Moving to Germany? Bring medicine


I’ll never forget the first time I got sick in Germany.

In Canada, the common cold is a trivial annoyance. Simply trudge to the nearest Shopper’s Drug Mart and buy a bottle of Tylenol Cold, perhaps with a Robitussin chaser for the cough. Put the kettle on that night, sip a mug of NeoCitran with a dash of gin, and achieve a fantastic, un-nose-blocked sleep. You’ll wake the next morning feeling surprisingly tolerable.

This will never happen to you in Germany.

There aren’t any Shopper’s Drug Marts, for one. We can’t even buy ibuprofen over the counter here. We have to queue for it at a pharmacy during pharmacy hours.

If you manage to survive the grilling, which you will endure in front of the other customers — “Frau Schneider! Where ist za lotion for itching haemorrhoids?” — then you will be doled out ten to twenty measly tablets. Need more than a handful? You’ll have to go back.

But I was telling you about the first time I caught a cold in Berlin.

I diligently wrote down “I have a cough” on a scrap of paper (“Ich habe Husten”) and read my phrase with a pitiful look.

It was clear to the pharmacist’s keen diagnostic eye that I didn’t understand a word of his rapid fire response, and so he sighed a martyr’s sigh and said, “English?”

I described my symptoms, and expressed a desire to get through an important call without coughing my face blue later that day.

He gave me a bottle, with instructions to swallow a cup of this swill 4 or 5 times per day.

The fact that I immediately began coughing more — not less — was my first indication something was wrong. The ‘medicine’ induced a cross between whooping cough and late stage tuberculosis. 

Needless to say, my meeting was a disaster. I spent the entire night trying to expel the lower third of my lungs. And when I looked up the ingredients the next morning, I learned this was intentional.

You see, the pharmacist hadn’t given me medicine at all. He’d pawned me off with some herbal crap that encouraged coughing rather than suppressing it — with added honey to soothe the raging sore throat nonstop coughing will inevitably produce. 

When I went back the next day to ask for something different, he tried to slip me more of the same. That and fucking herbal tea.

Despite an unarguable gift for precision engineering, Germans cling to beliefs about health that are positively medieval.

Of course, these are the same subway-window-slammers who believe feeling a draft on their neck will make them ill. I’m honestly surprised they aren’t still doing bloodletting.

You might as well kill yourself if you get a cold here. You’ll want to by the time Galen is through balancing your four bodily humors.

Allow me to set something down for posterity. We cough because we’re contagious as fuck. It’s a virus’s way of spreading itself to other hosts. Lying awake all night hacking will only induce further exhaustion, which is a great way to ensure your body finally succumbs.

The idea that coughing more will make one’s cold go away faster is a theory taken from the Middle Ages. 

If you go to a German pharmacy — and often, to a doctor — you will have to fight long and hard for modern Western medicine. 

I believe their train of thought goes like this. You’re sick, so go home and stay there for as long as it takes to get better. In fact, you must take to your bed at the first sign of the sniffles. The ineffective herbal crap will give you something to do while you wait it out.

“Surely you have sick benefit insurance with your mandatory health care?” they’ll ask. And I must say, “Nein.” 

I can barely afford their basic health care, let alone the 83 types of insurance the average German clings to in trembling fear of a future we can’t predict.

I want medicine. Western medicine. Chemicals that will unblock my nose so I can have a good sleep. Syrup based on actual science that will get me through a meeting without expelling a lung. 

Using chemistry to take my symptoms away may not rid me of the cold, but at least I can still do normal things, like read and work. We’re living in Europe in the 21st century. It shouldn’t be too much to ask.  

The fucking teas are the worst. 

And while we’re on the subject, insipid flower water isn’t tea. My grandparents were Irish. I can identify a nice fortifying cup of tea from three rooms away. Your elderflower piss is something else. And don’t even get me started on chamomile.

As for homeopathy, German doctors take note. The Skeptic Society devoted an entire issue of their magazine to debunking that New Age placebo — in 1994!

So yeah, if you’re moving to Germany — or if you’re coming to visit me — BYOM (bring your own medicine). Western medicine that actually works because it’s based on the miracle of modern chemistry. You’ll thank me later.

My greatest fear is that the American culture war will make its way to the German medical establishment. 

A prescription for dandelion tea would be the least of our worries. They’ll be diagnosing wandering gender and malignant whiteness next.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • Hey Ryan’
    Hope you are over your cold and have suffered appropriately like a good citizen!
    Would a care package containing actual western medicines ever make it through customs to you? Or would you end up in jail?
    Have filed your recommendations away for future travel (when that future is I’m not sure)
    Get well

    • Hi Guy,

      Thankfully, I haven’t had a cold since that first winter here in 2017. But I do love a good culture clash rant — especially when my own assumptions lead to unintentional comedy.

      Hope you’re staying well.



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