Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Sauerkrautin' With Dr. Joe

Been meaning to get back here, but I've had actual work, and, worse, money coming in that had to be spent on stuff like food and phone bills and so on. Errands like that eat up you blogging time.

So does going to the doctor. That's a rather famous moment for new arrivals here: they make an appointment, show up a bit early and wait. And wait. And wait. Because no matter what you've heard about German promptness -- the textbook I used when I was trying to learn the language had cultural sidebars, and one said to show up 15 minutes early to make a good impression -- it ain't so, not at the doctor's office. This is because they often just have office hours -- first come, first served, and if you're dying, well, you can wait just like everyone else.

Even though my doctor is an American, he works in a practice with a bunch of German doctors, and I guess he does see some German patients, too. And please note that I'm not disparaging German medicine by having an American doctor; it's just that when it comes to something as crucial as medical advice, I want it in English.

But I was out of blood pressure medicine (there are no refillable prescriptions in this country), had been for a week, and now Dr. Joe was asking me to come in. "I haven't seen you in a while," he said, and I guess he was right. I'm the kind who stays out of the doctor's office unless there's something wrong, which separates me from the Germans, who go to the doctor on any pretext whatever. So I made an appointment and went in on Thursday.

Naturally, I was late. The new ring S-Bahn around Berlin is a wonder, a real time-saver, and once you get the hang of it, it's the best way to get to a lot of places. Trouble is, you're never going to get the hang of it from the signs in the stations, so I jumped right on a train and discovered immediately I'd gone the wrong direction. The great thing about the ring is it's like an express train: lots of space between the stations, all of which are transfer points. That's the bad thing, too: I was way out of the way by the time I started back in the other direction, towards the west.

But this was to my advantage. I had no sooner gotten to his door than Dr. Joe burst out, looking for me and nearly colliding with me, which didn't do my blood pressure any good. He invited me in, and immediately started complaining. He'd been sold this device for billing time on house calls -- yes, doctors here still make house calls, believe it or not -- and the company that sold it to him gave him a cable that was incompatible with his Mac. They even admitted it was the wrong cable, and, after much complaining, sent a technician out to swap them. But not only are they still looking for the money for what they clearly and in writing admitted was a bad cable, they've already turned the payment over to a collection agency. Meanwhile, the bad cable managed to erase a whole quarter's worth of billing. So you can see why he's pissed.

"The thing I don't get," he said, "is why they'd want to incur such ill will from a customer." Ah, but I understand: it's all part of a German business tradition in which the customer is always wrong. The customer is the jerk who walks into my store so I can't have an eight-hour coffee break. The customer seems to think it's my responsibility that he buys the right item. The customer expects me to understand the subtle differences between the various similar things I sell. Yes, there's a German word for customer service -- Kundendienst -- but I have no idea what it's supposed to mean, because it sure doesn't have much to do with what it means in English.

The thing is, we noted as we got from the specific to the general, that it has to do with the way people perceive their jobs here. You do your job as outlined by the boss, you don't ask questions or try to find a better way to do it, and you don't appreciate being asked anything that's outside your job description. The boss has his boss, too, and he's just as stiff. Eventually, you reach the top, where a couple of very wealthy guys run the company pretty much the way it's always been run. After all, that works, doesn't it? Individual initiative is frowned upon as a betrayal of the hierarchy. "This is absolutely amazing to me," Dr. Joe said. "I grew up in Rochester, New York, which is, of course, Eastman Kodak, and they were famous for having suggestion boxes. If an employee put an idea in there that was adopted, why, they rewarded him with stock!" (Of course no one here would understand that because no one here except the insurance companies owns stock: if you make a bunch of money the last thing you do is invest it when you could buy a boat, a bigger car, or a fancier vacation.)

This always reminds me of a speech I read about in the International Herald Tribune one day, given by the outgoing head of the European Bank, in which he was talking about the difference between the U.S. and Europe. He lamented the kind of rigid thinking that frowns on and stifles innovation and individualism, and noted that Europe, under its present culture, would never produce a Bill Gates, because no young European would ever dare drop out of a university just because he thought he had a good idea and wanted to pursue it. He'd stay in college, go for the graduate degree, take a job in some large firm, and...eventually someone else would discover the good idea. Because, after all, who am I to think I'm smarter than my teachers, than the men who have always run the big firms? There's a guaranteed path to the top, so why bother to step off of it?

Of course, I'm bitter because I tried to start a company here myself, and kept running into people who had money but asked "Wo ist die Sicherheit?" -- "Where's the security?" -- when it came to investing. They thought it was pushy to start something from scratch. And it involved risk, and no one wants that.

Anyway, it was time to roll up my sleeve so Dr. Joe could take my blood pressure. I tried to tell him that taking my blood pressure wouldn't do much good since I'd been off the meds for a week and had just had two strong cups of coffee, not to mention that the conversation we were having had made my blood boil, but we did it, I flunked (of course) and I got my meds.

There's more to this story, too, but it came after Dr. Joe said "Not to get personal, but you're a single guy..." and the conversation turned to German women. I'd go into that, too, but I went to pay my bar tab yesterday (see the post headlined "Walk" for the context there -- and thanks, B, for helping me with that, although Daniel did point out you were responsible for a bunch of it yourself!), and found out some things I'd rather not have found out. And this is Sauerkraut, not Bitterkraut, so at this point, dear reader, we draw the curtains as I assure you I'll write that piece sometime, just not today.

And I'll definitely try to check in again sooner than later. Here, let me make an appointment...

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