Monday, December 01, 2008

On filth …

HH has a cold that’s been lingering for about ten days now, it’s settled into one of those deep, throaty colds with a very runny nose to boot. Today we will visit the doctor just to be safe, as if a visit to the doctor is necessarily safe. I feel less and less comforted by the medical establishment here with each visit to a physician’s office. First, there’s the obvious issue of sitting in a small, poorly ventilated room with a group sick children, all of whom are playing with, drooling over and sticking in their mouths, the same dirty toys that were probably played with and drooled over the day before. Don’t tell me the office staff goes around each night and cleans the toys – it isn’t happening. So if you weren’t sick when you came in, there’s a good chance some happy to meet you bug will settle in you somewhere and set up housekeeping.

The examination isn’t much more reassuring than the wait, at least 50% of the time the doctor wants another opinion or tells you the problem that brought you in could be caused by any of a number of things and that the best thing to do it wait and see if the condition worsens. I don’t expect these folks to be miracle workers but I would like to see them wash their hands now and then. That’s one of many differences I’ve noticed between doctors in the US and doctors in Germany – the German doctors don’t wash their hands nearly enough and generally have a laisse-faire attitude about the spreading of germs in their offices.

The Germans may be tidy at times but the cliché that they are organized in their work does not extend to their personal habits. Yesterday HH and I spent our Sunday in town. It was another cold, rainy, late Fall day here in Cologne and the apartment had become a bit too small for the three of us, so HH and I bundled up and set off for his favorite destination, the main train station. I know what you are thinking: This guy is obsessed with germs and he’s taking his child to the train station? Yes and Yes. There are few things that engage HH more than large equipment and pizza and the train station has both.

We spent a wonderful two hours wandering around the Hauptbanhof and environs and at the end of our journey we stopped in at an ice cream parlor for a scoop of stracciatella – vanilla ice cream swirled with very dark chocolate. There was a small seating area decorated for the holidays and we were lucky to find a free section of bench. It wasn’t that the area was crowded with people; there were a few homeless men staring at newspapers, but otherwise the place was pretty open. The difficulty was finding a space that wasn’t completely covered in trash. Trash was everywhere – French fries and bits of burger, empty cups and greasy paper, piles if it on the floors and tables and seats. There was a family sitting across from us - four adults and two children. When they finished their meal, they simply pushed their debris down the table and onto the accumulating mountain of garbage.

Over at the Dom Cathedral earlier in the afternoon I noticed two city ordinance officers rousting an artist who had set up a small table to sell hand-made Christmas stars. He apparently didn’t have a permit – didn’t pay his fee in other words – so he was being thrown off the square. These officers are the same people who are responsible for enforcing the litter laws but they are more interested in giving artists a hard time than they are in keeping the public spaces clean. We have a similar problem in our neighborhood. I’ve written about it before so I won’t bore you with it again, but I am reminded on an almost daily basis, that whatever social, familial or personal pressures may have existed during the time when the clichés about tidy Germans were penned, pressures that restrained people from trashing their public spaces, those pressures have disappeared, to be replaced by a legacy of filth that permeates every layer of the public experience.