The Green Cross of the Pharmacy
Think about your experience with drugs. No, I’m not suggesting that you reminisce about the 1960s (or beyond) involving smoke-hazed basements with Jimmy Hendrix blasting in the background and a black light flickering overhead. I’m referring to how you acquire what you need to keep yourself pain-free, symptomless, or just plain healthy. I’m talking about not only the pharmacies where you fill your prescriptions but also the health and beauty aids aisles in American supermarkets that carry everything from acetaminophen to Zantac.
In France, the grocery stores have small sections offering shampoos, lotions, toothpaste, and the expanding Depends section, which is needed for the ever-increasingly aging French population. Absent from these aisles are aspirin, Tylenol, Dayquil, or Pepto-Bismol. So where do you go to get these sometimes necessary items?
The answer is to la pharmacie! These independently owned businesses seem to be everywhere you look. They are recognized by the regulation green flashing signs in the shape of a cross. If the pharmacy is open, the green cross is lit. If the pharmacy is closed, service de garde rota (duty rotation) is displayed on the door so you can find other open chemists, and this often includes a map to show the location. Within a two-minute walk in any direction from our apartment, we pass several green crosses. Most carry names that designate their location. The lucky ones are situated on major carrefours (crossroads) such as Pharmacie des Boulevards located diagonally across from our apartment. But there are others tucked into small spaces that still seem to prosper despite the economy and the low cost of prescription drugs due to governmental control of drug prices.
Now, in the United States, I have on occasion seen a pharmacist come “down from on high” from where prescriptions are filled to consult with a customer. But, in France, le pharmacien (the pharmacist) is just as likely to come out from behind the counter and assist des clients (that’s us, the customers) with anything from drug interactions to uses of gelée royale to the correct shampoo for their hair type. Many pharmacies also carry a wide variety of homeopathic/phytothérapies (herbal/plant-based therapies) about which the pharmacist is happy to have a discussion. These products are available in pharmacies that identify themselves as herboristories. In France, pharmacists study for six to seven years to become qualified and will happily look at infected toes and such, as one did for me, and recommend a product to alleviate the problem. They are also not above directing you to a nearby médecin (doctor) if they can’t help you.
For the sinus infection from which Steve suffered in the fall, he visited a doctor’s office where the charge per visit amounted to 22€ (about $30) for a general practitioner. The doctor prescribed a couple of medications. We did file for reimbursement from our insurance company, but the costs of the drugs and the doctor were below our plan’s co-pay amount, so everything was applied to our deductible. This low cost and excellent service explains why in the year 2000, the World Health Organization ranked the French health care system as the best comprehensive system in the world. We have yet to hear anyone complain about it here.
Foolishly, we didn’t carry a large enough supply of the OTC (over-the-counter) drugs that we sometimes need, like ibuprofen, from home. Since then we have bought some of these at the pharmacy. We can get the much cheaper génériques (generics), but the box quantities are far smaller. A common quantity is 15 ibuprofènes or 28 aspirines dans une boîte (blister-packed aspirins in a box, not a bottle). Also, the OTC products do seem to be more expensive than the store brand products that I usually buy in a U.S. grocery store. In consideration for blind consumers, the boxes have braille dots embedded onto them. One thing to be alert about is that often the remedies come in a powder form that is effervescent. Although we were surprised the first time we encountered this, it’s actually kind of fun—but not always convenient. As a child, I remember Fizzies and took Alka-Seltzer when I grew up. What is this fascination with bubbles that we have? (The OTC products do seem to be more expensive than the store brand products that I usually buy at the U.S. grocery store, but we do expect a delivery soon when our personal OTC-mule, our daughter, Beth, comes to Europe and replenishes our supplies.)
Just to confuse things, France also has la parapharmacie. No, you don’t have to skydive into these shops that are a step down from a pharmacie. These stores are the equivalent of our U.S. drug stores, but they do not dispense prescription drugs. Instead, they sell a plethora of high-end lotions and beauty potions, as well as homeopathic remedies, vitamins, and products such as for smoking cessation (most of the population doesn’t seem to have tried any of them) at a lower price than the pharmacies.
So far, our health has not warranted frequent visits to either doctors or pharmacies. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we stay healthy. We’ve heard that the preferred form of medication is often une suppositoire (a suppository)—hope they don’t come in effervescent form!
P.S. Passing by many a pharmacie, you will also notice machines attached to the outside of the buildings. In the United States, these vending machines are usually hidden away in the rest rooms of restaurants, bars, and rest areas. But in France, as an integral part of the HIV/AIDS prevention initiative, many pharmacies have 24-hour distributeurs automatiques de préservatifs—condom vending machines (not to be confused with substances to prolong food shelf life)—complete with LED buttons readily accessible on the street. In France, Valentine’s Day doesn’t seem to be a big deal, but perhaps every day is an opportunity for l’amour.
gelée royale: royal bee jelly