Dienstag, 15. April 2014

Heaven in Germany is a chemists with angels dressed in fitness garb

You're never more than a stone's throw from heaven in Germany 

just look out for the Apotheke sign.

Passing Marienplatz the other day I suddenly feel a throbbing pain in my right leg. The knee hadn’t felt right since a couple days, when I sprained it rushing for the train, which I could see pulling into the station from the other side of the carpark.  A typical situation in which you know what you’re doing won’t do you any good, yet the short-term alternative – missing your connection – overweighs all other potentially worse outcomes. Bursting out into an athletic sprint I'd managed to make the connection, slumping with relief – but not without a huff, puff and wheeze – onto a seat in the end carriage.
By Friday afternoon, however, I’m much the worse for wear from my Olympian performance. Doctors’ surgeries already deserted for the weekend, I decide to slip into the nearest chemists’ for some instant pain relief. German chemists are like nothing you’ll ever see in the rest of the world, where a chemists nowadays is usually a pop-up “prescriptions counter”, in the corner of a crowded supermarket. In Germany every single chemists is unique. My local store, for example, in the nation's largest hop-growing area, has entire shelves devoted to personal-hygiene products made from hops: deodorants, shampoos, face, toe and nail creams. Even the corn plasters smell of beer.

Walking in you immediately feel like you’ve arrived at heaven’s doorstep. Smiling assistants welcome you with a "Grüss Gott" (literally "God greet you"), all identically dressed in sporty t-shirts, often with flowing white gowns and matching clog-like footwear. Without sanitary gowns, however, they look more like training assistants in a fitness club, ready to help tighten your straps on the body building equipment. The best thing about going into a German chemists is that about five staff immediately appear from nowhere and offer you help and advice – all at once. A bit like that scene in Pretty Woman, where Vivian is being helped in and out of shoes and skirts by a dozen brown-nosing salespersons.

The customer-to-salesperson ratio is slightly lower in this particular chemists, perhaps because it’s right under the Altes Rathaus, home of Munich’s world-famous Glockenspiel, so it probably gets one or two tourists popping in too. Still, as I stand in queue, waiting to buy a bandage, I’m relieved to see plenty of sales tills open. Deutsche Bahn and Aldi should note this.
For a spring day it’s pretty warm – about 20 degrees –  and, wiping the sweat off my forehead, I spot an elderly lady über-laden with “Kaufhof” shopping bags looking as if she’s just about to faint. A saleswoman, quick off the mark, manages to break her fall, and with the other arm quickly grabs hold of a chair for her to recover in. Over in the corner sits another customer, a bald gentleman with a pretty sales assistant leaning over him. I may be mistaken, but from where I’m standing she appears to be massaging his thumb. Before I can do a double take though it's my turn to be served.

I ask for a bandage, explaining I need it on straight away. The salesgirl produces some scissors and waits patiently as I, still front of queue, clumsily cut off a piece and start winding it round my troubled knee. Seeing my difficulty doing this standing up she apologises for the lack of chairs, gesturing to the elderly lady sitting with shopping bags and the bald gentleman, who really does look like he's being thumb massaged. 

Chemists assistants look more like fitness instructors 

The elderly lady, I notice, is now fully conscious again and murmuring between pouted lips, addressing no one in particular – as people of a certain age tend to do – about not being able to find a single store in the Bavarian capital where you can sit down and rest. I’m about to suggest that central Munich, with its highest density of cafes and bars in the world, surely has enough seating to fill the Allianz Arena a million times over, when I suddenly find myself agreeing – nodding like a Chihuahua dog bobbling from a car mirror. What’s the point of cosy sofas in a Starbucks at every corner, when you’re in the middle of the weekly food run, stuck between freezer cupboards and toiletries aisle, and suddenly go weak at the knees? Whoever invented the expression “shop till you drop” certainly hadn't reckoned with the disastrous effects of collapsing in a German supermarket.   
Semi squatting on the floor, one leg tucked behind the other like a dying crab, I struggle to bandage my leg up as best I can in the circumstances, wishing there wasn't a crowd of onlookers queuing right behind me. My gaze drifts from the sales assistant, who’s grinning as if to say “We don’t get this sort of thing happening every day”, to the woman recovering on her chair, still holding forth about the lack of seating in Munich stores.

Thanking the kind chemist, I get back up on my legs again, hobble out onto Marienplatz – and search for somewhere to sit.

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