Letters From The Field

Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.

Scenes from a Greenlandic supermarket

A letter from Greenland. In which are jotted cultural anachronisms of a globalized world.

Greenland, July 2014

my dear

I’m just writing from Greenland again and I really felt I need to tell you about some observation I just made. You know, this curious kind of cultural anachronisms which come with globalization we use to wonder about. Of all places this struck me at a supermaket. Well, kind of. At the draughty coasts of south-western Greenland where the mighty ice shield just left a thin strip of habitable land, you’ll find the occasional Pilersuisoq or Pisiffik in almost every settlement – how small it may be. All-purpose general stores, corner shops and trade outposts.


Mostly a smallish booth where you could find your deep-frozen bread, some canned fruits and maybe even a beer (*) or two. Of course, in the major cities with their larger supermarkets you’ll find the grown-up version of these emporia. Not exactly these giant shopping malls you’ll get lost in on Saturday mornings, but the kind of market place with a bakery, a bookstall and where you just get about everything you’ll need for the day – be it the milk for your morning coffee or the frozen pizza for lunch.


So, in of these supermarkets up in the Arctic north, I suddenly realized the inevitability of our modern age’s globalization … and the wonderful cultural quirks it creates. We were on a kayak tour down Greenland’s southern coast (again) and after about two weeks out in the wild – enjoying icebergs and glaciers, one or another bunch of curious seals, the first returning whale and some Norse ruins – it was time to stock up on some food and – honestly – for a beer. Or two. So, I suddenly found myself standing there amidst the blessings of civilization. Again. Watching a teenaged Greenlander in baggy jeans and a baseball cap showing something apparently funny on his iPad to a schoolgirl in traditional dress, ambling the rows of shelves, where sweet American soft drinks, fresh fruits and packaged lunchmeat naturally can be found next to a pile of dyed sealskin for daily needs and where deep-frozen pizza sits right next to packs of whale-steaks (**) in the deep freezer.


Do I sound resigning? I don’t mean to be. Not at all. Sure, today’s tendency towards globalization somehow seems to make this world a smaller place lacking this certain touch of exotic, but do we really want to blame anyone for enjoying those little amenities? Do we really think to have the right to deter anyone from participating in a developing world just for the sake of probably all too romantic imaginations of travelling far-away lands?¬† “Everything flows”, Heraclitus was right. The world is moving on, there is nothing positive in stagnancy. We’ve got to deal with it, don’t we. Or, say, what do you think, my friend?


(*) On a side note: Sale of alcoholic beverages is regulated in Greenland comparable to the situation in Scandinavian countries. However, during my last visit to the icy island I got the impression, rules might have been a bit relaxed in the meantime – I’ve found an interesting report on the situation regarding alcohol in Greenland and inlcude it for your reading here.

(**) Regarding Greenland’s aboriginal subsistence whaling, you may remember that already engaged with this topic in one of my earlier letters.

2 comments on “Scenes from a Greenlandic supermarket

  1. Maria Falvey
    January 26, 2015

    Love this – I lived in Arctic Alaska for almost a year and never saw whale in the store but it was a subsistence-based village that I lived in so whaling was a big deal and I must say I love Mikigaq (fermented whale meat) now. :-D

    • J.N.
      January 26, 2015

      Thanks Maria! Personally I really liked the full and – for lacking a better word – ‘clean’ taste of whale meat. Had a hard time with muktuk though which did not taste as ‘nutty’ to me as everyone says, but more like an old diving suit (http://vagabondslog.com/2014/01/31/the-little-differences-cultural-delicacies – and before anyone’s starting to lecture on the moral and ethics of whale hunt: I’m dealing with the issue of Greenlandic subsistence whaling in the very same article ;-) ).

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This entry was posted on October 13, 2014 by in Cultural Anthropology and tagged , , , , , .

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