05 January 2018

Try me

It was the Saturday before Chirstmas, and the market in one of Zurich's middle-class neighborhoods was bustling. While most people were busy picking up the last groceries for the coming holiday orgy, we had just arrived in the country and were browsing the stalls only out of curiosity, knowing that the family would feed us well over the next days.

As we ambled past bakers, butchers, fruit vendors and the like, she noticed something: None of the merchants offered any samples! Indeed, the little trays so common at Montréal's Atwater market (and many others around the world) were nowhere to be seen. No Swiss vendor deemed it necessary to tempt the clientele with little bits and bites, and no Swiss customer seemed to expect any.

What a difference when we made it to the back of the market, where an Italian cheesemonger was proudly standing behind big wheels of fontina, provolone and pecorino. The moment he heard us speak English, he chimed in with his thickly accented "Ello! Come try formaggio!", sticking out a plate. And when I responded in Italian, he immediately started cutting thick slices of formagella for us to try... and, unsurprisingly, buy.

Unfortunately, this market is not the only place where the Swiss show their stingy - or is it snotty? - side. I vividly remember leading a group of 20 American visitors into the main branch of Sprüngli, Zurich's flagship chocolate store, many years ago. I sung the praises of their signature macarons, Luxemburgerli, which were sitting pretty in their alluring colors behind the counters. The Americans looked intrigued. The Sprüngli staff was unimpressed. When asked how they taste, their answer was: "Very good." 

Naively, I thought that a cultural misunderstanding was happening, and sprung into action. "I think they'd be curious to try", I advanced in Swiss German. "Certainly", came the response. "What size of box do you want to buy?"

I was dumbstruck. And then I got angry. "Clearly, this store wants you to buy the cat in the bag", I said, loud enough for all the store to hear. "Let's leave." 20 American credit cards disappeared into wallets again, and we stamped out.

Obviously, things did not change since. Time and again since, I witnessed bewildered tourists at Sprüngli's airport stores experiencing the same obnoxious parsimony. "You can also buy single truffles if you want to try them first" was one of the stand-out lines put to a shocked Japanese once. It's revolting.

And yet... I keep buying those damn good chocolates. And the markets are as popular as ever. Like any good Swiss, I roll my eyes, frown in disgust, and then pay up. For as long as I do, vendors are vindicated. When it comes to free samples, they'll have the last laugh as they say "Just try me!"

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