Expat Life: Going topless

I'm not sure what it says about me that the event that has finally prompted me to resurrect my languishing blog was an awkward experience in a foreign country involving partial nudity.

What's even odder is that I hadn't felt this inspired at all during 2019, which had been full of really blogworthy happenings, including:
  •  the two international moves we made in 8 months (oh, by the way, we live in Germany now)
  •  the romantic elopement of our older son and his stunning bride in Gibraltar (I know, right? What's wrong with me?)
  •  the university graduation of the younger son from his Uni in Amsterdam (and MrO's and my equally-significant 'graduation' from years of paying tuition.)
  •  the sale of our US 'home base' of 15 years and ensuing statelessness.
(So, yes, things have changed a few times since we packed up with our teenagers to move for 'just two years' to Seoul  back in 2011.  But I digress.)

So why the silence on the blog? Well, for one thing, most of the above events were mercilessly endlessly documented (by me and others) on just about every social media platform available, it seemed almost obnoxious to add blog posts to the mix. Part of it, too, was the feeling that many of the other bloggers I followed seemed to be migrating to other platforms, so the feeling of camaraderie and community that I used to get from blogging had faded somewhat. Besides, we'd been living in England for quite a while and there wasn't much to say that hadn't been said already by me or some other expat blogger about the charm and beauty of the verdant English countryside and all the historical buildings around us or the hilarity of a dessert called Spotted Dick.

But then we moved to Germany, and I found myself once again coming face-to-face with all those only in another culture situations that just beg to be blogged about - with 'slightly embarrassing, partly clothed medical procedure' easily topping the list.  I'm sure that 
those of you were following me back when we lived in Korea and remember my experience with the Crazy Robotic Gyno Chair will probably not be surprised that My Awkward German Mammogram presented itself as the perfect vehicle for a return to my online presence. Read on. 

As I was saying, here we are in Germany.  Having arrived in early November and being immediately hit in the face with the fire hose that is the holiday season here (How many Christmas Markets can you go to in six weeks?), I'd been a bit lax about tracking down the usual list of providers that every new expat assignment necessitates - doctor, dentist, hairdresser, vet, etc.  (Actually,  the dog got a vet pretty quickly- a story in itself - but other than that, we just hoped to remain healthy until after the New Year.)

So when I got a letter telling me that I'd been scheduled for a mammogram  as part of the screening programme here in Rheinland-Pfalz, I thought, Why not? I was due for one, and at the very least it would save me having to track down a specialist and make an appointment on my own.

Accordingly, I presented myself at the appointed time at the screening centre, prepared with a book, my health records, and lively anticipation of a new opportunity to be embarrassed experience health care in yet another culture.

Now, to be fair, getting a mammogram is not particularly embarrassing - at least, not to me.  (I've been getting them since my early 30s due to family history.) In fact, my experience in Korea was so benign that it never even seemed interesting enough to write about.  The setting, I'll grant you, was pretty incredible - like something out of a TV drama. The English-speaking specialist I found was a cosmetic breast surgeon who had trained at UCLA and worked out of a super-swank plastic surgery clinic in the  posh Gangnam neighbourhood, so the whole practice was very luxurious and mostly geared toward beautiful, wealthy young women getting implant surgery(clearly not my demographic, but you do what you have to when you need an English-speaking specialist). Everything in the office (on the 10th floor of a high-rise) was was decorated in shades of pink (including the gowns), the music was soft, and the furnishings were luxurious.  The changing rooms featured zen bamboo lockers for your clothes, and there were organic soaps and lotions in the bathrooms.  But the experience itself (beyond a few awkward moments where the radiology tech clearly wasn't used to dealing with Anglo-Saxon-sized boobs) was more or less the same as in the USA.

In case you haven't experienced a mammogram in the US (where we are a bit more uptight modest than Europe,) patients are checked in and then given a gown to change into. During the procedure, each individual side of the gown is removed just enough to expose the part being radiated, then immediately covered back up again. This was the same procedure I followed in my swanky private clinic in Korea, so - outside of the language barrier - there was little difference between the procedure in the two countries.

Fast forward to England, where the experience was in a far less fancy hospital setting but had the benefit of being fully comprehensible at all times -which was very helpful because I was able to be 100% sure I understood what was going on when I discovered there were no gowns.  I was simply ushered into a room (wearing my clothes) with the radiologist (a very pleasant lady whom I got to know in ensuing years) and - after she'd asked a few health history questions -indicated that I should 'nip my jumper and bra off' right then and there and she'd get down to business. No gowns, no, "I'll step out whilst you're changing and come back later so this whole thing takes much longer than necessary" and no wasted time.  During the 4 years I lived in England, I got quite efficient at it.

So, upon moving to Germany - in the heart of a culture where a very relaxed European attitude towards nudity prevails (naked saunas and spas, topless swimming pools, etc), I anticipated an equally relaxed attitude to providing gowns for what was, after all, not such a Big Deal. In fact, before I left for my appointment,  I joked with MrO that I wouldn't be completely surprised to find myself sitting around in the waiting room with a bunch of other topless women awaiting my turn. Hahaha.

(No, that didn't happen, but the important thing was that I was fully open to the possibility. See how exposure to different cultures broadens your mind?)

After presenting myself and my credentials at reception, I sat down in the waiting area (not a gown in sight), watching alertly, wondering how it was going to work in Germany and trying to remind myself that this was an Interesting Cultural Experience. Note:  These 'interesting cultural experiences' are almost always more fun to read about than they are to actually have. But I digress

Finally, my name was called - and I did have a brief moment where I thought that my 'topless waiting room' fears might come true when  I was ushered to a tiny changing room with two doors;   one that I entered through, and the other -my panicked brain reckoned - could/would/might lead into the next waiting room.  The receptionist chanted, "Lock this door when I leave, then take off everything above the waist -and your glasses." and then vanished. I did as I was instructed and then, sat, uncertainly - topless and blind - on the little bench in the room, wondering what to do next and listening to the free-flow nonstop chatter of my anxiety-ridden brain: Was I supposed to go through the door -or  sit there and wait?  How long should I wait? Maybe someone was out there waiting for ME? She hadn't told me to leave, but she also hadn't told me anyone would come get me.  Would they even remember I was there?Maybe there was someone on the other side of the door expecting me to emerge?  Were my darkly humorous predictions going to come true?  If I did go through the door, was I actually going to find myself in a topless waiting room? Surely not..but if so, what was the correct German greeting for such a situation?* Was there a special one if you were topless?   Maybe I should just go through that door. But maybe the other room was the radiology room and someone else was having their topless mammogram on the other side of the door?  I guess I'll just sit here and wait.  But maybe I AM supposed to go out there. 

With such thoughts I tortured entertained myself until there was a knock at the interior door and I was summoned by the radiologist into what turned out to be an adjoining room with (thankfully) just her, me, and the machine, where things proceeded in a way I could (finally) understand.  20 minutes later, I was walking out of the office with -bonus!-some thoughts about reactivating my blog.

True, my morning didn't fit into the typical 'Instagrammable' depiction of expat life:  breathtaking scenery, lattes at the sidewalk cafe in a historic cobblestoned square, and sun glinting off the golden steeple of some venerable cathedral. However, it is the type of 'cultural collision' that most expats recognize and often look back on with fondness. These awkward, embarrassing moments are a rite of passage, a shared suffering, and maybe -a mark of belonging to our tribe.

(still.... definitely relieved there was no topless waiting room.)

*Cultural note:  you always greet people when you walk into a doctor's waiting room in Germany.


Oxfordshire said…
Nice to read you again; thank you for posting!
MsCaroline said…
It's good to *be* back - although it's been so long that I was debating whether or not to just bin the whole thing and start from scratch! Encouraging to know that there are some 'old friends' out there!

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