Strange encounters with women in chemist’s shops

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the local pharmacie collecting a prescription. While an assistant was away preparing it, I was joined by another customer, a large lady in an expensive-looking tweed coat and a toque hat. She looked me up and down briefly, and having established that I was a guttersnipe meriting no further attention, she turned to a male assistant behind the counter and demanded imperiously, ‘Avez-vous du rhino horn?’

I can’t remember, but I suspect that my jaw actually did drop open at this point. I’ve generally found the French to be a reserved lot, and had begun to think that all the stories about them and their predisposition to l’amour were something dreamt up by the French Tourist Board. Yet here was a grande dame, bold as brass, demanding a well-known aphrodisiac, in the local chemist’s. If that wasn’t enough to stun me, the assistant’s reply almost had me demanding smelling salts.

‘I am so sorry, we are out of stock. The recent cold weather has meant that demand has been higher than usual. We expect some more in next week.’ At this point, my prescription arrived, and I scuttled away.

Once home, I thought of telling my little story to Madame, but I had an uneasy feeling about the direction the conversation might take, so I thought I would let it lie. Instead, I decided to google rhino horn to find out a little more about it. An article in Scientific American entitled ‘The Hard Truth about Rhino Horn’ (I see what they did there) was quite interesting, and there were several pieces about the threat to the rhino population from poachers.

Then I saw it. A picture of a woman with a strange plastic device shoved up one nostril and a thin trickle of water descending from the other.

Nasal cleansing! Surely that’s what fingers are for? I should have known, of course, that it was too good to be true. The image I’d built up of Madame Tweed Coat slipping a powder into Monsieur Tweed Coat’s cocoa just before retiring for the night was replaced by one of her shoving this miniature watering can into her conk while Monsieur tries desperately to get off to sleep before she emerges from the bathroom. C’est la vie.


Notwithstanding the above, I’ve come to love French pharmacies, though it’s taken me a while. At first I resented the idea that you couldn’t buy paracetamol or cough medicine in a supermarket and that there was no equivalent to Boots (pharmacy chains are not allowed here). Slowly, though, I’ve come round to them. For all the talk of restrictive practices (which undoubtedly do exist), I think I’d rather keep small, often family-run businesses going than let the supermarkets gradually destroy all the pharmacies, newsagents, and other high-street shops. This process, long-developed in the UK, is not nearly as well established in France, but there are worrying signs that it is spreading.

As well as selling over-the-counter products, pharmacists dispense medication prescribed by doctors, and French doctors certainly keep them busy – a study in 2019 showed that 90 percent of doctors’ appointments result in a prescription, and the average prescription is for three or more items. The French health system means that most prescriptions are reimbursed, so patients are quite happy to receive them.

Pharmacies in France also sell a wide variety of homeopathic products to cater for the seemingly insatiable appetite the French have for these. One of the biggest eye-openers when one first starts watching French TV is the nightly stream of adverts for slimming pills and energy boosters, as well as cures for that particular French obsession, ‘heavy legs’.

They offer a number of extremely useful services, such as dispensing the winter flu vaccine and now the Covid vaccine. Also, if you have been mushroom picking, you can take your haul to the local pharmacy to check that you haven’t picked anything poisonous. I thought at first that this must be a joke, but apparently it’s true.

I’ve found that the staff are always friendly and helpful, and quite often, in the older family businesses, the premises have been beautifully preserved, The pictures here are from Pharmacie Carnot in rue Carnot and Pharmacie Trouche in Grand’rue. It was while taking these photos that I had my second slightly bizarre pharmacy experience.

I had decided to go into Pharmacie Carnot on Monday afternoon. It would be quiet then, and taking snaps would cause minimal disruption. I entered the shop, and an elderly man with glasses, clearly the proprietor, emerged from the back. I was just about to explain, in my pidgin French, the purpose of my visit, when the door opened, and a tall middle-aged woman entered. She looked at me coldly; there was no tweed coat or toque hat, but she was clearly off the same assembly line as the rhino-hunter. I burbled, ‘Après vous, Madame’, and tried to indicate, by waving my hands around ineffectually, that I would prefer to wait to speak to the proprietor.

She seemed very reluctant to do so, but eventually she went ahead of me to the counter. She and the proprietor were now looking at me oddly. It dawned on me that they were both thinking that I wanted to purchase something unsavoury, possibly an appliance, almost certainly involving rubber. She spoke to him quietly. He retreated to the back of the shop, and came back with a small package which he placed on the counter. She scooped it up quickly to put it in her bag, but there was just time for me to see the label. It was haemorrhoid cream. The look she gave me as she left still haunts me.

After she’d gone, I explained the purpose of my visit to the proprietor. He stared at me for a moment, then silently shrugged in a gesture of consent. As I was leaving, he said, ‘Anglais?’ In the circumstances, I thought he’d earned the right to have all his prejudices confirmed, so I simply nodded and left.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

During Hitler’s years in power, Mein Kampf was given away free to every newly-wed couple.

Entrance to the Tower of London used to be free if you brought a dog or a cat to feed to the lions.

A bite from the Brazilian wandering spider results in an erection that lasts for several hours.

One thought on “Strange encounters with women in chemist’s shops”

  1. Spot on regarding pharmacies, in 30 degree summer heat the ideal places to cool down while browsing ‘pour l’ointment des piles’, which may be a mistranslation..


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