Wednesday, August 8, 2012

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #22: Home Sick and Krankgeschrieben


By Jeffrey D. Allers 

Editor's note:  this was originally posted on December 1, 2007, on the now-defunct Boardgamenews website.  I am publishing the article again because it was during this time that the design for my forthcoming game, Nieuw Amsterdam, was born.

I apologize if this article sounds a bit nasal, but I’m home sick and, frankly, lucky to get in a complete sentence between sneezes. “Gesundheit!” you may say, as the Germans do without ever skipping a beat. The word actually means “health,” a subject my Berlin friends take quite seriously. In fact, most seem to have studied medicine, as they are never afraid to disagree with my doctor’s diagnosis and offer their own alternative treatment program.

I think that I’ve now received about all the health advice they can give me, as my 15-month-old twin sons have been sick for most of the past two months. My wife and I are averaging three trips to the clinic each week, in about every conceivable combination: Mom with son, Dad with other son, Mom alone, or the whole family. Our doctor is a wonderful person and all, but we wouldn’t mind seeing less of her.

I shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve faced one wave of contagions after another. It’s to be expected in a city of 3.5 million people. I don’t recall getting sick that much as a child, but there were 3,470,000 less people sharing germs in the small town in which I grew up. I don’t ever recall the doctor’s waiting room being so full, either.

In fact, if Frau Doctor von Stiphout wasn’t such a friendly and helpful physician, I might suspect her of trying to garner a bit of repeat business. After our first round of antibiotics for bronchitis, we were told to bring the boys back for a check-up to make sure they were on the road to recovery. The Monday morning waiting room, however, was packed with screaming toddlers, sneezing in all directions, their faces dripping with mucous. A few days later, our whole family had a bad case of the stomach flu.

We’re now into the eighth week of our own private epidemic, and have come full circle back to bronchitis, with a nostalgic look at Scarlet Fever in between. Friends of ours with children offer us knowing sympathy, friends without children can barely disguise their horror, and single friends have absolutely no clue what we are going through.

I suppose I didn’t either, before I was married. As a child, being home sick was sometimes like a party, especially that second day after the fever broke and I could start to enjoy myself, although I was not yet healthy enough to return to school. It was on one of my sick days as a child that I discovered my father’s early Bill Cosby comedy records and laughed myself to health with such classic sketches as “Street Football” and “Tonsils.” And I was never one to miss an opportunity to coerce my caring mother into humoring her stricken son.

“Mom, can we play a game?”

My sons will have quite a bit more selection to tempt them when their throats are sore, but a simple game of Checkers with mom was a real treat back then, and it was the only time the two of us ever played a game without the rest of the family.

None of us—not even me—have felt like playing games the past few weeks, however. I’ve had to cancel more than a few game nights due to being “under the weather.” That phrase, by the way, really means something here. In the midst of the Berlin winter, you really do feel the weight of the gray cloud cover pressing down on you, letting loose a little drizzle or icy rain (and occasional wet snow), covering the sun until it peaks through, just before setting a little after three o’clock in the afternoon. So in case you are wondering about the weather here (and most friends from the U.S. seem to be, as they always ask), we are very much under it, in all its gray, wet heaviness.

That’s why Berliners light lots of candles—not really because they are so energy conscious, which they are, but more in an attempt to transform a dark, dank season into something cozy and atmospheric. It succeeds wonderfully, as every Berlin apartment suddenly possesses the ambience of a chic café. Even the traditional German Christmas handicrafts—from pyramids and Schwibbogen to wooden renderings of miners and angels—all have places for miniature candles in them. Of course, a candlelit room is not the best setting for board game playing, especially when the players are required to differentiate between brown, purple and black wooden cubes.

Winter is, however, a booming time for board games when the lights finally do come on. It can’t possibly be a coincidence that the SPIEL convention is Essen floods the German market right before winter, when there is plenty of indoor time to fill. In fact, I’m looking forward to introducing one of our neighbors to more of my games in the coming months. He recently joined the game group that I hold for a few teenage boys in my neighborhood and had a blast with the card game, Korsar. The next day, he ordered a copy online. That Saturday, my wife and I introduced Zug um Zug (Ticket to Ride) to him and his spouse. The next day—you guessed it—he was back at his computer, adding another game to his online shopping cart.

In addition to being a promising new gaming disciple, however, he and his family have become good friends, especially in our recent time of pseudo-crisis. Along with others in our neighborhood, they have brought us a myriad of delicious soups, served together with all sorts of medical advice, of course. Usually, it involves tea.

By the way, I simply do not like tea. Coffee is my hot beverage of choice, but I started drinking that only after moving to Berlin. I once thought that I could learn to love tea in the same way that I learned to drink coffee—or worse, mineral water with gas—but it never happened. Sometimes, I even force myself to be that culturally-adaptable guy, sharing a pot with a generous host, but I’ve found that it’s hard not to wince when I take a sip. Sometimes I’m even tempted by the aroma or the ingredients—raspberry vanilla sounds delicious—but it all ends up tasting like hot water to me. I’ll happily play Darjeeling or any other game about tea, but I just can’t develop a taste for it.

My friends all know this about me by now, but it doesn’t stop the lectures about how this peppermint tea or that herbal tea will cure me faster than any antibiotic. I appreciate the fact that they want to do things naturally, but until they can offer me a healing, herbal coffee, I’ll go fill my prescription and be happy about it.

Always receiving unsolicited health advice, that is, advice about your Gesundheit, does get old after awhile. In fact, I’ve come to realize that opinions about what is healthy are as much a component of our cultures as anything else.

Germans, for example, are often complaining about their circulation, something I’d never heard of in the U.S. unless a person’s arteries are severely clogged.  It often just seems to be a more dramatic way of saying they are tired out, perhaps in order to get Krankgeschrieben, the all-important doctors excuse to miss work or school.

Additionally, friends have told me that a red light is the cure for an aching ear, that stretching out on the cool ground will give me a kidney infection, that a draft (including a fresh breeze in summer) can give me a neck ache, that long bangs could make my sons cross-eyed, and that a reheated spinach casserole is poisonous.

Another friend, who was suffering from a cold at the same time I was, looked me directly in the eyes and scolded me for not drinking tea. Then she stepped outside for a cigarette break.

I suppose they all mean well, and some of their advice could certainly turn out to be helpful, but it can also be confusing, similar to playing a complex game like Caylus for the first time with experienced opponents who are always telling you the strategies you should take.

So I’m content for the time being to hole up in our apartment, take care of my family, devour our tasty soup-gifts, and avoid tea. I even designed a game, although the last time I did that in such circumstances, it was a bit too much for my playtesting group. “I designed it when I was sick,” I confessed. “And now we are too,” one of them wittily remarked.

And even though I wrote this Postcard while I was home sick, I hope reading it doesn’t inadvertently affect your Gesundheit.

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