It is 12 noon and following a few consultations and a bitch spay, it is time for a communal lunch. The table is laid out with silver cutlery and as it is a Friday, fish (of course….) is on the menu. The usual knives have been replaced with fish knives, which are accompanied with a little bench to avoid that the blade is soiling the table cloth if – for whatever reason – it is not resting on the plate after use. In tune with today’s main course – pike dumplings with potatoes, seasonal vegetables and a white sauce – the plates have a sea life motif and both water and white wine are served. It is probably superfluous to mention that the napkins are colour coordinated with the table cloth. The spoons at the head end of the plates had indicated that we could expect three courses (we had starting off with a seasonal asparagus soup) and this would possibly be followed by a strong coffee and a slice of home baked cake, before we would start with our afternoon consultations.
All members of the house hold, including the casual gardener, are gathered around the table and responsible for this daily treat is Nanny Burdinski, a youthful octogenarian and the mother of my friend Luz.
What might appear alien to most of my readers today, was a very common occurrence in many veterinary practices all over Germany in the twentieth century and in some places this way of life has survived until today, but it would not have been possible without the kindness and care of – in most cases- the wives of veterinarians, or – less commonly – of a dedicated house keeper.
As already mentioned in my last entry, Nanny and I met many years ago when I was an undergraduate at vet school. Nanny, one of the few fully trained veterinary technicians at that time and her veterinary husband Kurt ran a busy large animal practice on the countryside near Hamburg. This often required the full commitment of the whole family. As it was still a time without mobil communication, this particularly involved the guarding of the practice phone and I vividly remember my first visit to the Burdinski household, when Nanny proudly showed off their new cordless (!) phone which had a proven reach of 200m – just long enough to allow her to take it with her to the edge of the nearby lake to be able to go for a short swim…….
As much as I admired Nanny’s commitment and the “ground breaking” technology, it also made it quite clear to me, that regardless how my professional future would look like, I would never accept it, that my own partner might end up in a similar position. For many decades until then, the wives of veterinarians (there were not a lot of female practice owners around at that time…) had been taken for granted as – often unpaid – telephone operators, veterinary nurses, catering staff and practice managers. Even until very recently veterinary positions had been advertised with a preference given to male and married applicants – with the above mentioned “employment” scenario in mind.
Nanny had gone through all of this, although in her and Kurt’s case I always saw them as equal partners and what made a huge difference was that they both embraced every opportunity to enjoy life away from their practice. They arranged their out-of-hour work with the neighboring colleagues to have regular nights out, they enjoyed cultural events and traveling and they made sure to participate in all aspects of the social programmes at veterinary conferences.
This was also the key for Nanny to find life enjoyable in retirement and even when Kurt passed away a few years ago.
Despite the decades of hard work (or possibly because of them ?….) it struck me that Nanny got the balance exactly right at this point in her life by pursuing her personal interests, while still staying connected with the business and with all generations of her family, even if this was now limited to gathering everyone for regular meal times – not always, but on most days, but always on her own terms (no mobil phones allowed and both good table manners as well as an educated conversation during meal times encouraged….).
For me the benefit was not only a culinary one, but in addition to this also the opportunity to spend a few evenings over a glass of wine with “off screen” conversations with someone with a lot of life experience – something which had been a rare occurrence since the start of the pandemic.
I also wondered if there wasn’t something that the traditional ways of running a practice had to offer to us today ?
With professional burn-outs and mental health issues being a huge issue and with many businesses struggling to maintain their staff, decelerating the pace of work, offering a more communal or even a family based environment and paying more attention to decent periods of rest and – very important – to good food, might go a long way in making both our working environment and our life in general more enjoyable.
So women like Nanny can probably still teach us a trick or two …….