In our flat in Berlin, Angeles is trying on various blouses, sweaters, and jackets. With each combination, she asks me, “Do I look pregnant in this?” “Danger! Danger!” I tell myself. This is one of those questions that has no right answer. A little white lie would be pointless, as Angeles is eight months pregnant. This all relates to the fact that Scandinavian Airlines does not allow women to fly in the last month of pregnancy. In fact, they can refuse to let a woman board the plane if she happens to look very pregnant, a subjective standard that is not at all reassuring. Although I love Germany, the possibility of having a German-born child is not all that appealing to us right now, as the birth would take place far away from both of our families. Without coverage under the German healthcare system, it would also be very expensive for us. As if all of that were not enough, we would then have to make a transatlantic flight home while caring for a newborn. In the weeks previous, I had even suggested that we find out about passenger liners to North America, as an alternative to air travel, but the thought of being both pregnant and sea sick made Angeles suddenly feel quite ill.
Our little radio, the one that we brought with us from Hamburg, provides little comfort. Currently, the song titled “Nine Million Bicycles” is the most popular hit on Berlin’s pop radio stations. Every time I hear this soft, perhaps overly sentimental melody, I think about how far we are from home, especially when I hear that “We are twelve billion light years from the edge.” Our predicament makes the distance between Berlin and Edmonton seem that vast.
“Do I look pregnant in this?” Angeles asks again. There is no escaping that dangerous question. Somehow I have to tell my wife, in the most diplomatic terms possible, that she is unmistakeably pregnant. “Well, you look … umm … pregnant,” I say. “Well, you look pregnant too,” she counters, pointing at the effects that cheap European wine and the abundance of German bakeries has had upon my abdomen. Maybe honesty is not always the best policy, but as foreigners with only visitor visas, anticipating the birth of our first child, I am (figuratively and at times literally) in unfamiliar territory. The pregnancy certainly has added a new dimension to our stay here, bringing us into regular contact with the German healthcare system.
Upon her first visit to a German doctor, Angeles is issued a Mutterpass, literally a “mother pass” documenting all of her medical visits and information relevant to the pregnancy, including her blood type and Rhesus factor. She is told that she must always carry the pass with her. I ask her if the Mutterpass entitles her to any discounts. She fails to find this amusing, just as she does not find it amusing when I ask if I am entitled to a Vaterpass. Even without a Vaterpass, I try to go to as many of the medical appointments as possible.
Before long, we learn that German obstetricians perform ultrasound examinations more frequently than their Canadian colleagues. German obstetricians have the machines right in their offices and sometimes seem a little too anxious to use them. Meanwhile, many physicians in North America are apprehensive about overusing the procedure. Our German specialist, however, does not share our concerns about exposing our child to repeated ultrasound examinations. “We practice modern medicine in Germany!” he exclaims. Imagine my relief upon learning that our physician will not be using incantations and chicken entrails to monitor the pregnancy and the health of the baby. “Do you see the children in the picture there?” he questions, pointing to a photo on the shelf beside us. We see three young, healthy, smiling adults. “Those are my children. They were all exposed to ultrasound and they turned out fine.” Yes, they do look healthy, I think to myself. Nevertheless, a photograph only reveals so much. How do I know one of them is not a psychopath?
It would be a mistake to assume, however, that German medicine is completely fixated on technology. Holistic practices are widely available and are very popular. Unlike Alberta’s healthcare system, the German healthcare system allows mothers to choose if they would like to use a physician or a midwife to provide prenatal care and attend a hospital birth. The system pays for the services of either practitioner.
We decide that it would be beneficial for us spend a weekend attending a prenatal care class taught by a midwife. We soon realize that in comparison to most Canadian hospitals, German hospitals are more tolerant of birthing practices that make delivery more comfortable for the mother and her baby. According to the midwife, the birthing position favoured by physicians today can be traced to a French monarch who wanted to watch his mistress give birth to his child. If true, it would seem that a royal chauvinist was at the forefront of modern birthing practices. Not the best pedigree.
During that class, the instructor also warns us not to allow the practitioner to suspend the newborn baby by its feet. The baby has spent months with its legs tucked and folded around its body. To suddenly hold the newborn by the feet is simply barbaric. The midwife assures us that there are less brutal methods of prompting the baby to take its first breath. These include lightly rubbing the baby’s back, or blowing air on its tummy.
The practitioner does not advocate the repeated use of ultrasound. She states that to the unborn child, the noise produced by the ultrasound waves is equivalent to the noise produced by a train pulling into a station. Obviously, she does not suggest that we are primitives simply because we do not advocate the casual use of medical procedures.
Contrary to what some people may assume, our prenatal class does not try to teach the woman how to breathe during labour. Instead, it offers advice about birthing positions (providing alternatives to the one commonly used for the benefit of the doctor, but not that of the mother) and pain management. Morphine isn’t used in Germany during childbirth. It is available for Canadian deliveries, but the newborn must be given another drug to counteract the effects of morphine.
We also learn about warm (not hot!) coffee compresses that, due to the caffeine, are supposed to help ease delivery. We learn about cabbage and quark compresses for nursing mothers. The class is starting to sound like a buffet, but I already know that when Angeles’ labour pains start, I probably will not stop to brew a pot of coffee.
Another thing that I already know is that our child is healthy. He or she has been active for some time now, pushing, turning, and twisting every time Angeles uses the train. Twice a day, on her way to and from the archives, Angeles is elbowed and kneed, especially when she takes the older and bumpier U-Bahn lines.
In Berlin, I am no longer taking German lessons, so I help Angeles carry her laptop computer, camera, and her research files on the rides into town and back. Though she is often tired, and sometimes suffers from back pain, Angeles never complains about the pregnancy, nor does it stop her from working.
She even manages to do a little sightseeing. On our first weekend in Berlin, we climbed to the top of the victory column, which provided us with a spectacular view of the Brandenburg Gate and Berlin’s extensive parks. On another weekend, we travelled to Dresden, a baroque city that was needlessly destroyed by the allies in the Second World War. There we visited the newly rebuilt Frauen Kirche. Later yet, we managed to meet friends in Leipzig and toured that city’s zoo.
Closer to home, we explore some of Berlin’s tourist sites together in the evenings before we return to our peaceful forested neighbourhood in Tegel. Walking to our flat from the bus stop late one such night, I notice some silent dark moving forms about the size of large dogs on the opposite side of the street. I point these forms out to Angeles. We stop and stare.
A shaggy brown wild boar, the largest member of the group, quietly wanders into the light of the street lamp. The boar is facing us, and the yellowy glow of the lamp above him reveals a tusk on either side of his snout. We continue to stare, and the boar shuffles forward. We keep watching the animal, and he keeps coming toward us. I begin to wonder how this encounter with nature will end. I tell Angeles that we should start moving away from the boar. She does this without any further prompting, realizing that the boars may have interpreted our interest as confrontation. We immediately head behind a Volkswagen van and then place ourselves behind a large tree. Peering around the tree, we watch the large brown wild pig go back across the street and rejoin the group before they all quietly disappear into the forest.
The boars are not the only form of wildlife that threatens our health. Migratory birds have returned to Germany and brought avian flu with them. The virus has been discovered in a dead swan on the Baltic island of Rugen north of Berlin and around Lake Constance in the south. We even witnessed wildlife officers removing a dead swan from the lake in Tegel.
After the initial avian influenza reports, all of our neighbour’s ducks and chickens are confined to cages. The rooster next door shows no sign of succumbing to bird flu. He continues to crow every morning around 4:30 a.m., well before first light.
Until we started living in Berlin, we believed that we only had to worry about protecting our unborn child from the aggressive use of ultrasound by German physicians. We would not have imagined that we might be victims of a wild boar attack or at risk of contracting avian flu. Needless to say, getting home safely is very much on our minds.
We continue making preparations for returning to Canada, so that on the day of our departure, we arrive at Berlin’s Tegel Airport armed with a letter from our physician indicating that our child is due in one month and three days. A letter from the midwife, however, indicates the date that she believes that the child should arrive and, since firstborn children are usually late, she decides that our baby should be born in about one month and two weeks. I hope that these letters are enough to ensure that we can fly home without any complications.
After checking in and handing over our luggage, we head toward the boarding area, where Angeles tells airport security staff that she does not want to walk through the metal detector because she is pregnant. Security personnel pat her down, but surprisingly, no one cares how pregnant she is. No one asks for proof that she is not in her last month of pregnancy. After all of our stress over being allowed to fly, all of the preparation we have undergone, and all of the documentation we have accumulated, I am frankly somewhat disappointed. In fact, I am rather annoyed that after having gone to the trouble of documenting everything with physicians and midwives in Hamburg and Berlin, no one wants to see the papers.
I continue to think about this as we travel back to Canada. In fact, I have a great deal of time to think about this issue, as our route home is far from direct. First, we fly from Berlin, north to Copenhagen, where no one cares to ask about my wife’s pregnancy, even as we board the plane that will take us across the Atlantic Ocean. Then we change planes in Chicago, and due to stormy weather, have to refuel in Fargo, North Dakota. One might think that airline personnel would have been concerned that their passenger might just give birth in mid-air. Perhaps Angeles’ combination of blouses, sweaters, and jackets helped deflect attention. Or perhaps, she just did not look eight months pregnant. Regardless, we finally arrive home in Edmonton a few moments before midnight after traveling for almost 24 hours.
Our six-month stay in Germany is over, and our child will be born in just over a month (or perhaps more, if the midwife is correct). Having finished one adventure, Angeles and I are soon to be in the midst of another.
Epilogue: On April 3rd, 2006, Angeles gave birth to our son. Because so much of the pregnancy was spent in Hamburg and Berlin, and we enjoyed our time in Germany so much, we gave our child the Northern German name of Karsten.