Ah, two weeks in Provence. Heavenly. I arrived in Marseille, feeling bushy-tailed if not quite bright-eyed. My delightful seat mates, two long-time female friends on their way to Moscow, included me in their constant flow of mini-bottles of wine across the Atlantic—of course I didn’t decline—and that camaraderie, coupled with the usual sleeplessness of such a flight, led to a noticeable red-eye effect when I landed. But nothing could dampen my enthusiasm about the adventures in store for me in la belle Provence.
A good friend, Brian whom I met in a French immersion course in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, happened to be in France and agreed to pick me up at the airport. It was a beautiful day. According to the Air France pilot who landed the plane in Marseille, the temperature was right around 24° C (75° F). The skies were crystal clear and very blue, thanks to the Mistral (that nipped a little at our heels but mainly played the positive role of sweeping any clouds out to sea). A leisurely drive to Lourmarin found us in the village just as lunch was commencing. We opted to eat en plein air at L’Oustalet, a small restaurant that specializes in traditional Provençal cuisine.
We took a stroll around the village after lunch and a tour of the exhibition of Naïf paintings that I wrote about earlier. I saw friends—there were many exchanges of les bises—and I made lots of plans for the next few days: un café at Gaby’s before the Market the next day; dinner plans with Pierre and Muriel for one night; with Jim and Linda for another night; and lunch again with Brian. I was quite content.
So, when I was awakened by a scratchy throat in the middle of my second night, I was not happy. The dreaded airplane cold. I padded down our spiral staircase to fetch the honey (that I had just purchased at the Lourmarin Market); a spoonful would surely stymie my cough. Tomorrow I would go to the pharmacie, a thought that instilled such comfort in me that I was able to return to a peaceful slumber, feeling confident that this nascent cold would pass quickly. French pharmacies have this effect on me.
minor but required a little first aide: the tip of the pencil she was carrying was now embedded in the palm of her hand!
I later learned that a pharmacist in France spends six to nine years, depending on his or her specialization, getting a “diploma e’état de Docteur en Pharmacie,’” the requisite degree to practice pharmacy in France. It is a highly competitive field to enter and advanced specializations are even more competitive. (In the U.S., the Pharm.D. degree typically takes four years, after two years of undergraduate coursework in “pre-pharmaceutical” classes although most students have completed more undergraduate coursework before applying to a Pharm.D. program.)
Since that time, we have sought the services of pharmacies in France for everything from skin care and cold remedies to guidance about which wild mushrooms are edible—ten years ago, the chief pharmacist in Lourmarin organized a mushroom hunt in the nearby Luberon forest—and, recently, advice about an acute eruption of small pink bumps on my husband’s arms after picking figs.
The next day, I headed over to la Pharmacie de Lourmarin. Like all pharmacies in France, it is marked by a large neon green cross. It seems that every village has at least one pharmacieand some cities, like Aix, for example, have so many that one has to wonder how they all survive!
Actually, French laws and regulations ensure that pharmacies are distributed throughout the country to enable easy access to pharmaceutical services by all. There is about 1 pharmacy in France for every 2500-3000 inhabitants (compared with approximately 1 pharmacy in the U.S. for every 5500 inhabitants). As I understand the system, the government requires that a 24-hour pharmacy must be available within a reasonable distance from anywhere in France. Price controls of all drugs are imposed by the government.
Upon entering la Pharmacie de Lourmarin, like all French pharmacies, one encounters rows upon rows of skin care products—some very expensive in the United States, like Darphin—as well as teas galore, various digestive aids, an impressive number of weight-loss and anti-water retention agents, homeopathic treatments, veterinary products, and the more mundane toothpaste, soaps, and sunglasses. The vast majority of drugs—even aspirin—lies behind the counter, requiring a conversation with the pharmacist (and sometimes a prescription).
Some people are happiest in a department store, others in a hardware store, and still others in huge grocery store. Me, give me a French pharmacy and I am content for hours. (Ask my husband or daughter!)
I explained to the pharmacist—as best I could in my limited French—that my throat had a persistent tickle causing me to cough and that my nose was running but my head was “stuffed up.” The pharmacist could see that my eyes were watering and that one hand was clutching tissues while the other one was covering my mouth as I coughed.
The pharmacist asked a few questions: Did I have a fever? Did I have chills? Was my chest congested? She then recommended Balsofumine to keep the nasal passages clear (a solution added to hot water for inhalation); saline solution to keep the nasal passages clean (dispensed by inserting the nozzle into each nostril and pressing the nozzle to spray); and Actifed: Rhume, Jour & Nuit to address the cold symptoms (four color-coded tablets to be taken morning, afternoon, evening, and at bedtime). I also picked up some Mucomyst (a sachet whose contents are added to water to thin mucus) and aspirin which like so many medicines in France is effervescent (and must be dissolved in water to take). At the last minute, I grabbed a tisane relaxante (a non-caffeinated tea with relaxing properties).
Balsofumine is a liquid solution composed of primarily eucalyptus, with benzoin, balsam of Peru, lavender and thyme. It can be purchased with or without menthol. To use it, one should also buy un inhalateur. It is a very cool and inexpensive dispenser (about 5 euros) that works so much better than the bowl and towel-over-the-head approach! Add very hot—but not boiling—water to the bowl of the dispenser and then add a spoonful of Balsofumine. Then, inhale the aromatic steam and your sinuses and chest will drain quickly! We have been bringing this product home for ourselves as well as friends and family for over ten years. It works!
Saline Solution is familiar to most people, but the dispenser is slightly different from most that are found in the States and we think it is superior. Plain saline is most common, but one can also buy saline with manganese to help prevent allergic reactions and with copper to help prevent infections.
Actifed is, of course, available in the States but the four-tablet per day format—Rhume: Jour & Nuit—was not something I was familiar with and doesn’t seem to be available by this company although other pharmaceutical companies appear to produce a product with the same active ingredients. The daytime tablets—matin, midi, et dîner—are composed of acetaminophen and pseudoephedrine—and the nighttime tablets—coucher—are composed of acetaminophen and dipenhydramine.
Mucomyst was recommended by another pharmacist in France for my daughter who couldn’t shake a “chesty” cough. It worked almost immediately and we have kept some around our house ever since. The active ingredient is acetylcysteine.
Aspirin, in France, typically comes in an “effervescent” form and includes vitamin C. This mode of delivery of a drug is very popular in France; if you prefer another delivery mode, such as a tablet, you have to ask for it.
Tisane is a non-caffeinated tea. Most pharmacies, like the one in Lourmarin, blend their own tisanes and also sell other pre-packaged teas. I picked up one for relaxation, but are others available to help with cough suppression, digestion, increasing energy, weight loss, mental acuity, and so on.
I left the pharmacy, my bag bulging with medicinal supplies, and headed back to La Bonbonnière where I holed up for about two days. I faithfully used the Balsofumine, saline solution, and Actifed and drank lots of liquids. It wasn’t long until I before emerged feeling re-energized to continue my adventures!
I returned to the pharmacy to poke around later in the week. The astute reader has already gathered that I love French pharmacies. They are not like the drug stores we find in the States that, over the years, seem to have morphed into convenience stores. There is no ice cream, greeting cards, or film services. Definitely no alcohol (except the rubbing type!). In contrast to pharmacies in the States, the pharmacists are not behind a counter—they are out on the floor providing individual, highly professional help to each person. You may have to wait your turn, but when it arrives, you will have the pharmacist’s undivided attention.
Health, hygiene, and cosmetic products are their focus. First aid is a significant part of their community practice, an approach that undoubtedly shortens the long-lines in emergency rooms, thereby lowering health care costs, too. (Drug stores, such as CVS in the States, are experimenting with such a model in selected metropolitan areas, an approach our local pharmacist was very excited about.) French pharmacies also sell and rent crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, blood pressure cuffs, etc., a service we made use of when our daughter injured her knee playing soccer and needed crutches. They take back unused drugs (and send them to third-world countries). They are required, as part of the government’s efforts to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, to have condom vending machines outside the store (so that condoms are available 24/7). French pharmacies are an integral part of the community and the health care system.
So, the next time you are in France, make sure to look for the flashing neon green cross and stop in. If you are in the market for skin care products, consider Darphin, Institut Esthederm, La Roche Posay, Caudalie, and Nuxe. If you are having trouble adjusting to a different time zone—and your trips to the bathroom are not productive—there are many products to help. If the powerful Mediterranean sun has taken its toll on your skin, there is something for you (our daughter would recommend Osmo Soft). If you have a scar that just won’t go away, try Cicatryl. If you are feeling the effects of rich dinners and too much wine—a condition referred to as the crise de foie—there are lots of products from which to choose. And, if all that good food has added a kilo or two, there are antidotes for that, too.
Pas de problème at the French pharmacie!
* Useful phrases when you visit a French pharmacy.
Je ne te fais pas de bises ca je suis enrhumé
I can’t give kisses because I have a cold.
Je suis en rhumé.
I have a cold.
Je suis malade.
I am ill.
J’ai une indigestion.
I have indigestion.
J’ai mal à la tête.
I have a headache.
J’ai une mauvaise toux.
I have a bad cough.
J’ai mal au ventre.
I have a stomach ache.
J’ai de la fièvre.
I have a fever.
J’ai des frissons.
I have chills.
Examinez cette blessure, s’il vous plait.
Please examine this wound.
J’ai une allergie contre….
I am allergic to….
Avez-vous quelque chose contre un rhume?
Have you something for a cold?
J’ai pris un coup de soleil.
I have a sunburn.
Je voudrais de l’aspirine.
I would like some aspirin.
Je voudrais voir vos produits debeauté
I would like to see your beauty products.
Je voudrais une tisane pour la constipation.
I would like a tisane for constipation.
S’il vous plaît vérifier si ces champignons sont mangeables?
Please check these mushrooms—are they okay to eat?
S’il vous plait, jeter un coup d’œil à la rougeur sur mon bras. Oui, je viens juste de ramasser des figues et soudainement ces bosses sont éclatés partout. Ils sont très irritants. Non, je ne savais pas que les branches de figuier sont irritantes. Oui, les figues étaient tout à fait délicieuses. Non, ce n’était pas mon figuier mais quelqu’un m’a dit que je pouvais les ramasser. Oui, je suis sûr les figues sont très bons avec du miel et du Roquefort. Pardon? Vous voulez savoir où ce trouve le figuier?
Please take a look at my rash on my arm. Yes, I was just picking figs and suddenly these bumps broke out. They are very itchy. No, I did not know that fig branches are irritants. Yes, they were quite delicious. No, it is not my fig tree. Someone told me I could pick the figs. Yes, I am sure they are very good with honey and blue cheese. What? You want to know where the fig tree is?