Timing is everything at Lidl. And timing is also completely random at Lidl. While there never seems to be a crowd in the store (we're all solitary wanderers down those long, long aisles, with our big, big carts) you can find a line 15 carts deep when it's time to check out. Or, no one.
Yesterday, it was no one. Ha ha! No waiting! These little triumphs of the day. But seconds after I sailed my cart right up to the cash register, I realized I was in trouble. I was on my own. I had no unloading time. I was under pressure. That kind of unspoken social pressure to get your goods on the belt and checked out as fast as possible. The race was on.
I immediately abandoned my usual system (heavy items first, then progressively lighter–makes for rational packing on the other end!). Speed, not elegance of packing, was the prime consideration. The flowers got tossed on the belt before the stuff in tins; the vegetables in front of the bottled water–not good, not good. Each time I reached into the giant Lidl cart, my backpack swung over and 1/2-way off. Must secure the other strap. No time, no time! Because the inevitable happened: other people arrived in the line.
Meanwhile, the Lidl cashier, groomed for speed, was checking items through as fast as I could load them on the belt. By the time I'd emptied my cart, there was a backlog in the tiny space designated for post-checkout, pre-packing, temporary storage. The cashier had to stop. What an incredible Lidl faux pas. The line behind me grew.
I zipped the cart around the end of the checkout counter and whipped out a plastic bag while attempting to appear nonchalant and composed. In about thirty seconds I'd freed enough space for the cashier to resume operations. I got a little less nonchalant. It was all about speed now, me flinging stuff into bags and her gliding stuff over the scanner.
The line sprung out like kudzu. Where had all these people come from? In the uncanny silence that characterizes the Lidl experience (muzak being one of the many superfluous items in which the chain does not indulge), I worked away, trying to stay one step ahead of the cashier. None of the line denizens spoke. They stood. They loomed. I felt watched. I felt judged.
I wanted some interaction. Someone to catch my eye. A smile, a laugh. I wanted a friend with me, someone who could pack the bag while I got out my wallet to pay. I was intensely aware that I was shopping on my own. In the fluorescent, industrial silence, I felt like a cartoon waif, a Chaplinesque sad sack caught on a conveyor belt.
Zooming the last item over the scanner with a small flourish, the cashier gave me the total. In a split second decision I left the unpacked items on the counter and gave her my laser card, figuring I could pack the remaining goods while the card was processed. I got the toothpaste in the bag just as she asked me to key in my card code. Operation checkout: complete.
Loneliness stabs through in the oddest places–in the over-lit aisles of a discount chain store, and the absolute indifference of a lineful of grocery strangers.
Next week I'm shopping at Spar. I always see people I know. The butcher gives me a huge bag of bones for the dog. Dawdling in the checkout line is not only tolerated, but encouraged, as people chat and exchange news. I get to use my cupla focail.
Life on the peninsula can be solitary enough without courting the existential bleakness of the discount chain store. But, if I do go to Lidl again, I'm going to talk to people in the checkout line.