The Unexpected Pharmaceutical

Even after a year and a half living in Rome, there are still many aspects of everyday life that confuse me. Any engagement with pharmacies, and even erboristerie (herbalists – places that basically sell a lot of the stuff that’s similar to what you’d find in health food shops), is one of these aspects. Unless I’m just buying some plasters (cerotti), the experience almost always yields unexpected results.

Pharmacies are ubiquitous in Rome, but we frequent the one nearest our flat. The staff know us now (we’re repeat and memorable visitors for sorry reasons I won’t go into now), and they’re friendly and helpful. But that doesn’t always mean you get quite what you want. And even if you do, broadly, get what you want, there’s bound to be something just plain weird about it.

So this week. Yesterday we visited both the pharmacy and the erboristeria. Fran needed something to sooth a cough that was keeping her (well, us) awake at night, I needed some cream for my hands. I’m working in a busy kitchen and the constant hand-washing with industrial strength soap is just simply wreaking havoc with my skin, darling.

Nothing too challenging or unusual there.Right?

We asked in both shops, they acted like they knew exactly what we wanted, we had a quick look, said ok, thanks, and made the purchases. Then we got home and looked a little closer. Fran said the cough mixture tasted weird. Cough mixture is always weird and full of unnecessary shit – like artificial sweeteners for example. Over-the-counter mainstream medicines have enough dodgy shit in them, so for me adding chemical sweeteners just seems like overkill. Plus medicine doesn’t need to taste sweet or nice, it’s not supposed to be a pleasant treat. The weirdness here? Vanilla and apricot flavourings. Vanilla? Is that really associated with cold rememdies?

As for my hand cream. It was okay, and when I tried it in the shop, its smell reminded me of our holiday on the Giglio last year as its primary ingredient is Helichrysum italicum, a herb that covers the island. But the weird factor was that the box says the cream is “Protective and Bleaching”. You what? Never mind the fact that something that bleaches is surely hardly good for you, why would you want a restorative skin cream to bleach your skin anyway? Perhaps it’s just a weird translation. Or not. The original Italian blurb is Protettrice e Sbiancante – protective and bleaching, or brightening, or blanching. It’s perturbing. I quite like my skin tone and don’t need it bleached or blanched thanks. A friend suggested it might be for old ladies wanting to bleach away liver spots. Thanks so much, lady in the shop, for lumping me with that demographic.

Other examples of this bewilderment include trying to buy some sort of basic antiseptic cream for small cuts, and being persuaded to buy something that, it transpired, contained antibiotics. Really, if I’m going to use antibiotics, I want to save them for when there’s a serious chance of serious infection, not when I’ve nicked my finger with a knife. We live in an era when antibiotics really really need to be used very selectively due to the rise of resistant “superbugs” and having them in an over-the-counter cream is arguably irresponsibly stupid.

Another friend also mentioned she’d asked for something for the flu. She came away with something, tried it, felt nothing, and only then discovered it was homeopathic. Whatever your feelings about homeopathy, when you’ve got a crappy flu, you really just want something a bit heavy duty than sugar water with unquantifiable magic vibrations.

Of course, the moral of the story is read the box closely before purchasing. But if you’re in a queue, or are dealing with a friendly pharmacist who behaves like they’re being very helpful and entirely understand your needs, or your Italian isn’t good enough for the medical blurb on the box, this can be tricky. Ultimately, sometimes all you want is something familiar. But tough – there ain’t no Lemsip in Italy.


Filed under Italy, Learning Italian, Rome

5 responses to “The Unexpected Pharmaceutical

  1. There are a few things I bring back from every trip to the UK, and Strepsils and Germolene are among them. You’re welcome to borrow some. I also have a spare tub of Atrixo heavy duty hand goop, to which you would be welcome.

  2. Alice Adams

    don’t we all wish there were a few Boots in Italy, 99c paracytamol and the like. I’m going for a Boot sale weekend in May and Boots will be on my list for sure. Get your orders in.

  3. Actually, just been given some Germolene and it might be my last tube as it’s got too much dodgy artificial colouring for my liking. E124 – Ponceau 44 and E102 – Tartrazine. I don’t want to ingest or otherwise absorb any of that stuff, thanks.

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