Greggs and the Germans
It is always interesting travelling back to the UK. Everything is slightly heightened by the fact you have been out of the country for a number of months. That was certainly how I felt when I arrived in London last week. Things that you would take for granted, the smallest of details, suddenly become fascinating signals of culture. This is doubled if your job depends on your ability to understand and explain different cultures. In many ways there are comparisons to a scientist looking through a microscope, looking for incredibly small indicators that might lead to a breakthrough or at the least, a better understanding of a subject. I'm not suggesting it's necessarily as life and death, but it is still compelling. The wording of things, the unspoken communication or the unwritten rules that govern peoples every day experiences may seem mundane, but they can really tell you a lot about people and more specifically cultures.
London is already an interesting city when observed in this way, but I always enjoy going to the UK with someone from outside the culture. Usually this would be my wife, but recently I travelled with a colleague from Germany. The reason I find it so enjoyable is that it's like having a spare pair of eyes, as I look for interesting changes, language or interactions, my wife (colleague in this instance) is automatically doing the same. The weird passive aggression of the London commute or the particularly British method of queuing to get through the Underground station barriers all become topics of discussion or explanation. Standing in the pub, he asked why they don't have table service in UK pubs. I pondered the question, “frankly, I have no idea, but my instincts tell me no one would ever pay their bar tab if you could just walk out unnoticed” I told him.
It's also interesting watching the reaction of Germans to the most normal of things in the UK. Organisation is often the most easily criticised, such as when we used a self service checkout at the supermarket. The whole process, he observed, was woefully inefficient. I was inclined to agree, but the Briton in me attempted some type of muted defence. It didn't have any lasting effect on his opinion, I'm afraid.
After a long day, we were both fairly hungry as we headed back to the hotel. I suggested some possible options, none of which either of us liked too much. As we exited the underground, something across the street caught my eye. The sign said “Greggs” with a “the bakers” underneath. I have mentioned the glory of the Greggs brand in previous posts, but I didn't quite explain the visceral nature of the love affair all Geordies have with Greggs. It's practically genetic. Geordies love Greggs and Greggs reciprocates that love by filling our stomachs and arteries with sausage rolls, pasties and Stotty sandwiches. Before I knew it I was dreamily walking into the road, with one goal in mind; buy my bodyweight in baked goods, build a fort in my hotel room and spend the next six hours alternating between binge eating and perfecting rudimentary pillow fortifications.
My colleague, having missed me crossing the street, caught up and asked what I was playing at. “Greggs” I responded with a finger pointed at the shop. He didn't quite know how to answer that. I can't imagine what Greggs looks like to a German. Walking into Greggs and walking into a German bakery are very different experiences. First of all, German bakers are cleaner. That's not to say that Greggs are unhygienic, it's just that the floors often need to be mopped continuously because customers will buy more pastry based products than they need, insuring that they can devour one in the queue as they pay. This leaves a flaked pastry layer on the floor that must be continuously cleaned or it could easily become a slipping hazard. In Germany, all products are behind a glass, no self service option is given. Additionally, there is no way that a German shop planner would allow there to be a separate service and pay point as they do in a number of Greggs bakers, that level of inefficiency would be borderline sacrilege. Of course, this is generally to accommodate parents with screaming children. Faster access to sausage rolls means that children can be shut up quicker with the traditional “Benwell dummy” or sausage roll stuffed in an infants screaming face. What a German may mistake as poor planning is actually a vital service to the community.
Sandwiches are another point of difference. First of all, German bakers, for some unknown reason, believe that Miracle Whip or Miracel Whip as it is known in Germany, is a suitable sandwich dressing and /or as a replacement for mayonnaise. This makes most sandwiches taste overly sweet, which as you might imagine conflicts with the natural savoury aspect of a sandwich. Obviously the bread is tremendous, but again, German bakers will frequently skimp on the fillings or worse, fill the sandwich with a filling that has no place being there. Turkey and mango is only one example of the horrors committed in the name of German bakers around the country. It is the continual presence of the Schnitzel sandwich that has maintained my sanity in the last five years.
Baked goods and sandwiches are all well and good, but the true point of departure between German and UK bakers, the product that most clearly underlines the difference in culture, is the cake section. German bakers can be overwhelming, there are so many choices and products you will never have seen before. It can be wonderful, but mixed with this wonder is a sense of anger, anger that in Germany, a well made cake, bun or tart will set you back a couple of Euros. The same product, inevitably produced by some nondescript beard in a beanie hat, surrounded by the trappings of the artisan baker, will in the UK cost upwards of ten pounds. Not because it's worth ten pounds, but because producing anything in a traditional way in the UK requires a 200% mark-up. One might argue that companies like Greggs have brought us to this point, but I would argue that Greggs has remained the same standard as long as I can remember. While the world bemoans the change in Toblerone or the size of Wagon Wheels, Greggs pasties are the same size and quality they always were, which is to say a loving level of bog standard. It also helps that they produce bakewell tarts or cream buns that look like they've been pulled straight out of a Beano or a Dandy, which is to say they a nostalgic quality matched only by Oliver Postgate riding a chopper bike, while wearing a Fido Dido t-shirt.
It is probably not surprising that my German colleague was slightly ashen faced when confronted by the Greggs experience, he was unsure what a steak bake was and was unconvinced by my argument that it might be the single greatest achievement of the 20th century. I opted for a steak and cheese roll with a pasty for dessert. The former was as horrific as it sounds, which essentially means it was amazing. As I waited to pay, my colleague looked for something to buy. He picked up an apple. I was slightly surprised as I had always assumed that the fruit on sale in Greggs was plastic, but as it turns out it was actually real. The women serving us was equally confused by my colleague's selection and it took her a few seconds to work out how to ring it through her till. As we left, I didn't bother asking him if he liked Greggs. The apple clutched in his left hand was review enough.