Shopping in Pandemic Times by Nick Barta

It was late December, and I was heading to downtown Vienna during a pandemic. As I reflected on the task ahead of me, buying Christmas presents for my mother and grandmother, the mayhem inherent in completing that task manifested itself in the form of a gentleman who, having worn a mask into the subway car, proceeded to pull it down once he was seated.

Not wanting to undertake this monumental task alone, I had decided to meet up with a friend. Upon encounter, the ritual “kiss-kiss” greeting was relegated to an awkward bump of elbows followed by the acknowledgement of how these were truly trying times when friends could not nuzzle each other’s faces like horses in courtship.

We headed to the perfumery where I would buy my mother’s gift. Along the way, we made sure to give a wide berth to the frigid queues of malcontent Austrians being herded along under the watchful eye of store personnel who had the unenviable task of standing outside in freezing weather for the sole purpose of ensuring that adults would behave like adults.

With the first smell upon entering the perfumery, it became clear that no virus relying on aerosols for transmission could survive in such a hostile environment. Although the type of fragrance had been strictly dictated to me (I had even received a last-minute text which sought to confirm whether I did indeed remember the difference between an eau de toilette and an eau de parfum with the strict admonition to buy the latter), my friend insisted that we try some of the fragrances. She proceeded to create a six-foot barrier by blasting every perfume in our vicinity into the air around us muttering the mantra: “spray, delay, and walk away” to herself, much to the dismay of the fur-clad shoppers milling about her.

Staring in wonderment at my friend’s diligent adherence to social distancing, I made my way to the disinterested cashier who proceeded to ring up my transaction. She gestured towards the card reader saying, with either disdain or malice (I couldn’t decipher which), “That’ll be 189 Euros.” As my mind reeled from the price, my friend, who by now had a fragrance to her that I could only describe as “indiscernible, bordering on disagreeable”, chimed in with the wonderful insight that, “no price is too high for the woman who gave birth to you.” Turning from her to the register, I was met with the cashier’s arched eyebrow which seemed to indicate that she had an unsettling readiness to engage in violence in the event that the transaction was not consummated in the speed and manner to which she was accustomed.

After buying the perfume under threat of assault, and while also seriously reconsidering my choice of shopping companion, I made my way to the grocery store where I would buy my grandmother the ineloquent gift of Tabasco sauce. Trying to maintain a distance amongst shoppers who, in their own hurried, consumer-induced freneticism, didn’t seem overly concerned with overstepping the “oh-no-no” distance was no easy feat. At one point I got too close to a lady who made a sound like a British bulldog choking on a chicken bone while at the same time stomping one foot towards me as if she were shooing away a pigeon.

As I scampered away to checkout, the usual song and dance of Austrian grocery line politics came into play. Incapable of forming a straight line, I noticed the potential offending transgressor engage in the time-honored tradition of “inching past you while pretending to be steeped in philosophical thoughts and musings.” This allows for the trespasser to claim consternation and surprise when he is confronted with the fact that he has all of a sudden managed to inch his way in front of you in line.

I accosted the man and asked him if he could step six feet back. To which he responded that he was six feet back. To which I responded, “No, I mean literally six feet behind me as I’ve read that the virus can travel sidewise through the edges of your mask, which is why they are only effective if the person is in front of you.” He turned this bald-faced lie around in his head for a moment, chewed on it, and then decided that, even if it may not be true, it was true enough, and promptly took his rightful place behind me in line. At least shopping during the pandemic has some benefits.

Photo of blurry red lights
Lights by Tim Parkinson. CC license.

Nick Barta
Nick Barta lives in Richmond, Va., having returned after working four years abroad in Vienna, Austria. After studying Law in Seattle, Wash., he currently works as a corporate/regulatory attorney. When he is not reading through mind-numbing regulations he loves to hike and watch cooking shows.

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