French Pharmacies

When my brother and his girlfriend came to visit in summer 2011, he ran out of solution for his contact lenses and we had to go looking for some. I was skeptical that we’d find any in a pharmacy but sometimes it happens, especially for soft lenses (mine are gas permeables).

We were staying in Aix-en-Provence at the time, so when I saw one of the little shops marked with a flashing green cross, we went on in. I started looking immediately for signs of an “Opticien” section, whereas Frère immediately noticed some little boxes marked “Contact”. He was looking very seriously and thoughtfully at them, so I went over, checked them out, and informed him that they were boxes of condoms.

Frère let out a huge guffaw that freaked out the rest of the pharmacy customers. I shushed him and we went on with our business. Except that, once we found the contact solution, Frère went and stood directly behind the customer at the counter, ignoring the elderly man seated a few feet away. I threw a side glance at said old man who said nothing, and then decided not to get involved and let the situation work itself out. I came back a few minutes later and indeed, Frère was now waiting behind the old man, a few feet farther back.

French pharmacies are an entirely different animal from American ones. When I think of an American pharmacy, I think of something CVS- or Walgreens-style, even in the case of the few independent pharmacies I’ve known. There are rows and rows of snacks, some fridges with beer and soda, a few aisles of practical things like dish detergent, a couple rows of make-up and shampoo, and then, typically at the back, a few rows of medicines, eye and ear products, and toothbrushes. Behind that are typically the pick-up and drop-off counters for prescriptions. Only regulated medicines are kept behind the counter, and interactions with the pharmacist are typically perfunctory.

Picture something like this. (Photo from

As for French pharmacies, they are much, much smaller—even among the biggest I’ve seen, nothing has ever compared to a warehouse-style Walgreens. The ambiance is much more intimate, and since all of the medicine is behind the counter, conversations with the pharmacist are to be expected. If you don’t know what you want to take for your cold, the pharmacist (and assistants) are there to advise you. You can even walk in with a bag of freshly picked mushrooms and ask your pharmacist if he/she thinks they’re edible.

Service is first-come first-served but you certainly don’t stand directly behind another customer, because this person could be having a conversation about a health problem. Pharmacies are typically equipped with some type of seating for the elderly customers (or toys for children), who will sit and wait their turn there. You have to actually pay attention to who arrived first since sometimes the line is very informal.

Imagine something a little like this

In short, Frère committed a few faux pas during our brief visit, things that I had gotten so used to that it didn’t even occur to me to explain! I go to the pharmacy a lot in France, since I’m still on allergy meds, so I’ve grown pretty comfortable with these places. I like the different feel and no longer miss the aisles of contact solution (which I order online now anyway) and over-the-counter drugs.

Has anyone else ever made these same mistakes? Or had visitors to France make other mistakes?


3 thoughts on “French Pharmacies

  1. Mere says:

    even at walgreens here there is a line you are supposed to stand behind to give the previous customer and the pharmacist privacy. Frere is a physicist, not a typical American
    Anyone who has seen the MOnty Python sketch with John Cleese and the booming indiscreet pharmacist has had his consciousness raised about this (“Alright, who’s got the boil on their bum?”)

  2. I still remember the bottle of Hélicidine and the box of Paracetamol 1000mg that the pharmacist gave me when I had a nasty fever and cough, and I had a flight the next day… Signs warning travelers of bird flu were everywhere at CDG and I got stopped three times for a “security check.” Never wear an all-black outfit from head to toe (beanie, scarf, gloves, sweater…) going to the airport while looking ill!

  3. Mom: that is pretty funny and a good point, but in French pharmacies the line for random crap (=toothbrush) and delicate health information is the same one, unlike in the US where you can buy your candy far away from the people buying boil cream!

    Turtle: It’s true, the pharmacist can be just as useful as the doctor! Though I would never have imagined in France being picked out from the crowd for wearing black!

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