Fumbling in the Pharmacy

A Pharmacy in the Italian town of Rocca di Papa. Photo by Nicolee Drake

In Italy mamma-hood is often considered a group activity. Everyone has to get involved — the parents, the grandparents, the aunts, uncles and godparents, the pediatrician and, believe it or not, the pharmacist. Early on I got used to my pediatrician having a lot of opinions, but involving the pharmacist seemed over the top. For starters, I don’t like pharmacies in Italy. An American drugstore is like a supermarket: the customer can go up and down the aisles, choose what she needs and pay the cashier. At an Italian pharmacy you must ask the pharmacist behind the counter for what you need. The pharmacist then somehow feels obliged to engage you in conversation regarding your request. For me this leads to endless embarrassment.

The first time I had a cold in Italy, I went to buy a cough syrup and was mortified by the discussion this simple purchase required. “Is it a wet cough for a dry cough?” asked the pharmacist. “Ummmm, dry,” I replied with far too much hesitation. “Are you sure?” he insisted. “You don’t have any mucus?” “No,” I answered, starting to get flustered. “Well, when you blow your nose, is it clear or is it yellow?” “I don’t really know,” I answered, feeling my face turn red as people fidgeted in the line behind me. The pharmacist thought about that for a minute and finally went to get a cough syrup, which I paid for quickly and escaped from the store.

It is just as bad when one gets something as simple as skin cream. “Is it for your face or for your whole body?” The pharmacist will ask, “Do you need an anti-wrinkle cream or a moisturizing cream?”

Likewise, with any of the myriad baby products from pacifiers to diapers that one often buys at the pharmacy in Italy. I once went to buy powdered milk for three-month old Chiara after returning from a summer in the USA. To avoid discussion, I was prepared with the name of the product I needed.

“May I have a box of powdered milk for babies either Plasmon Primi Giorni or Nidina,” I asked. The female pharmacist turned and walked back to another female pharmacist, “Dottoressa,” she said, “Blah, blah, blah..”. Then they both came back to me.

“What kind of milk have you been using?” the pharmacist asked. Most American moms would probably have been tempted to say, “None of your damn business, just give me my milk,” but having had long experience negotiating with Italian pharmacists, I replied, “I have used either breast milk or Enfamil, a powdered milk from the United States.”

The pharmacists huddled again, “But Dottoressa, blah, blah, blah,” said one. “No, but Dottoressa, blah, blah, blah,” said the other. Then they both came back to the counter. “What company makes this Enfamil?” one asked. “Uh, I don’t know…maybe Proctor and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson, Mead and Johnson — I really can’t remember,” I answered.

The people in line behind me were getting antsy and so was I. The pharmacist pulled out a catalogue. “We have to find a compatible milk powder,” she said, starting to flip through the pages. “No, we don’t,” I answered curtly, “I want either Plasmon Primi Giorni or Nidina 1 which I have used with my other children and it was fine.” This comment provoked another consultation.“But Dottoressa…, No, but Dottoressa….”

Finally one of the pharmacists came back and said, “Ok, we will give it to you in liquid form so you can test a small amount on your baby.” At this point I got mad (the liquid form costs more) and demanded to have the powder. Finally they gave it to me.

I left thinking, “Thank God, it was just powdered milk I was trying to buy. Imagine trying to buy something more embarrassing like a condom.” I could just imagine the pharmacist asking, “Well, how often do you make love?” “How long does it take?” “Do you need ribbed or do you prefer smooth?” Aarrggh…..!

Revealing the intimate details of your life to the pharmacist is just the way it is in Italy. One morning when Nico was 16, he demanded with extreme urgency, as I was heading out the door for work, that I buy him pimple cream. He is clearly Italian enough to know that discussing his pimples with the pharmacist would not be pleasant. (The word for pimple in Italian is brufolo — if it is a big one, it is a brufolone or a little one, it is brufolino— more on Italian words and language later.)

So after my morning cappuccino at the coffee bar near my office, I walked over to the pharmacy. When I explained that my 16-year-old urgently needed a brufolo cream, the pharmacist came out from behind the counter and with the utmost empathy declared, “Oh, poor thing, it is so hard on teenagers when they have these brufoli. As she guided me to the section of the pharmacy filled with expensive French creams, she peppered me with questions, “Are the brufoli eruptive or just disruptive?” “Are they widespread or just in a few places?”

Of course, after all, I have become a bit of an Italian mamma, and I couldn’t bear to think that this kind pharmacist thought I had a pepperoni pizza-faced son at home. So I launched in, “Oh, really, his brufoli are not so bad. He is actually a tall, handsome water polo player. He just has about three small pimples overall, here and there.”

Idiot. Why did I mention the water polo? She was all over that in a second. “Ah, Water polo. Swimming every day, with all that chlorine in the water. That is really hard on one’s skin. Dries it out. Ok. We will need a cleansing gel, a total face cream, plus the cream for the brufoli.

I am ashamed to admit that I walked out of the pharmacy with 42 Euro (about $30) worth of fancy French gels and creams. By the end she even asked me if I might want to try a French eye-wrinkle cream. I think she might have noticed some eye wrinkles as I was trying to read the writing on the pimple cream box. But I did manage to escape a discussion about the width and depth of my eye wrinkles.

12 thoughts on “Fumbling in the Pharmacy”

  1. Hilarious! Americans in the US would never put up with that! I have been to farmacia as a tourist. At least you can get stuff there OTC that requires a prescription in the US, after you suffer through the interrogation of symtoms by the technician and dottoressa..

  2. Love your post. I’ll never forget my Mum trying to explain that she had a urinary tract infection at an Italian farmacia! In the end we were both dancing around holding the relevant part and going “Ooooooh” she then kept saying “ground glass” (no idea what she thought they’d think from that). Every time someone came in we acted like nothing was happening, waited till they left and started the dance again. Ended up going back to the hotel to get them to write us something……Ohhhhhh blah blah…with knowing smiles!!
    ciao lisa

  3. I am an Italian to English translator, and I came across this post while looking for information on Italian pharmacies for a job – you made my night, this is so funny! Thanks :)

  4. Then you wouldn’t want to know my experience in buying a pregnancy test and being asked for details in an extremely loudly voice :) Or about me yesterday buying analysis containers:)
    Luckily, I have found a pharmacy in Napoli that sells online, and for the things that don’t require a ricetta it works. No blah blahs.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Oh my God, did a pharmacist really grill you for details when you asked for a pregnancy test? I actually can believe it. I think pharmacists in Italy get their kicks out of butting into everyone’s business. And a pharmacy that sell on line in Italy? That’s pretty amazing. How long does it take to get the stuff delivered?

  5. While I find your story pretty funny, what if I told you that they were actually being very good pharmacists? I’m a recent graduate of pharmacy school myself (in Canada) and I can honestly say that they did a thorough job analyzing all of your needs. There’s a reason pharmacists are taught to ask these types of questions. With so many over-the-counter medications to choose from, many of which can be used incorrectly or for the wrong purposes, wouldn’t you want them to ask all the questions necessary for them to better choose a product that is likely to help the problem? Having worked in a pharmacy for the better part of the past 6 years of my life, I can honestly say that I’d look up to a pharmacist that did such a thorough job helping customers. There are many pharmacists out there who do the bare minimum in helping patients with any of their needs on any given day. It’d be a lot easier for us to point you to the aisle and letting you choose for yourself. The fact that these pharmacists took the time to ask you the questions should be lauded, not ridiculed. The only thing I could really fault these Italian pharmacists for is asking you the questions in what was likely too public an area. Most pharmacies in North America do have a private counselling room that they should be using to ask the more sensitive questions.

    1. You are absolutely right — perhaps I was being unfair in my ridicule, they were sincerely trying to do their job well.

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