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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Day I Got Bird Flu

There seems to always be some kind of flu epidemic threatening to wipe out all of mankind. Last year it was Swine Flu (or rather, H1N1), and in 2006, it was slightly less glamorous Avian Flu. This might not be on the forefront of many of my readers' minds, as this epidemic was primarily contained to Africa and Europe. But I had the great fortune to be living in Goettingen, Germany at the height of the spread of Bird Flu Frenzy through much of Europe, including Germany.

It started quietly, as lethal epidemics are wont to do. We heard news stories in passing about a so-called "bird flu" in Africa and didn't give a second thought to those poor chickens with mild fevers and achy bodies. In our favorite pizzeria or the local cd shop, we would hear snippets of news reports alerting us to the fact that bird flu now had documented cases in Turkey and China. However, these reports were of little concern for us, and not just because they were in rapid-fire, usually incoherent reporter-style German.

As the flu spread across Europe, the message of its danger slowly worked its way into our heads. Somewhere, hidden among my thoughts of the cute new line of sweaters at H&M or how unbelievably cold central Germany can be at 2am after a night of drinking in the local "Irish" pub, these invasive thoughts began to take hold. Without realizing it, I began to avoid large groups of pigeons (a difficult feat in downtown Goettingen, as the Gaenseliesel is a prime target for pigeon excrement-shooting practice). "Bird Flu" eased its way into our vernacular. Upon seeing a dead sparrow in the gutter, someone would jokingly call out that "bird flu has claimed another victim," to the naive laughter of those around.

Spring spread slowly across Germany, carrying with it the dark cloud of reality that was bird flu. Gone were the days of lax joking at the expense of a fallen bird. When the news came on between atrocious German techno songs on the radio at our beloved pizza restaurant, an eerie calm fell over everyone as we listened anxiously to hear of the latest dead goose with bird flu found within the borders of the Fatherland. We hurried past the loitering group of ominous looking pigeons as they taunted us from atop the Little Goose Girl statue with their potential to die suddenly at our feet and thusly condemn us to an abrupt, albeit terrible, death by Bird Flu. We memorized lists of possible symptoms of the virus and were quick to unapologetically banish anyone from our midst who so much as sniffled.

The government began issuing warnings to the public. Typically, public health warnings are somewhat tame; a short news bulletin you listen to in passing, casually taking into consideration the suggestions for maintaining your own good health and preserving the health of your loved ones around you. But that's because we typically hear public health warnings in English (those of us from English-speaking countries, at least). There are few things more terrifying than hearing a solemn male voice dictating instructions to the public through overhead speakers (the radio speakers were hung from the ceiling in our friend's pizzeria) - in German.

Instantly, my mind took me to 1944. What was this voice saying? Were the Allies going to bomb us soon? When would the air raid sirens go off? Who, exactly, was this, addressing his public with that stern, determined voice of confidence? Everything will turn out okay if we just obey your every command, Authoritative German Male Voice? We won't die if we blindly follow you to the bitter end?? JAWOHL, MEIN HERR!!!

Okay, it wasn't really THAT terrifying, but I'd be lying if I said there weren't whispers of such vague impressions hidden among the news broadcasts.

It was in the midst of this wide-spread public hysteria that my daily 4 mile walks around town in several inches of snow and not nearly enough clothing (because who wants to be warm when you can show off your sexy Euro-trash-style clothing?), combined, most likely, with the consumption of far too much pizza, finally caught up with me.

I woke suddenly early one morning, around 3am, sweating profusely, shaking violently, and under a heavy fog of fever-induced delirium. I made a mad-dash to my dorm-style apartment's unisex, shared bathroom and threw up violently for several minutes. As I literally crawled back to my room, my body shaking with regular convulsions from the illness that had taken over, it dawned on me that I had, in spite of my unfaltering obedience to the German government and their warnings, somehow contracted bird flu, and was hereby condemned to die.

Back in my room, I huddled on top of my sweat-soaked sheets, pulled my knees to my chest, and began rocking back and forth as I sobbed to myself over the realization that my last hours were going to be spent alone and miserable in Germany. Eventually, I managed to fall back into the April 1945-esque nightmares of my delirious sleep.

Several hours later I awoke, fever broken, and feeling alarmingly good for someone who had surely just died of bird flu less than 3 hours ago. As the sun shone brightly onto my sweat-stained sheets, I realized, had I really be dying (or really had bird flu), it probably would have been reasonable if I'd called my boss and requested a ride to the local hospital. I hadn't thought of such a simple solution due to the nightmarish ramblings of my fevered mind. Fortunately, it turned out to only be some kind of 24 hour bug.

In spite of this near-death experience, I still never bothered to learn how to call an ambulance in Germany. I just always figured, I lucked out and didn't need medical attention, surely I wouldn't get that sick again. After all, I was in Germany, where bad things never happen twice.

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