EXTRAWURST AUGUST 2003: DIE KRÄUTERHEX
This month, I’d like to write about the German drug scene and its chief ‘pusher’- theKräuterhex or ‘Herb Witch’ who, having died out long ago in the UK, is alive and kickingand plying her trade as well as ever here.
Before I moved to Germany, I’d hear the odd complaint about not being able to get this or thatlotion or potion that one can normally pick up in Superdrug in the UK without a full medicalexamination and the signing and stamping of various forms. I had always assumed that thiswas a consequence of a privatised health system and a way for the doctors to make money. Itprobably is, but I was to learn that this was merely a superficial symptom of a deeperunderlying cause.
In my first few months in Germany, I got a nasty sore throat. Now, normally, with somethinglike that in the UK, you’d go to Boots and pick up some Strepsils and maybe a bottle ofVeno’s. Instead, my mother-in-law suggested that the sure-fire way to get better was to makea Kartoffelwickel. As far as I understood it, this involves boiling some potatoes, mashing themup a bit and wrapping them in a tea towel around your neck. Putting the Kartoffelwickel ideadown as some elderly eccentricity, I went into the Apotheke to try and find something moreakin to my familiar brands of cough medicine. Instead of my familiar Veno’s, I got given abottle of something that appeared to be made from ivy leaves, which I had always thoughtwere poisonous.
My mother-in-law’s strange ideas (to my way of thinking) about the healing power ofpotatoes turned out to be normal in Germany not just among the older generation. When I gotan unexplained swelling in my ankles, a friend (some years younger than me) suggested that aQuarkwickel would see that off in no time. This consisted in smearing Quark (curd cheese) allover the afflicted areas and sitting with my feet up. This was very messy indeed but it did thetrick, although I suspected that it had more to do with having a rest than anything else.
During the birth of my son, I wasn’t offered anything to take the pain away (maybe I didn’tscream loudly enough) except a few pinhead-sized homeopathic pills which were meant torelax me. I can’t honestly remember whether they did or not! And then, once I had a baby, theinfluence of the Kräuterhex increased tenfold. Recipes for colic remedies from bizarre herbs,more Wickels to deal with fever and colds, bath potions and even something totally weirdinvolving some kind of dark brown root vegetable which one had to somehow extract juicefrom and pipette into the nose to deal with snuffles were just some of the advice from theKräuterhex in her various disguises of midwife, baby magazines and other new mothers.
So there we have it- while we grew up with household names such as Alka Selzer, Disprin,Reach for the Rennies, nothing acts faster than Anadin and so on, the Germans grew up withthe Kräuterhex and her lotions and potions. When anyone gets a bout of the runs here,Imodium is only in seldom cases the answer- instead; it’s a diet of Coca Cola and saltedpretzel sticks (one of the Kräuterhex’s more modern inventions).
The reason behind all of this is partly the retail structure and partly a more deep-seatedpsychological orientation to health and illness. Legislation (although this is changing) hasmeant that medicines, even herbally based ones) can only be bought in the Apotheke andmany drugs that we can buy over the counter are prescription only. There are no‘Supermarket’ – style chemist chains such as Boots here, and the Drogeries which are moreakin to Superdrug do not sell medicines as such. However, interestingly, Germans don’t find
it a nuisance that they have to make a separate trip to an Apotheke to get certain items; theirsomewhat hypochondriac nature delights in having an excuse to pick up more strange lotionsand potions while they are there; items sold only in the Apotheke- skincare or herbal teas, forexample, have a certain cachet. In some recent work I did on Vitamin C tablets, consumersgenerally pooh-poohed the Vitamin C that one can buy in Aldi and other supermarkets; thebelief is that these are probably almost placebo-like and that the only Vitamins that are worthtaking (even though they are three times as expensive) are the brands one can buy at theApotheke.
The retail structure in itself is an outward symptom of the underlying psychologicalorientation to health and illness in Germany. Traditional and ‘alternative’ medicine havenever been so divided here as in the UK. It is not unlikely that a ‘traditional’ Doctor wouldshare a practice with a homeopath or that a classically-trained dentist would also practiseacupuncture. It all goes back to a more holistic view of the body, mind and soul, which iscloser to an Eastern view sometimes that a UK view.
This has huge implications for food, drink and beauty products. There are huge markets herefor ‘anything herbal’. What in the UK is a tiny niche, such as ‘Herbal Candy’- like Ricola- isa huge market sector here. Herbal teas are huge - it’s sometimes difficult to find ‘normal’black tea amongst the array. In alcoholic drinks, there are certainly more varieties of herbalSchnapps than anyone would care to drink while yoghurts pop up with ingredients likehawthorn or Aloe Vera. One of the most popular flavours for children’s sweets and ice creamis Waldmeister - woodruff. While one gets the impression that, in the UK, many of theseherbal products are faddish; the old Kräuterhex has such a hold over the German public thather influence will never fade away.
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