New York Times
April 17, 2015
Let’s say you have a borderline embarrassing medical condition. Here’s how it goes down in America: You go to Target, walk past the dollar bins (keep walking, your local landfill thanks you), stroll to the pharmacy located near the free restrooms, pick up your over-the-counter medication, amble toward the registers while deciding which one of the many available cashiers will have the pleasure of ringing up your purchase, and finally pick up a pack of gum or the latest Disney princess Band-Aids. A minute later, the cashier asks, “Did you find everything you needed today?”
I moved to Germany two years ago, and my German friends tell me that they dislike this fake American friendliness. But it’s not fake! If you ever respond to the cashier with, “I did not find the all-in-one solar-paneled suntan spray with built-in fan that doubles as a beer mug,” said cashier will call over a colleague whose sole purpose will then be to find this object in the vast caverns of Target. Granted, maybe both of these employees hate their jobs, but you will never know that by their pleasant behavior. That’s America.
I recently went to my local pharmacy here in Munich, accompanied by my 8-year-old, to buy foot fungus cream. I don’t speak German, so I generally rely on my abilities to act out words to convey my needs. This is a reliable system when trying to buy chicken wings or a comb. But trying to act out foot fungus — fingers making creepy-crawly motions toward the bottom of my foot, scrunched up face conveying discomfort, perhaps slight disgust — didn’t seem promising.
Many doctors and pharmacists in Germany speak English, but just to be sure, before leaving my apartment, I looked up the German word for foot fungus: “fusspilz,” feet mushroom. Armed with the only word I needed to know, I entered the empty store and approached the pharmacist. “I am looking for medicine for foot fungus, fusspilz,” I added, in a low voice.
“This is for YOU?” she asked loudly, pointing to me. Her English was fine. Volume control, not so much.
My immediate thought was to say it was for my daughter. Unfortunately, I had not informed my daughter about my plans to include her and I knew her reaction — “But Mommy, I don’t have foot fungus!” — would lead to further shame. It had taken me a month to teach her not to say, “But Mommy, I don’t need to go,” when I claim that she — and not I — needs to use the restroom in a store. Even now, I have to remind her every single time: “Just go along with what I say because sometimes we have to lie in this country, which, for some reason, has no public bathrooms.” So I just answered, “Yes,” wondering why the pharmacist wanted to know who needed the medicine. What if I had said it’s for a friend? That’s what I should have said.
As soon as I confessed, a second pharmacist popped up, like a jack-in-the-box, from behind the counter. She said something to the first pharmacist, who said something back. It all sounded very judgmental. “What did they say?” I asked my daughter, who is not only my restroom decoy but also my translator.
“I wasn’t listening,” she said. That’s because she was too busy staring at the jar of lollipops that the pharmacists always offer kids here, as a gesture perhaps for not lying or having foot fungus.
“You have foot fungus?” the second pharmacist asked. Why was she getting involved? I did not need, or want, two pharmacists.
“Yes,” I said, again.
She then reached for a small box behind the counter.
The first pharmacist said, “You use TWO times,” holding up two fingers. “Every day.”
“Wear socks, then wash socks,” the second one added.
“Wash socks in HOT water,” the first one said.
“But not with other clothes,” No.2 added.
“Separately,” No.1 said.
“More laundry! Lucky me!” I said, trying to be funny, which never works in Germany.
“This is because you have foot fungus,” No.1 reminded me.
“Yes, I do,” I confessed again.
I paid for the ointment, while my daughter selected a lollipop.
As we left the shame shack, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the Target employees whose names I may not remember, but whose earnestness I do. I miss you.