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This story begins with the delusions of a young man. I was 19 years old. Every single one of those 19 years I had spent in the same place: a small town in the southern Black Forest, with two petrol stations, a youth club, a school and little else. After I finished my final school examinations it was time to cut loose. But what to do? My national service in a local hospital? I would probably be confined to changing a few light-bulbs. And then what - back to my parents' home in the evening? Out of the question. I did some checking and discovered I could do my service abroad, such as working at a home for the disabled in Scotland or as a farmhand somewhere across the ocean. This was possible, provided you were lucky enough to get one of the few available placements. I was lucky.

Soon enough I wouldn't be calling it lucky. I did not land in Scotland or even further afield. I ended up in France, at the northernmost tip of Provence, in a home for the elderly and mentally ill. "Are you sure you're up for this?" asked the head of the institution. Sure, I thought. It was July, and the sunflowers were in full bloom, the sea was not far away and I could still hear the envy of my friends.

The nurses' room was occupied when I arrived, so the warden decided that I should stay in the ward. "It's just for now," he said, "pas de problème." The first night, a woman with dementia knocked on my door. She was surprised to see a new inmate, and for a second I thought it was me who wasn't quite - at least in the common sense - right in the head. I led the woman back to her bed; she was crying. Only when she was asleep did I take my hand away from hers. The next morning I was to begin with in-patient care. I had not seen much of the world, but what I was looking at was too much. I saw skin covered with bedsores, the raw skin of elderly women. I saw the empty eyes of men that seemed to look out from a different world. I saw the genitals of women in their eighties and it was difficult to say who was more ashamed, the patients or me. During that first day I thought of quitting for the first time, and on my last day I had the same thought. I never got used to the job.

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