The φαρμακειο mysteries

May 12, 2011 § 6 Comments

Much has been written of the Eleusinian Mysteries. But what of the mysteries of the φαρμακειο?

A pleasant little example sits around the corner. The gentlemanly pharmacist, contrary to the assurances of every tourist guide, hardly speaks English. Instead, he speaks perfect Italian.*

I am ignorant of Italian, and my Pimsleur Greek has just edged up to encompass slutty conversational gambits like “I don’t want to eat dinner with you tonight, but I would like to drink some wine at your place. Do you have a lot of money?” and numbers up to 69. So the pharmacist and I get along with a tiny but sufficient subset of English phrases.

I delight in purchasing a bottle of Vitamin Epsilon and wonder about taking more mathematical expressions by mouth.

The pharmacist, to my surprise, draws my attention to expiration dates and warns me that the vitamin epsilon is a dose high enough to be taken merely every other day. It is more counseling than I have had in the US with sleeping pills.

I ask him about a couple of corticosteroid creams I’ve run out of. I can get my doctor from Boston to fax the prescription, right?

Instead, he sells them at low prices without prescription.

My American astonishment is great.

He looks up the prices in a big binder, a standardized catalog. The mouthwash I’ve grabbed is more expensive than the medicated cream!

That is one pharmacy.

I ran into another in a quiet neighborhood in Athens to buy a bandage and some iodine for a shaken stepdaughter who had fallen and scraped her hand. The pharmacist cleaned and treated the abrasions without charge, with little English but with all the consideration in the world. When I offered to buy a pack of bandages, she told me no, best not to bandage a superficial scrape like that.

Contrast this with the tale of the CVS employee who would let you die for being short a dollar. There are clear essential differences between the European notion of healthcare and ours, and between the European pharmacy and our mega drugstore.

Spotting the pharmacy

An American may at first find it difficult to recognize that what she wants is not a massive market lit with glaring fluorescents but a lighted green cross glowing above a compact, tidy shop. It is usually staffed by a single helpful, highly educated professional willing to dispense all manner of things that we Americans believe by our own sacred mysteries to be attainable solely via the intervention of an MD in conjunction with either personal riches or employer health insurance.**

The European pharmacy also stocks fancy face creams, shampoos and soaps, which are probably how it makes the real money. (Vichy and Avene are everywhere.) There is not much else for sale, with unpredictable exceptions: one local pharmacy sells children’s shoes. Another keeps by the register half a dozen jars of local honeys with homemade labels, in amounts appropriate for feeding a family of bears. But mostly the pharmacy’s selection is minute, and the place is run with unimpeachable professionalism, except for being always closed.


Rumored pharmacy hours in Greece

Various helpful Greek friends and guides suggest that the pharmacy is open during “normal business hours,” which does not mean what you think it means. Instead, it means they open in the morning, shut for a long stretch in the afternoon and reopen in the evening. This is probably even true, somewhere. (Spirited discussion: “Only in the center” and “Not on Monday and Wednesday” and “It is not required any more, it is what the owner wants!”)

In the quieter places where we’ve stayed, some days the pharmacies seemed never to open at all. Long evenings passed in which I stalked them serially in pursuit of an aspirin I only semi-needed, exiting the house on impulse every hour to see if the situation had changed. It was good exercise and I’m sorry to deprive you of it.

See, if you want a pharmacy in Greece, you go in the morning.

A working New Yorker, by contrast, hits the pharmacy at lunch or in the afternoon or evening, on the way home.

If this is your approach, you too will find yourself staring at a series of κλειστό signs, or foolishly attempting to shove open locked doors.

There is some system in Europe such that in a given area there is bound to be a pharmacy open somewhere, and that information is posted on the doors of the closed ones. Not so helpful to me in Greek. You may be able to charm a local into pausing to translate this for you, says one optimistic guide. But I have not yet cared enough to bother anyone. I just go in the morning and never on a Sunday.

Resistance to the cult of the pharmacist

Not everyone appreciates the cavalier way that Greek pharmacists have with prescription medicines.

“They hand out antibiotics! Anything! It is terrible!” explained my friends.

“It is causing serious problems. The pharmacists play doctor.”

“People feel a little down, they take antibiotics for two days, then stop. They are breeding super strong bacteria!”

But I got my betamethasone cream for €5. And no office visit fees!

So I say hurrah for Old World ways, as long as they last, and as long as I get to leave eventually and go back to my banally gleaming aisles of nail care products, of elastic hair ties dangling limp and varied as dried sea creatures in a Chinese herbalist’s, or shower gels gleaming in colors like the fruit of Aladdin’s caverns, or dark corridors piled with garden hoses and attachments like snakes coiled amid fragmented artifacts, all the familiar cluttered mysteries of the pharmacies of home.

* The doctor who rents our apartment to us also speaks perfect Italian; Italian medical schools are apparently it. Why am I learning Greek?

** Examples: Betamethasone valerate cream, to conquer a bit of dermatitis, is $22.99 and available only by prescription in the US. I got it in Varkiza without prescription for about 5€. On a bad pollen day, while wheezing, and in panic because I had left my meds far away in the hotel, I bought an albuterol asthma inhaler from a pharmacist in Vouliagmeni for a similarly minuscule amount; the US retail price on is $43.99 and requires a prescription.


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§ 6 Responses to The φαρμακειο mysteries

  • Amy says:

    I’ll bet that honey is delicious. You should get some.

  • Harri says:

    Wondered yet why there are so many pharmacies around?

    It doesn’t really matter at what price they sell a product to you for, they’ll make profit anyway.

    And any wonder that country is up to their eyeballs in debt…

    • I have not asked yet about the economics, protections and restrictions of pharmacists and pharmacies, though to all appearances this must be heavily state-subsidized and cushy, since demand alone could not possibly encourage more pharmacies per square mile in a sleepy place like Varkiza than there are drugstores in a comparable stretch of midtown Manhattan. But then again I remember when I was between jobs in NYC and I discovered for the first time what the retail prices on my prescriptions were: shock awe horror. Neither in the US nor here is the pricing of medication transparent and competitive, but the obfuscation and monopoly are lodged in different parts of the problem. So far I can’t tell which is more sustainable. Probably neither.

  • Kat says:

    Pharmacies follow shop hours, which are M/W 8:00-15:00, TThF 8:00-14:30 and 17:30-21:00. The morning hours vary slightly, with some opening or closing earlier or later. Outside these hours at “on duty” pharmacies, which rotate daily throughout the area and are posted in Greek on the outside window. It’s not only in the center, they’re not closed MW.

    All are privately owned and many licenses are in the family for generations because they were few and expensive (part of closed professions). That means they can open or close at will; it’s not necessarily about serving the public.

    And yes, it can be wonderful to get things over the counter without a prescription, but that also means people are irresponsible with medications and often don’t need them. Pharmacists don’t care because it’s money in their pocket.

    • Thanks, Kat. That seems in line with what I’ve been told: shop hours, except when they don’t feel like it, and the open pharmacies posted on the door in Greek. Except when they’re on strike, of course.

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