Saturday, October 20, 2012

Do I look like a drug addict?

Germans do healthcare differently. As already mentioned, I'm a hardcore fan of the German healthcare system - if they did cute little t-shirts with "I heart German healthcare" on them, I'd definitely buy one and parade it around the town. When it comes to waiting times, knowledge and niceties from GPs and reception staff, Germany would win the gold medal (if there was such a thing as the Medical Olympics!).

When it comes to having a cold or flu in Germany though, that's when I want to get the first plane back to England and kiss the feet of the CEO of Boots, Superdrug, and whoever decided that Tesco should start having its own pharmacy. Well, kiss their feet and then maybe kidnap them and drag them back to Germany with me to start an entrepreneurial venture.

Buying medicine to fight colds and flu in Germany is a challenge, and not one you want to undertake with a temperature, runny nose and sore throat. Where can you buy those all-important life-saving drugs? The pharmacy. "Why not just pop to the supermarket or boots-equivalent?", I hear you cry. Well, because they simply don't sell them. When I first arrived in Germany and wasn't acquainted with their approach to medicine dispensing, I spent a good half an hour in both my local supermarket and toiletry-selling shop trying to find an elusive pack of paracetamol - only to discover that I would never find it in either of these places.

To be fair, there are a large number of pharmacies around but just sometimes, I would like to do everything all at the same time without having to traipse around numerous shops to get the array of items that I need (note: shopping for clothes is also the same soul-destroying experience. There are 3 H&M's and 3 Esprit shops all in the centre of the city... plus 2 Debenhams-style department stores which also stock the brands...all, however, stock different if you want the hat you saw online that isn't already in the current shop you are in, you have to buy your jumper that's already taken you 3 hours to find and try on amidst the crowds, and then go to yet another H&M or Esprit really is a lot of fun!). The pharmacies are expensive too. I paid 8 Euros for Strepsils. 8 EUROS!!! I nearly had a heart attack at the counter when she told me the price. Thinking about it maybe I should have feigned a heart attack...then maybe I would have got a discount. There are little things I like about the pharmacies though. The fact that if you purchase something they always give you little freebies like cough sweets or tissues or a La Roche-Posay face cream sample...or...the most random one I was once given was athlete's foot cream, when all I went in to buy was aspirin. Do I look like I have sweaty feet?

As well as looking like a person who has a sweaty foot problem, I think a lot of the pharmacists mistake me for a drug addict. No, really. In England it's customary to have a medicine box at home full of all the essentials and when it's running low, whether you are ill or not, you go and "stock up". "Stocking up" doesn't feature in the lives of the Germans when it comes to medicine or anything else for that matter (I'm always the only one at the supermarket doing a "weekly shop" with a trolley rather than having merely 3 things in a basket). I really don't understand, why wait until you are dying of the flu or dying of hunger to traipse to the shops and get the essentials? This really does go against the way the Germans meticulously plan everything else in their lives. 

This lack of "stocking up" habit creates problems for me. If I walk into a pharmacy and ask for several packs of paracetamol, aspirin, ibuprofen and perhaps some cough medicine just in case, to say that the pharmacist looks perturbed would be a total understatement. "You do know that you must not take this all at the same time don't you?” the pharmacist says, looking deeply into my eyes as if trying to scan for suicidal tendencies. I always reply with a hearty laugh saying that I am "stocking up", but they never look convinced and their nervous demeanour doesn't evaporate with these words. Fear of overdose even goes as far as tea. No, I'm not kidding. A friend of mine wanted to buy some herbal tea for her grandma's indigestion. As her grandma lives in another country, she wanted to buy several and take them back to her (yet another smart person who "stocks up", I heartily approve). The cashier point blank refused to sell her 4 boxes of tea because of the overdose-risk. Overdose risk?! For tea?! I'm sure even if grandma did have a massive teapot at home to fit all 80 bags in at once, that the biggest problem it would have caused her would have been an 80-day bathroom stint.

It must also be mentioned that the Germans are extremely partial to a good old bit of homeopathy. Don't get me wrong, I love alternative remedies and will always give them a go, but sometimes you need something a bit more substantial and medically hardcore to get you through a working day whilst ill. If you can't breathe, then I'm not really sure that a 14 euro sea salt natural nose spray will cut the mustard, or rather, cut through the green sinus blockage gunk (mmm...lovely).

Having said that, maybe I'm already turning more German than I think. I just bought 8 tea bags for 2 Euros called "Erk√§ltungstee", which is a tea made of natural herbs to fight colds and alleviate flu symptoms. It tastes like dishwater, so it better work. If not, I just got ripped off for a disgusting tea that will be more likely to help me grow elderflowers out of my ears than solve my autumn illness. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

German Efficiency

We spend so much time these days trying to crush stereotypes because they are apparently untrue and prejudiced. Some are and I'm all for the crushing of those, others, however, should just be accepted...and maybe even applauded. Yes, I'm talking about the old stereotype about Germans being super efficient. It's definitely true (as is the staple joke about towels...towels always cover the best loungers in the spas to "reserve" them for the German ghosts that are never seen lying on them until 10 minutes before closing).

I loved living in France, but there was one big reason as to why I could never live there permanently. The word "efficient" might as well not exist in French vocabulary. Shop and supermarket opening times are ridiculous enough as it is (8 until 11, 3 until 5, 8 until 9...which is code for how many cigarette breaks they need throughout the day and how long they need for the traditional leisurely French lunch), then add to that the fact that you can cycle your little socks off to get there in time after work to buy the all important ingredients for your Boeuf Bourguignon only to discover that its closed...again...probably because the owner , Jean, got restless and decided to go and have a Café au Lait with his mate Pierre and discuss crucial political points.

Enough of the French though, that's a whole other blog opportunity! Good old efficient Germans. As soon as I stepped foot on the soil of the Fatherland I felt that I had found my long lost home, I could breathe easy for the first time - my OCD of planning and efficiency would finally be satisfied and understood: trains would run on time, shops would be open until the second hand clicks onto the 8pm closing time and questions would be answered with precision and perfect solutions.

Efficiency runs through the veins of the Germans, even more so than in mine. God forbid that the U-bahn is half a second late. In fact, you don't even need to look at the clock to know that it is late, the frustrated rustle of German bodies on the platform as they pull out their iPhones to check the time and then glance in the direction of where the train should be coming from, is enough of a giveaway. I'm pretty sure that after it arrives they are then using their WiFi to look up the MVV transport network complaint form, ready to download and fill out at the office. 

This is in stark contrast to the British, they would not doubt be eagerly, loudly and shameless speaking into their phone: "Hey Barry, yeah, train's late, fingers crossed it won't bloody come at all and we can sod off and go and have a pint mate!"

There is a marked difference that sets German efficiency apart though and that is: the art of anticipation. The Germans invented this little beauty, no doubt. "What the heck the art of anticipation when it's at home?!", I hear you cry. Well, essentially it means that they anticipate situations BEFORE they even happen - resulting in absolute maximum efficiency. It's like the Germans were all born with an inner eye that allows them to accurately predict the future. Their inner eye must have been having an off day when the British won the war...then again their Lord Voldemort-style leader was Austrian...and that's a whole different kettle of German-speaking fish. If you call the German equivalent of 999 (It's 112...just in case you are ever in need.... and if you are...remember it was me and my blog that saved you from certain death in Deutschland!), then no matter the problem, they will just sent everything: fire engine, ambulance and police. Not only will they do that, they will probably also send three of each, just to be on the safe side. How considerate of them.  If I had someone chasing me down the street trying to kidnap me, I would want it to happen in Germany - the emergency services would probably have already predicted our route and set up a roadblock in advance to intercept us. Once I even saw 10 fire engines go past my suburban road, none with sirens on. I can only assume that they were teaching colleagues new, faster routes to get to fires so they didn't get lost (as this was a new building estate) - can you get any more efficient than that?!

Doctors are also no exception when it comes to the efficiency rule. Whatever the problem, even if your GP can't see anything wrong, they will refer you to a specialist to be on the safe side and to make you feel at ease. "Oh that's all well and good, but you will probably have to wait 6 months to see the specialist!", I hear you grumble. I once had pain in my ear but my GP couldn't see anything inside. Now, if I were in England I would have been ushered out at this point as an overly dramatic hypochondriac, inventing ear issues (that is, of course, if I managed to get past the mardy, unhelpful receptionist batallion at the front desk and get an appointment in the first place). This is Germany though. She immediately called her specialist friend around the corner and I was seen by them 15 minutes later. By "seen" I mean I went to a futuristic, state-of-the-art looking surgery, and they used ultrasound on my face and ears to see what normal apparatus can't - low and behold I had perforated the eardrum caused by my flight over from the UK. See? Efficiency wins again! If I were in England I would still be suffering...which the doctor would probably call "character building". Hmm.

With Oktoberfest in full swing right now (or "Wiesn' if you want to be a true local), the German efficiency OCD is at it's best. They have staff at all major U Bahn stations to help you onto public transport and make sure you don't drunkenly disappear down the crack between the train and the platform. In England they would probably just watch and laugh at your stupidity - right? After all, it's a new drunken tale to tell! Not only that though, the U-bahns are actually going a lot slower than usual, just in case a drunken Oktoberfest reveller decided to fall in front of them. They really have thought of everything.

So it seems that this German stereotype is one that really is special, and deserves applause. As I returned home in the early hours on Friday from the Wiesn' I was thinking exactly this - everything had worked like clockwork. 

Then my night bus didn't turn up for some reason, meaning my 4am antics turned into 5am by the time I got home - tired, cold and slightly traumatised after avoiding several kidnap attempts ( With one guy approaching me and asking me how I am in a dark street: Him in a creepy voice: "Don't you trust me?", Me: "hmm...let me think...NO!"Another directly asking me and another girl at the stop to spend the night with him in a hotel and fulfil his dreams...I think you can already anticipate my response despite perhaps not having the magical German inner eye). Finding another bus stop was equally a struggle, I'm so used to German sign efficiency that when there isn't one there directing me where I need to go, then I am lost. I wasn't the only one either - I accumulated a number of other lost German women on my way.

I don't have an iPhone, but if I did I'm sure I would have been looking up the MVV complaint form on Friday evening (and perhaps also "SOS harassment"). I was also cursing the fact that I hadn't taken a jumper with me because I was so chilled to the bone in the night air and worrying that I would get ill the next day because of it. Maybe I'm already German after all?