If you’ve ever been to France, you’re probably familiar with the flashing green French pharmacy signs, which are just as prevalent as Starbucks shops in New York. Throughout France, these neon signs indicate the location of a pharmacy, but tourists take note — these pharmacies are anything but boring!
What can you find in French pharmacies?
Why French pharmacies rule!
First, I should point out that French pharmacies are not like your neighborhood Duane Reades. They’re all privately owned and chain stores don’t exist. It’s perfectly normal to be on a first-name basis with your pharmacist. French pharmacies are drug stores and sell, well, drugs.
They don’t carry items like greeting cards, magazines, candy or cigarettes. Instead, they’re of neatly arranged boxes and tubes for every ailment that could ever plague you. There are all kinds of things like aspirin, muscle creams, vitamins and even Frontline for pets. French pharmacies sometimes have a parapharmacie section for non-prescription items where they toothpaste, baby bottles, nail clippers and other items.
French pharmacies are strictly places to get medicine and it can take some getting used to if your neighborhood CVS at home was your go-to place for everything. While waiting in line, I’m still like a kid in a candy store, all wide-eyed taking in all the goodies staring right back at me.
When you do get to the counter, there’s nothing quite like the first time you have to explain your diarrhea problem to a complete stranger in earshot of others in the pharmacy. With an accent. Twice.
You see, in France, the pharmacists help you choose the medicine(s) you need. You can’t just walk in wearing dark sunglasses, grab what you need and be on your way. Nope, here you describe your symptoms to the pharmacist and he/she gets you what you need from behind the counter. Yes, it’s embarrassing, but rest assured, this is totally normal.
Now, hypothetically because there are so many pharmacies to choose from, you could travel a little farther to make sure your embarrassing explanations stay out of earshot of a possible neighbor. No, of course I’ve never gone to a pharmacy in the neighboring town for something a little more embarrassing. But you could. I have embarrassing situations right in town!
French people aren’t so self-conscious, so not to worry — French pharmacists are expertly trained on just about anything you could need treatment for. This comes in handy when you cut yourself on a holiday that falls on a Sunday and you don’t know if you need stitches. For 10 euros and five little boxes of products later, you could be as good as new! I was.
Speaking of little boxes… When I first met Tom, I thought he was some kind of hypochondriac because when I opened his medicine cabinet, I saw, I kid you not, about 50 little boxes of various medications. And several months later, I realized it was totally normal for a French person to have quite a collection.
You see, in France, pills aren’t carefully counted out and run through your insurance and packaged in a little childproof bottle with your name, address, quantity, etc. While prescription drugs are still regulated here, it’s not anything like what we know in the U.S.
In fact, there’s no word for “filling” a prescription in French. Here, you just show up at the pharmacy, show your prescription and get on your merry way in all of five minutes. You’ll get an entire box of your medication with handwritten instructions on what you need to take.
What’s that you say, you don’t need all 48 pills in the box? Doesn’t matter. You get the whole box anyway. But medicines are cheap here, so it’s not really an issue. As you can see, it’s easy to accumulate a lot of extra boxes.
Interested in skin care products and other things to stock your bathroom with?
Parapharmacies are what you’re after. They carry non-prescription goodies from eye creams to body scrubs to other specialized treatments for the face and body. If you’re a beauty buff or just curious, make sure you check a few out. Tom groans every time I say I need to stop at the parapharmacie because he knows it can take at least 20 minutes — on a good day.
If you have some extra cash, trial and error is always fun. Cool packaging? Name you can’t pronounce? No idea what it does? Who cares. It’s French and you just have to try it. At first, that was my method of trying new products, until I mistakenly picked up an “intimate” cleanser instead of shower gel. In my defense, the bottles looked similar! Now I read the labels.
Also, here’s a word of advice if you find yourself in a French pharmacy with some money to spend. Looks are deceiving! Sometimes the most effective product comes in amateur packaging like the much raved about vitamin A anti aging cream Avibon (that Gwyneth Paltrow talked about on her blog, among other things).