Locked up Abroad: It’s only Christmas, why are the shops closed?

I’d never seen such a long line at a supermarket in my life. It was December 22, 2006 and I was hoping to buy a few items at a chain supermarket in Vienna, Austria. After waiting in line for about 15 minutes, it was almost my turn. But then an announcement was made, in German, the lights were dimmed and the people behind me in line dispersed- some left their items in their baskets, others took the time to replace their groceries on the shelves.

“Veer closed now,” said the cashier, in English, sensing my confusion.

“But can’t I pay for my things?” I asked, hopefully.

“We close at six,” she said, pointing to a clock which proved that it was exactly six o’clock.

“Do you know if there are any other grocery stores in the area that are open?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she said. “Everything will be closed until Wednesday.”

My wife and I had just arrived in Vienna for a four day weekend, and it was only Friday night. We assumed that the shops and museums would be open on Saturday and again on Tuesday. It turned out that the city was practically sealed shut for four full days. Some shops had limited hours on Saturday, December 23, but all were closed on Sunday and Monday, and again on Tuesday for St. Stephen’s Day.

Some restaurants remained open, but all the museums and other tourist attractions were closed. I didn’t actually mind that, but the real kicker was the fact that the streets were so eerily empty. Part of the joy of walking a great city like Vienna is the people watching, and the site of empty streets and shuttered storefronts was depressing. As Morrissey once crooned, “I want to see people and I want to see life.”

Fast forward to Christmas Day, 2011 in Falls Church, Virginia. I was about to make a sandwich from some leftover ham from our Christmas Eve meal and decided that some Swiss cheese would be the perfect complement to my lunch. I drove up the street from my house and found that both supermarkets we frequent were open. Not only that, but there were plenty of shoppers out and about. If the woman at the deli counter hadn’t wished me a Merry Christmas, it might have been just any other day.

I couldn’t help but think back to the four day lockdown in Vienna five years ago. Americans aren’t used to going even a full day with the shops closed, how would they cope with a four consecutive day shutdown? On Friday night, impatient shoppers hoping to buy Air Jordan sneakers were so eager to get into the shops that many rioted in cities across the country. Imagine the mayhem if the U.S. were to suddenly adopt European-style labor laws which mandated store closings for public holidays.

As a traveler, public holidays can be both a blessing and a curse. Having an opportunity to see how people celebrate various holidays in other parts of the world can be priceless, but walking empty streets for days on end is obviously a drag. As Americans, we’re used to being able to satisfy almost any passing fancy, even if it strikes us on Christmas day. That impulse is very hard to shake, no matter how long you live outside the U.S.

How do Americans cope with holiday shopping hours in other less consumer driven parts of the world? Some choose to bitch; others slow down and figure out how to go native. I’m caught somewhere in between, but I have to admit, my ham and Swiss cheese sandwich tasted awfully good.

[flickr image via Kevin Dooley]