Everyone in Germany talks constantly of illness.  It is a country of hypochondriacs and a country of contradictions.  The same person afraid of a drafty house will sit outside in winter, wrapped in a blanket and drink beer.  Fresh air is good for you, you see.   The person who rides his bike for exercise will do so while smoking a cigarette.  Explain that one.  And while a healthy lifestyle includes ample exercise, vegetables and bio-grown food, that exercise is tempered with plenty of smoking and drinking and veggies that are more often than not deep-fried and/or covered in cheese.  The aversion to actual medicine seems to come from a real distrust of the unnatural.  Herbs rule the day and are always the first line of attack.  No wonder everyone’s sick all the time!

But if you ever do have the misfortune to find yourself sick in Berlin, my best advice is don’t.  I spent the first two months of my new life here fighting a losing battle with the common cold.  My ex-pat friends tell me this is normal.  Everyone has an epic story of his or her first two months of illness in Germany.  What the hell?  Was this place part of a new virus experiment the public is unaware of?  Why didn’t I get sick on any of my vacations here?  Or must you live through every bug under the sun in order to develop the right antibodies to stay healthy?  Whatever the reason, I was not immune to the ex-pat’s entrance tariff.

Fresh off the boat and full of vim and vigor I approached my first week here with all the energy one puts into a global coup.  Everything seemed possible.  I had crazy “I can do it all!” fantasies and began thinking things like:

“This canal is so beautiful!  I will run every day along the canal with the dog and lose 10 pounds!”

“I will learn to speak perfect German by studying all day every day until I am fluent!”

“I will have set up auditions with every agent within 200 miles by the end of the week.”

“I will cook a well balanced and healthy dinner for us every night.”

My New York friends can commence laughter now.  I am a master dialer and an expert orderer of delivery, but a cook?  Not so much.  However, I was a tornado of good intentions, all of which upon I planned to make good.  But after more than two years of working seven days a week while trying to continue to audition, sing opera, date and have a life otherwise, my good intentions caught up with me.

The first wave was like the initial blitz in war; hit ‘em with everything you got.  I thought I was going to die and here I was only a week in my new country.  The Paper King I came to live with, (insert “boyfriend”), was not even home to witness my pain or bring me a hot water bottle.  Fever, stomach flu, headache, stuffy nose, cough; how can all of that exist in one virus?  Nonetheless, I was down for the count.

So I slept in every moment I could, and ran from German language class to work; Mommy-and Me music classes, where I sang, clapped, danced and tried not to drip snot on the children.  They were less obliging however, and just as I was beginning to feel better the second wave hit.  This was more like an air force strike.  Knock ‘em down with a few well-placed bombs, then let the infantry hold steady.  Every time I thought I was on the mend, BAM, another snot bomb dropped.  I started viewing the children as little, green, infectious amoebas and tried not to cringe as they crawled into my lap or patted my face with a hand taken directly out of a nose.

My cold developed and became stronger and stronger no matter what I did.  I was coughing so much I couldn’t sleep.  The children’s mothers began looking at me from the corner of their eyes, my language classmates wished I would stay home and I saw in the mirror that I was beginning to look like the leper I was.  It was time to take serious action.  Time to strike back!

Every German has his or her own version of a cure for what ails you.  Usually it involves herbs.  Here is a list of home remedies I received in good faith from my lovely German do-gooders.

1. Steam over a bowl of Eucalyptus leaves in hot water.  It is good for your breathing and opens your pores.

2. Bake pears covered in honey until they are soft.  Eat as many as you can.  You will feel better in one week although your clothes won’t fit.

3. Soak in hot water, lavender and anis.  It will leech the ache from your body and reduce fever.  Added bonus, the smell of licorice keeps vampires away.

4. Make tea from ginger, lemon and honey.  Let the ginger get very strong and drink as much as you can.

I tried them all and while I can’t completely blame the pears for the need of a new pair of jeans, I can report the remedies don’t work.  Off to the pharmacy I went with my horribly broken German.

“Hallo, ich habe Schnupfen und Husten.  Bitte, haben Sie etwas helfen?” I sniffed.

“Naja, aber haben Sie Ingwer Tee mit Honig probiert?” said the pharmacist, which roughly translates to “Have you tried ginger tea with honey?”  Jesus.

She came back with an array of stuff I’d never seen nor heard of before.  The best I could decipher was that one contained a steroid and that I was to shoot it up my nose.  The other, as it turns out, was for Schleim and contained an expectorant.  Not what I needed.  When asked “Ist der Husten produktiv?” is the cough productive, I answered “Neh” which was correct.  But when asked if the cough was in my throat, I answered no, it was in my chest.  I’d never heard of a throat cough before, but here it’s the kind that doesn’t toss up any green stuff.  This was the wrong answer, so home I went with the stuff for schleim and the steroid to see what gave.

In a fabulous turn of events, the nasal spray worked.  Never mind the increasing hunger and pimples, I could breathe again.  Unfortunately, the breathing aggravated my cough, which still produced no slime.  I had another night of no sleep and was on my last legs for that days classes.

I ventured to another pharmacist who asked the same questions and, having answered correctly this time, brought out an array of lozenges.  I was offered two sets of cough drops, one with herbs and one with actual medicine.  What’s with the freaking herbs?  I couldn’t get away from them, even at the druggist.  “Druggist”, the name itself suggests one might find drugs there, no?  Why was it I was being handed herbs?  Nonetheless, I left with the lozenges and hoped the one with the suppressant in it might actually work.  I was heartened by the instructions: “Take no more than four per day.”  Must be strong!

It wasn’t and I hacked my way through another sleepless night.  By now the Paper King was sleeping in the other room to avoid the plague.  I managed German class, don’t ask me how, and came home for my lunch break between school and work.  I had tried another pharmacist on the way back who had tried to give me the same ineffective lozenges I already had.

“Hey babe, how’d it go today?” asked the King.

Something in me broke in that moment.

“WHY WON’T THEY GIVE IT TO ME?” I shouted, bursting into tears.  “I know they have it.  I know they do.  I need Nyquil.  It exists in this world and I don’t need a prescription to get it.  Why are all the drugs behind the counter?  It’s an OVER THE COUNTER drug.  Over the counter!  I need to sleep!  I need to sleep!”

The Paper King’s eyes grew quite large having been taken off guard and he approached me much as one might a wet and angry cat.

“I don’t know, babe.  Why don’t you lie down for a bit?”

I decided to try one more time at another Apotheke before I had to teach again.  I went through the same litany of questions and answers and when the pharmacist brought out the boxes of lozenges again I became very firm.

“No, they don’t work.  I haven’t slept in three days.  I need something stronger.”

“How long have you had this cough?”

“One month.”

“You must go see a doctor.”

“No, I need medicine.  Nobody wants to give me medicine, but that’s all I need.  It’s only a cold.  It will go away if I can sleep.  I cannot sleep because of the cough.  I know you have cough syrup and I want some.  I don’t need a prescription for it so just give it to me.”

He seemed fairly taken aback, perhaps it was my broken, angry German or the fact that nobody ever really asks for drugs here but he did bring back a bottle of something disgusting and with the warning that if I was not improved in one week I would have to see a doctor before he would sell me more, I left feeling victorious and hopeful.

The syrup worked enough.  I had to take much more than the recommended dosage and more often than I was supposed to, but doing that, I did sleep and I did improve.  Rather than see a doctor when I ran out, I went to a different pharmacist and asked for the syrup by name.   The stuff was weak.  No self-respecting American germ would respond to such a drug, but it did prevent pneumonia and I slowly recovered.  A full two months after the first onslaught, I felt 90% better.   I was amazed to have survived, amazed by the process and happy to know health could be restored if one were aggressive enough to bully the local pharmacist.

I will hold firm to my American flu-survival tactics: drugs, sleep and more drugs.  I have made it to middle age on that philosophy and only get sick when I’ve truly overdone it in the busy department.  I open the windows when it’s warm and breezy, sit inside when it’s cold and try not to mix exercise with alcohol and cigs.  I will attempt to stay healthy and whole and while I know another day will come when I will have to fight with the pharmacist again, that day is not today.  When it does come, I intend to be ready with my own counter attack; the old “shock and awe” strategy that, while ineffective for the USA, may win me medication of a proper strength in Germany.  I will win my war due to my perfect German achieved through countless daily hours of study, cooking healthy meals at home and jogging along the canal with my dog.

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Colleen McGrath is a twice transplanted former New Yorker who, like all New Yorkers who don't know where to go next, ended up in Florida. Opera singer and teacher of small, drooling children, Ms. McGrath has written professionally about such interesting topics as PORON for a communications company and while she found it both interesting and fulfilling, (bald-faced lie), the call to a more creative style was stronger. She is happy to be flexing those muscles on The Nervous Breakdown.

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