Krank(y): on being ill in Germany

I suppose one of the unfortunate truths about “living abroad” is that, unlike a holiday, “living” inevitably encompasses not only the fun bits but also the trials of real life. While I might have escaped from things like collections and the English weather, for other more miserable aspects of existence, 800 miles is no barrier. And so, perfectly timed to collide with freshers’ week in Oxford, I came down with the first cold of the winter. It was as if some fate-controlling voice in the clouds heard me whining about Oxford fomo and decided to send a dose of freshers’ flu my way – a token dose of Michelmas term.

My term-time attitude to the inevitable appearance of colds is, simply, to take a swig of Lemsip every few hours, stuff my pockets with tissues, and get on with it. And so, after my first day of sneezing and sniffling, I stopped off at the Apotheke on the way home from work to stock up. But I discovered, to my absolute horror, they don’t sell Lemsip in Germany. Without that warm, lemony, medicinal goodness at my disposal, the prospect of coughing my way through the next week or so became far more horrible a prospect. I decided I’d have to make my own. I had hot water, I had lemon juice, I had honey. I was just missing one final ingredient.

I’d already established that there is no German equivalent of Tesco 17p painkillers, but after poking around the shelves of the chemist for a few minutes, I was beginning to wonder whether I could buy anything in this country to soothe my sore throat. It turns out that paracetamol here is expensive, and can only be bought over the counter after a fairly thorough interrogation and explanation by the chemist:

“What’s wrong with you?”
Her question took me slightly surprise, both because of its unapologetic bluntness, and because having to justify my need for paracetamol is not something I’m used to.

“Headache”, I mumbled, too lazy to elaborate.

She seemed satisfied with this, and turned to the shelf behind her. Like something out of an era gone by, the dark wooden shelves were stacked with all kinds of enticing looking boxes, towering far beyond her reach. Eventually, and with the same proud flourish as Ollivander as he locates the right wand,  she produced a small white box, and placed it on the counter. I stretched my hand out to take it but she held it back, looking at me sternly.

“So you take one of these every four hours.”

I nodded.

“But just one.”

“Yep”. (I’d like to think it was something as idiomatic as “yep”. It probably wasn’t).

“With water”, she added, helpfully.

I nodded again.

“And hopefully they’ll reduce the pain.”


She looked me up and down, seemingly deciding whether I’d taken her careful instructions in, and finally, with a sigh of resignation, let me pay my four euros (four euros!!) to take my medicine home, and snuggle up against the radiator with a book and a hot drink.

The cold lasted the best part of two weeks, in which time I missed almost all of the rehearsals for a choir concert I really wanted to sing, and Leipzig turned from green to gold, and from mild and cloudy to perfectly clear but bitterly, bitingly cold.


The illness-related party, however, was only just beginning. On Sunday, my birthmark – a funny little patch of weird skin at the back of my head – started to twinge a little bit. On Monday, it was worse, so I booked a doctors appointment. By Thursday, it was so unbearably itchy that I could barely sit still, let alone concentrate on the spreadsheets I was supposed to be filling at work. I left the office at lunchtime for my 1pm appointment, my to-do list still as long as my arm, on the promise that I’d be back in an hour or so. The doctor, after all, was only five minutes away.

Oh, how naive I was. I’d already experienced a taster of the bureaucracy of the German healthcare system a few weeks before, but I was in for a treat. Trying to conform to German punctuality, I arrived ten minutes early. This, it turned out, wasn’t enough time for the form-filling that precedes anything and everything here. I was sent from desk to desk, up and down stairs, joining queue after queue, just to register my arrival.  After half an hour or so of sitting on miserable plastic chairs in the waiting room, a place that gave the impression that nothing good in the world could ever happen again, I finally saw a doctor. He spent all of two seconds looking at my birthmark before declaring that it wasn’t his area, and that I’d have to make an appointment in the Hautklinik instead. He left the room. My head at this point felt as if it might explode. I burst into tears.

(I am, I should probably say, a hypochondriac).

The nurse, thankfully, took pity on this snivelling mess of a foreigner and patted me on the back sympathetically as I explained, between sobs, that “it’s just…that…it really hurts…and…and…I’m really worried…I can’t wait…”. She took an official looking stamp out of her drawer, marked my identity slip as Notfall (emergency), and pointed to the Hautklinik on the hospital map. “Hopefully they’ll see you without an appointment now,” she smiled as she sent me on my way.

I arrived in the Hautklinik about ten minutes later, tearstained and wobbly. I was directed to a waiting room where I sat for somewhere around four hours, holding my head as if I might be able to somehow push the burning itchiness away, and unable to think of anything other than my looming death – by this point I was certain of it – and of how bloody inconvenient it was that this was going to happen during my year abroad. By the time I was called, several tissues later, I’d already googled the next flights home.

Two doctors – a trainee, and a specialist in weird birthmarks – prodded at my head and neck for about ten minutes, before declaring that it was just an inflammation – probably an allergic reaction of some sort – and that they were prescribing me some steroid cream and a special shampoo, and that I was fine,  and that I should go home and rest. It was too late to go back to work anyway. So, after cycling home and applying the magic lotion, I got into bed with chocolate, and the Bake Off final, and a phone call home, and a skype with Sam. None of those things are very good substitutes for the much needed hug, but they sufficed. Little worries, I’ve realised, turn into big, scary demons when in a foreign country. There’s something very unsettling about not quite knowing how things work here. I fell asleep feeling as if I’d survived some sort of near-death experience, and woke up the next morning delighted to have made it.

At work, my colleague asked me, with a look of grave concern, whether I was alright, and why it had taken so long.

“Oh I’m fine”, I shrugged. “I just had to wait a long time. But I’m fine.”

And, although I still haven’t got my voice back completely, and my head still feels a bit funny, and I still want to sleep for a few days, I am.


One Comment

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  1. MASSIVE HUGS. It’s not the same as not speaking the language at all, of course, but I remember having to navigate the NHS when I first arrived in the UK, and being totally confused by things like *waiting* for a doctor’s appointment, and having to renew my prescriptions every three weeks instead of every three months, and so on. It is scary, but you get through it! xxx

    Liked by 1 person

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