Archive for Januar, 2014

My Paper Trail

I have a feeing that something is missing in my life in the year 2014. In fact, I know exactly what it is. For as long as I can claim to be a grown-up, I have carried around a daily planner with me (most recently almost always a much loved moleskin) – much as I would my purse, my keys and my mobile phone. This year,  I am reluctantly trying out Google calender. It has some advantages: I’m able to share with and invite my husband to appointments we have together (I could obviously just ask him, but such requests in the past were usually met with a ‚fine, just remind me with an e-mail‘), I can copy and paste booking numbers etc directly from e-mails, I get a useful (albeit sometimes annoying) reminder when the appointment is imminent and I have assess to the calender pretty much at all times without having to remember to bring it with me.

But I miss my little book. Every so often, I  find myself flicking through my paper trail left in calenders over the last decade or so – lectures at university, details about Sunday fixtures for our medical school football team (yes, I was a footballer once), meet-ups with friends (some lost, some still very much present), job interviews, flight details, hotel addresses and endless do-to lists. All in my sometimes neat and sometimes hurried and scrawly writing. The small details which actually tell me a lot about how I spent that particular year. Some would label it as hoarding, but together with my box of letters and old journals, these little books will never be thrown away.

I am pretty sure I will never flick back through a Google calender with an affectionate smile on my face. A fine example of technology making our lives easier, but at the same time taking something away. Maybe it’s something I just need to get used to or maybe this paperless century is just not the thing for me. Although it’s early days in the experiment, it’s still January. A pretty good time to buy calenders at a reduced price.


A Quiet Weekend

One good thing to come from having a job which involves working over the weekend from time to time is that it makes you appreciate a free weekend when it comes along. Especially one where nothing much is planned. Buying fresh vegetables and flowers at the local Saturday market, long leisurely breakfasts, a trip to the local independent cinema (‚The Wolf of Wall Street‘ is highly recommended and makes you hope you never earn too much money in life – so long though that there was even an interval), Sunday papers and a walk in the park. A weekend of nothing much couldn’t be much better than this.

The small things in life

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For the past few years, I have encouraged every friend who has made a long trip to a far-flung land to write a blog sharing their experiences. There is nothing better than living vicariously through the travel blogs of others. After egging everyone else on in this way to share their stories, I finally decided to share my own too. Even if they sadly do not arise from a round-the-world saga. For now anyway. The advantage of writing about everyday life though, is that it imparts a heightened sense of appreciation for just that – everyday life. And just how wonderful it can be.

Having said that, a friend recently back in Europe after spending 18 months in Africa summed things up with the following casual comment. Although the trip as a whole had obviously made a big impression on him, it was the small things that he found himself remembering  –  like children playing with a piece of wood on the street and laughing rather than sitting with an iPhone. And as I sit here, once again in front of a computer, it is hard to argue with that. And I wonder what my friends and acquaintances in Peru, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia – to think of just a few – are doing right now.

High cholesterol and blood pressure: should you be worried?

The German word for supper is ‚Abendbrot‘. It’s a fitting word because the literal translation is ‚evening bread‘ and actually, most Germans do eat a cold supper of bread accompanied most often by cold meats and cheese. Watching the way many of my friends here smear their bread with a 2cm layer of butter followed by a generous slice of cheese or two on a daily basis, does make me cringe and worry a bit about their cholesterol.

Growing up, I was always told to eat everything I like while I am still young.  As a 30-something, I am starting to wonder if this adage still actually applies to 30-somthing year-olds. At some point, it’s going to be time to start thinking about cholesterol levels, blood pressure and start doing some risk stratefication. But the question is when?

Well, national guidelines recommend the following for those at low risk:

Blood pressure checks starting from the age of 20 every 2 years.

Lipid screening blood tests  for men  starting from the age of 35  and for women from the age of 45 every 5 years.

Hmm. Apparently 30-something cannot be considered as young. And as for eating everything you like, perhaps it’s time to think again on the way to your doctor’s appointment…




How it feels to ‚go viral‘

As the majority of medical doctors, I spend most of the day away from the internet. Perhaps occasionally to look up a drug interaction or search through guidelines, but work time is sleep time for social media. The life of a doctor is surprisingly un-high-tech and unconnected.

All the more of a surprise to find – after the usual daily ward round, x-ray meeting and weekly tumour board – that my post about life in Germany should be retweetet, shared and liked by so many of you. For a non-media type, this is probably as close to ‚going viral‘ as I will ever come to.

Like a lot of people who write a personal blog, I have no work to share, no skill or product to sell and no need to make a name for myself (this would indeed be better done by investing time into research papers). But it’s a funny and ever so slightly exhilarating feeling to know that so many people have read the text and perhaps had a chuckle. And I have to admit, seeing this did make me jump with excitement:



How to be German (a very British point of view)

1. Unlearn the art of queueing.

Think about everything you ever learned about queueing – from early memories at theme parks where  kids who queue-jump get escorted in shame by staff to the back of the line, to the sniggers and muttered words directed at adults who attempt to cut a queue – and forget it all. Yes, you have been cultivating this art for years, but now you need to adapt to your new environment. Here’s a rough guide:

  • If you notice that a new line is about to be opened at a supermarket check-out, don’t bother allowing the person in front of you to go before you and instead fully take the advantage to jump a few places yourself.
  • When fellow passengers stand swarming around the airport gate waiting to board, stay firmly seated reading your paper until the gate actually opens and then attach yourself carelessly somewhere near the front of the swarm. There will be so many of you jollying for a better position in this way, that your rude behaviour will go unnoticed.
  • Beware of little old ladies, they are often the meanest and best at the queue-jumping game. Don’t be taken in by their outward appearance of frailty.
  • Don’t ever, ever expect to hear the words ‚after you‘.

2. Develop a taste for sparkling water.

Even if they are too polite to say it, your German guests will expect to be offered sparkling water at your dinner party. Make sure you have a 6-pack at home so that you are prepared for such occasions. I have even known patients to complain because the sparkling water provided by the hospital was not sparkling enough. Be aware that there are indeed varying grades of sparkling water so that you know how to provide alternative options in emergency cases. Try and wean yourself onto drinking sparkling water and get used to paying for your water at restaurants. Requests for tap water are uncommonly heard.

3. Learn about bread.

Thought bread could just be white or brown? Think again. Here’s the minimum in vocabulary you need to be armed with before setting foot into a bakery:  toast (what you know as white bread), weiß (white – the white bread you know but without the added butter), vollkorn (wholemeal), mehrkorn (multi-grain), roggen (rye) and dinkel (spelt). That’s the basics. Be prepared for regional variations (Berliner Landbrot, Schwarwalderbrot, Rheinisches Schwarzbrot are a few examples) which may throw you. Once you’ve said your goodbyes to white, fatty bread, you will never look back. There will come a time when you will be pining for Germany bread if you are away for longer periods. Warning: some dinkel varieties can be extremely hard. Knee-caps can be hurt when carrying shopping bags home and teeth could potentially be chipped, particularly if the bread is a couple of days old.

4. Learn the work etiquette.

  • The standard way to answer the phone is ‚Surname, hallo‘ in a slightly questioning tone. Or if you prefer to be a little brisk, just your surname will do. While you’re at it, learn to refer to yourself as Frau or Herr so-and-so. In your daily working life, you will rarely be called upon by your first name.
  • Use the formal you (Sie) for anyone who looks older than you or who is more powerful than you. When in doubt, side-step the use of the word ‚you‘ until they address you as either ‚Sie‘ or with the informal ‚du‘. You’re not expected to get this right straigt away as a foreigner, but it will get you taken more seriously.
  • Introduce yourself to everyone and anyone you see at work when you start. Otherwise you will be known as the impolite new colleague who didn’t introduce themself.
  • Say good morning to every person you encounter on the way to your work-station every day. Just a nod or a smile will not do. And even if you are in a hurry or in a bad mood, looking the other way and pretending you did not see them will not work. You have to greet everyone. Everything else is considered rude.

5. Learn to defend the restaurants and food in the UK.

Every so often, acquaintances will choose to press upon you their thoughts on the terrible state of British cuisine – most commonly based on a first-hand experience gained as a 16 or 17-year old some 20 odd years ago. They will be immune to any of your attempts to explain that this is really no longer the case. Many are so traumatised from these early experiences that they can neither be persuaded to make another visit to see for themselves, nor to refrain from making similar unfounded comments at a later date.

6. While you’re at it, expect to have to defend the NHS.

At some point you have to accept that the NHS has a bad reputation in Germany. But you will be overwhelmed by a sudden maternal instinct to stick up for the NHS and find yourself uttering something about ‚free at the point of care‘ with venom and just a little bit of pride in your voice. It may be ok for the Brits to criticise the NHS, but it is certainly not ok for outsiders to do so.

7. Learn to make the right sounds. 

Yes you’ve been bravely battling with articles, irregular verbs and sentence orders. There’s no way around that. But get the sounds right too. This will lend authenticity to your speech despite your strong British accent. Here are a few examples to get you started. Keep your ears open to pick more up along the way.

Puh: sound of complete exhaustion.

Aua: ouch.

Hä?: huh?

Oje: oh dear

na ja: oh well

8. Learn to love ‚Tatort‘.

If the Germans are honest with themselves, they will admit that ‚Tatort‘ (literally crime scene) is nothing but a mediocre weekly television crime series. Mediocre script, mediocre production and mediocre acting. But it’s been running since 1970 and partly because of reasons of nostalgia, everybody loves it. The series is set in a different German city every week, so that most people have their favourite commissar.  If you want to integrate quickly (and by the way it’s not bad for practicing your German listening skills and acquainting yourself with regional accents), learn to settle down to it every Sunday evening at 8.15pm so that you can take part in all Tatort-related discussions with your colleagues on a Monday morning back at work. Keep an eye out on your Facebook timeline feed on a Sunday afternoon, as occasionally reports will be bandied about that tonight’s Tatort episode is a particularly exceptional one. This is code for ‚watchable‘ for all non-Tatort lovers.

9. Say goodbye to pubs and hello to bars and cafes.

 The Germans are good at beer. If you are a beer lover, you will be in heaven. But don’t expect to find a friendly local pub and say goodbye to the tradition of a quick after-work pint. The ‚old-man’s pubs‘ or ‚Kneipe‘ in Germany are very literally reserved for old men. On the plus side, you will be stunned by the myriad of bars and cafes that are on offer in every city. The strong coffe and cake culture along with the wonderful options for brunch will leave you underwhelmed by Costa Coffe and Starbucks when you head back to a British highstreet.

10. Visit an ice-cream shop.

 Thought that ice-cream parlours are something that belong to 50s America or to countries with warmer climates?  The weather is not really any better than it is in the UK, but summer means ice-cream shops. You should be able to locate one around the corner from where you live. Meet friends for an ice-cream and revel in the many flavours and forms. Small tip: try the spaghetti ice-cream.

Why do fingers wrinkle up when immersed in water?

New research from scientists at a research institute in Berlin has found that the wrinkly fingers which occur after prolonged exposure to water serves no real purpose. A previous study from the Brits a year earlier had suggested that this phenomenon could produce an advantage in terms of grip and handling of objects in a wet environment (for example when reaching for the soap), but this latest study of 40 subjects failed to show a difference in dexterity or sensitivity between wrinkled and non-wrinkled hands after a period of water immersion. What is known is that skin wrinkling occurs as a result of constricted blood vessels which pulls the skin tissue inwards, triggered by the sympathetic nervous system.

The purpose of the shrivelled up finger therefore remains an unsolved mystery. No doubt that research will continue in this field on both sides of the Chanel to try and answer the question. Until then, Brits will have to put up with their shrivelled up fingers and the Germans with their concisely and aptly termed ‚Schrumpelfinger‘ without knowing why.


Immigration: give a little respect

The knowledge that Romanians and Bulgarians would have the right to live and work freely through Europe (as all other EU citizens) as of January 1st has led to heightened political and media furore in the preceding weeks – from talks of yearly caps on immigration to schemes to protect the social services – which has left many upstanding Romanians and Bulgarians feeling rightly stigmatised. And their indignant voices are loudly to be heard in social media and blogs. The UK media stands accused as the chief perpetrator of  disseminating anti-european and ill-informed sentiments. But if you look around, you will find measured opinions and fact-filled articles relating to the issue from both conservative and liberal news outlets. That is, if you choose to inform yourself. It is just as easy to read a few headlines which confirm previously held prejudices. From my point of view, there is no place for a 2nd rate European citizen. Either you are in Europe or you are not.

Discrimination is never ok. We all know that and accept that in a passive way. But yes, it prickles more the closer you are to it. And in a way, the more of us who feel it first-hand, the less likely we are to propagate it. Having your perfectly valid passport scratched suspiciously as an extra form of security check by the ‚friendly‘ man at border control or watching your mother being bullied by a clerk at the home office is enough to be sensitised on the issue for life.

Politicians have a duty to address immigration issues and journalists every right to discuss varied points of view. But the way in which immigration is handled – from politicians and journalists through to home offices and border security – should be with more respect. To everyone. Regardless if the person in front of you is well integrated and educated or worse off than you and looking for a better start in life. And if the officer at passport control chose to be pleasant about it as he did his job, that would be ok too.

Why does nostalgia make us happy?

I’m currently reading a very interesting and enjoyable book by Daniel Rettig which explores this very question- ‚Die guten alten Zeiten: Warum Nostalgie uns glücklich macht‘ (The good old times: Why nostalgia makes us happy‘ – not yet available in English, but perhaps in the future). From Homer’s Odyssey, through to the curious experiments and case reports of doctors and psychologists over the centuries to our present day love of all things vintage – Rettig explains why nostalgia is so important to us.

Hearing this wonderfully original cover and remix of 2 early nineties pop hits* on the way home after a night shift this morning made me more than a little bit nostalgic. For a time of sleep-over parties with friends you thought you would have forever, putting together dance routines in the playground, making daisy-chains and playing rounders and line-tag on the school field. And guess what, these thoughts made me happy. I’m looking forward to finishing the book to find out why this is the case.

In the mean time, if you’re a nineties kid and would like some nostalgia of your own, listen to Bastille ‚Of the night‘. A hit in the charts in the UK for a few weeks already and surely on its way up in the German pop charts. Enjoy.

*Rhythm is a dancer(Snap, 1992) /Rhythm of the night (Corona, 1993)

9 places you should visit in Germany in 2014

It’s easy to forget how diverse a country Germany is and just how much it has to offer. Living here has opened up parts of Germany I would never have thought to visit. Here are 9 places you should visit in Germany in 2014.

1. KIEL – in itself, Kiel would not be at the top of a must-see list for Germany. However, it is worth visiting this northern sea-side city in June during the Kieler Woche – the world’s largest sailing regatta. Even if you have no experience of sailing, you will be taken in by the buzzing maritime atmosphere. If sailing is not your thing, head to one of the nearby beach resorts (for example at Strande) and rent yourself a typical ‚Strandkorb‘ (literally sand basket) for a day – a cosy and sheltered way to enjoy a book, whatever the weather and a good introduction to the beloved Ostsee (Baltic sea).

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2. HAMBURG. You will not meet a single German who does not gush over Hamburg. For good reason. A guided boat ride through the harbour learning about one of Europe’s busiest ports, a walk through the fishmarket and dinner in a restaurant in the portuguese quater make for the perfect day out. And that’s not even mentioning the still-under-construction and architecturally fascinating Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Hall) or the relaxing atmosphere around the lake Alster. For a fun outing for both grown-ups and kids, visit the ‚Minatur Wunderland‘, the world’s largest model railway and seemingly a parallel world. If you still have an afternoon to spare, take a 30 minute ride out to the suburb of Blankenese for a walk through the ‚Treppenviertel‘ down to the river Elbe. So picturesque, you will wonder if you are in the make-believe Lilliput lane.

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3. Bike tour in BRANDENBURG. This eastern state stretching out and around Berlin is under-explored even by its natives.  Flat, open and often newly re-surfaced roads cut through fields and leafy trees passing through barely inhabited hamlets and villages – ideal for a bike tour. Century old churches and castles dot the landscape as well as country mansions with dramatic lakeside views (such as Haus Tornow) at affordable prices.  Enjoy the tranquility of the area and take the perfect opportunity to practice any German you learnt at school, as knowledge of English is patchy in this area. Those in search of a little bit of luxury should head to Gut Klostermühle for some rest and relaxation in its saunas and spa.

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4. Wine tasting at DURBACH. The picturesque town of Durbach perched on the hilly wine fields in the black forest is the perfect spot for a long weekend. Summer or winter, this place will not disappoint. Grab an apple from an unmanned stand and leave your fare in the honesty box, hike on the  through the wine fields up to Schloss Staufenberg and spend the evening at a winzer sipping the local wine –  you’ll be sure to go home with a case or 2 of Riesling. 

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5. MUNICH. The crown-jewel of the southern state of Bayern has a rich, showy and opulent flavour. You will be greeted by yet another stunning church, mansion or column at every corner you turn. Take a walk along the river Isar, stroll through the boutiques at Haidhausen and relax at a beer garden in the world famous English gardens. Whether you like beer or not, don’t leave before trying the speciality wheat beer (Weissbier). If you do like beer, there’s a little something called ‚Oktoberfest‘ waiting for you to arrive in your Dirndl/Lederhosen at the end of September every year.

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6. BERLIN. I’ve already mentioned some of the reasons I love Berlin. Start with a long breakfast at the French cafe Fleury in the district of Mitte before browsing through the small boutiques in the area. Take in some culture in the clutter of museums on the magnificent Museuminsel (museum island). On a sunny day, bring your swimming things and jump into the the Badeschiff or hang-out at one of the many stretches of white sand at a beach bar along the river Spree. If you’re feeling adventurous, try your luck at getting into the much-hyped techno-club Berghain. No one really understands the door policy, but the more individual you look, the higher your chance of a first-hand experience here.

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7.THE EIFEL. No not the big tower in Paris, but rather the low mountain range in western Germany – an underestimated area of beauty. A volcanic area centuries ago, the Eifel belongs to the Rhenish Massif. Bring your hiking boots and enjoy the many walking routes in this area. Monschau, Nideggen and Blankenheim are just a few of the picture perfect towns to gather supplies before you start off on your trek and for coffe and local cake (order a Streuselkuchen) at the end of a solid day of walking.

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8. Island-hopping at SYLT and FÖHR. Though I’ve never been there, these North Sea islands are adored by Germans. Take the whole family and spend a week in a holiday home – just remember to book well in advance. While Sylt is good for celebrity spotting, Föhr is a little quieter. Take a walk from Utersum through the wildlife protection area for nature at its purest, trample on sheep dung and traipse back to the small beach at Utersum, where people gather to enjoy the best sunset on the island. While Wyk and Nieblum count as the touristic hotspots, don’t miss out on the magic of Witsum. (Photos and tips courtesy of Thorsten Firlus)

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9. DÜSSELDORF – my surrogate ‚home-town‘ can’t be left out. And you may just end up on a business trip here. If you do, wander through the beautifully preserved Altstadt (old town) and spend a summer evening sipping white wine at the roof-top terrace of Düsseldorf’s most important music hall – ‚Der Tonhalle‘ and enjoy spectacular views across the Rhein. Or if you prefer, tuck into Bratwurst and the local Alt-beer a few hundred metres down the road at the river-side beer garden.

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