristas who didn’t mind their own business as they served me, asking me where I was from and such inappropriate nosiness!
Being the unapproachable Icelandic stranger, I felt those people should be mindful of their status, and the fact that they saw me as a person rather than just a customer made me feel as if they were spying on me, taking notes on what I was buying, eating or drinking and why. As long as cashiers would act as robots, like the Icelandic ones, I felt like they weren’t noticing that I was buying two packets of condoms on a Friday or that amongst my skimmed-milk carton, packet of organic muesli and my frozen vegetable burgers were also two chunky Cadbury’s and a packet of crisps. People in service jobs who were too friendly seemed to me to be showing too much interest in my life. Yup, I was that frigid and anti-social person.
But I think I’ve mellowed with age, or something. I’ve also spent considerable time abroad now and have become accustomed to supermarket cashiers greeting me with a friendly smile, asking me how I am doing, commenting on something relevant, asking whether I need a bag, whether I’d like help bagging my groceries, and then waiting patiently as I finish putting my items in a bag before saying goodbye and moving on to the next customer.
My first grocery-shopping trip here in Iceland this summer was therefore somewhat traumatic. I gave the man in front of me plenty of space to interact with the cashier and bag his groceries, waiting patiently with a friendly smile, ready to greet the cashier, a teenage boy. Rather than making eye contact, the cashier put away the “Next Customer” bar as he mumbled what I believe was “Good afternoon,” then started scanning away, piling my items up on the other end. I just stood there, vacillating as I tried to figure out when would be the right time to tell him I actually needed a plastic bag because I hadn’t brought my own. Kicking myself for not being eco-friendly enough, I also got the nervous feeling I should be saying something but because the boy wouldn’t look at me, I just stood in front of him fiddling with my purse.
The woman behind me had also moved in closer, piling her groceries on the conveyer belt as close to mine as possible, looking over my shoulder and breathing down my neck. Finally the boy looked at me and mumbled “Bag?” to which I replied: “Two, please!” Without saying another word, the boy reached behind him for two plastic bags, which he crumpled in his fist before throwing them on top of my shopping pile, then hit the tilt’s keyboard and declared without further ado how much I had to pay.
As the woman behind me was now stepping on my toes, I moved to the side a bit, grabbed a bag and fluffed it open with one hand as I handed the cashier my debit card with the other. He showed no signs of helping me out, but quickly swiped my card, then left it on the counter along with my receipt for me to sign and simply started scanning the heavy breathing woman’s items!
I was only half way through bagging my shopping and had to apologise to the woman for stepping back in front of the counter to sign the receipt and grab my debit card from under her nose. As I then rushed to fill my bags, her grocery items started piling up, mixing in with mine so eventually I had to check my bags to see if I had already bagged a carton of milk and wasn’t stealing hers.
I was all flushed and felt so embarrassed for taking so long—these people must have thought I had never entered a supermarket before! I tried to send them both a remorseful puppy look, only they ignored me so they’ll never know how sorry I was for taking up so much space and time, so I rushed off with my shopping bags without saying good bye to anyone.
It wasn’t until I got home I realised I had left a shampoo bottle and a jar of pesto in the other woman’s pile. I hope she saw it as offering from the slow, clumsy shopper in front of her. Since then, I’ve adapted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in Icelandic shops, restaurants and cafés. Nobody wants to chat about the weather, no one cares how you’re doing today and absolutely nobody gives a shit about what you’re buying or eating, just get a move on!
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