“By creating an artificial environment, we're not stimulating our immune system enough. Germs are immune-stimulants. They challenge you to be prepared.” - DEEPAK CHOPRA
I've been battling a nasty cold for the past few days. It's one of those colds that's strong enough to border on "influenza"-type classification, but I refuse to be that melodramatic. I haven't had any gastrointestinal interruptions and since I braved a needle for a flu shot, I refuse to say that I have the flu. (I kid, I kid, I am by no means afraid of shots. I don't get those people at all.)
As a part of my husband's nightly Skype sessions with the folks in Santiago, they've been keenly attune to my sickly progressions. My husband broadcasts my current symptoms like my own family's tendency to talk about the weather. (I have decades worth of postcards from my grandmother describing the weather conditions in the varied places she has traveled.) Chileans love a good illness. I remember reading a guidebook somewhere that advised, "When you ask a Chilean how they are doing, do not be surprised if you get an explicit description of their ailments in return."
I've written about, and I know others have too, the Chilean tendency to think that you get a cold from walking around barefoot, not covering your mouth when in chilly air, and from lacking the proper attire to be abrigado (bundled-up). I've spent entire onces arguing with Chileans about this to watch in horror while they use the forks they had just put into their mouths to help themselves to the ensalada and put their hands all over the communal pan. But I digress.
But one thing that dawned on me tonight was the temptation that a Chilean has to attribute a current ailment to something you did or did not do, eat or drink.
"¿Qué podría haber sido?" ("What could it have been?") asked my step-daughter tonight when they found out I was still coughing up a lung and staging Niagara falls out my nose.
"Debería haber sido la piscina" ("It ought to have been the pool") my mother-in-law stated, in the background.
"Ita piensa que fue la piscina," ("Grandma thinks it was the pool") my step-daughter repeated.
Piscina?!? I thought. POOL?!? I haven't been to the pool in months! What are they talking about?
Every time that someone has a stomach ache (or worse), Chileans go through a catalog of all the items they have consumed in the prior hours in order to pinpoint, somewhat arbitrarily, what could have possibly caused their illness. One night, my step-daughter vomited all over her bathroom (hello, projectile) and the very obvious (to me) flu virus was instead blamed on my banana nut muffins, since they were the only out of the ordinary concoction that she had eaten all day. I've heard my father in law blame his irregular bowel movements on the dinners at his Free Mason Lodge (for no apparent reason I can see) and it seems like anytime anyone is sick, the first phrase they utter is "Algo me hizo mal." (Something made me sick.)
Unless someone's suffering from obvious food poisoning, I'm hesitant to blame illness on food. Unless I have mononucleosis or meningitis, I also think it's somewhat pointless to try and determine how I got sick. I'm not the bubble-girl! You just get sick sometimes. There's only so much you can do!
And this is the moment where I'm going to get all self righteous and psychoanalyze everyone (with my complete lack of credentials). I think the tendency of all people to try and pinpoint the exact food, action or behavior that makes you sick is the desire to be able to control what happens to you. In essence, control your fate. I realize this desire has its moments: I would love to cure AIDS, cancer, what have you. But I honestly think that Chileans love to blame illness on things like walking around barefoot, going to sleep with wet hair or getting the evil eye (just kidding) because those are things they can control and it helps them sleep at night knowing that as long as no patch of virgin-bare-foot-skin came in contact with floor they won't wake up with the sniffles.
My own mother is equally obsessed, but in her own gringa way. Her house boasts an arsenal of antibacterial cleaning supplies, hand sanitizers and quick-wipes. You could probably perform open heart surgery on her kitchen counter. I was never scolded for running around barefoot (except for the time I stepped on a nail and my dad had to pull it out--don't worry, my tetanus boosters were up to date) and I went to sleep many nights with wet hair. And despite our chemical warfare against germs, I still got sick an average amount.
I remember being petrified of sleeping on hotel beds because of the 20/20 exposé on how dirty those things were, and I actually went through a phase in high school where I was terrified of holding coins in my hand because of all the germs they carried around on them. I still, out of habit, open doors with my sleeve in order to avoid direct contact with my hands.
Maybe it's the same defense mechanism.
Now some experts are saying that a few germs never hurt anyone and that our love affair with sterile environments and antibiotics are creating allergic and hyper-sensitive generations. Some people are even blaming obesity of lack of a certain kind of stomach flora.
As such, I've recently been trying to "chill out" about germs. I invested in natural cleaning products and started using white vinegar instead of bleach. But the day I got sick I ate lunch without washing my hands--something I rarely do. I thought, "Oh, heck, I'm sure my stomach acid will kill what ever's on here." That day, I also went out into a windy thunderstorm wearing a t-shirt and flip-flops and got soaked watching the river in front of my apartment churn. Really playing with fire, huh? I guess no matter what culture you're from you'd think I was reckless.
Was it my dirty hands? Was it the chill? What could it have been?!?!?!?!?!
Chill out, Chileans, Mom, Mandy (me)... Sometimes you just get sick. There's nothing you can do. My own mother is proof of that. She, someone who has eaten healthy, exercised and had low cholesterol her entire life, got blindsided with a heart attack at the age of 50. There was nothing to prevent it, nothing that anyone could have possibly done to stop it. Her doctors reiterated, time and time again that it was simply a fluke, a stroke of bad luck. All that mattered was that the response was quick and she was in great shape for her recovery.
So, Deepak Chopra, you wise, wise man. You're right. Germs are tests and the only thing we can do is just be prepared. But I'm still going back to my routine of washing my hands, even if it's just a silly habit that makes me able to sleep at night.
Life in London
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