French pharmacies have a cure for everything – and it’s usually a suppository

One of the reasons for the long queues and even longer chats is because, in France, the sort of fairly basic medication that we in Britain are trusted to pick up for ourselves from supermarket shelves is only available at a chemist and kept behind the counter to ensure that people don’t accidentally overdose by mixing different kinds of painkillers. French pharmacies fiercely guard their exclusive right to sell medicines, which means you won’t even find anything as unremarkable as a packet of ibuprofen in any other shop. Pharmacies here are virtually hallowed ground, their ­flashing green cross signs marking them out as clearly as a bell tower on a church.

However, because they ensure that their over-the-counter pill pushing is a closed shop, basic medicines such as paracetamol are sometimes much more expensive than at home. Even those English residents who extol the spark­l­ing, reassuring beauty of French pharmacies quickly recover from their coup de foudre when it comes to this most ubiquitous of painkillers.

When I had Covid recently, several of my neighbours warned me that a small packet of painkillers that could be picked up for about 50p at a British chemist’s could easily cost four or five times as much over here. All that friendly chat evidently comes at a cost. Facebook groups for Brits living in France can get quite exercised by it, scandalised even. Many of them return from trips to Britain with a big Boots’ shopping spree squirrelled away among the Marmite and marmalade.

It’s not all a world of pain. While many of our guests are keen on visiting the Canal du Midi, the House of Noilly Prat vermouth and Marseillan’s little port-side restaurants, almost all of them – the female ones, at least – want to visit a pharmacy. The reason isn’t that they are in search of a cure after overindulging in local delights (although that does happen, admittedly), but because, for some of us, the pharmacies hold an almost irresistible allure. The olive oil soaps! The creams for different areas of the face! The promise of magic – miracles, even.

Once, I visited a pharmacy in Sète with my friend Fi and we got ourselves into such a high old state of excitement at the fine selection of fig-scented shower gels that our voices may have risen above the level deemed proper for middle-aged ladies in search of a gentle yet exfoliating bath-time treat.

The shop assistant did not look delighted at our presence, but when we arrived at the till with our haul of fruity soap, she nonetheless, pursed-lipped, loaded the paper bags with handfuls of free samples – another almost guaranteed highlight from a pharmacy visit. It was only when we got into the car and began to look through our treasures that we realised every single one of the sachets was labelled for peau très abîmée, crevasses aux talons or ultra-réparateur (very damaged skin, cracked heels and ultra-repair). Given our state of decrepitude, it’s astonishing we managed to enter the shop unaided. The assistant’s sense of humour was as dry as my epidermis, apparently. I’ve learnt to keep the noise down since.

I don’t know if it’s the long days of sunshine, the habit of walking or cycling on their daily errands, good food and wine, or the combination of drugs and unguents that keeps so many of the people in the village looking en pleine forme well into old age. I do think this prolonged vitality is in part down to the sense of social cohesion built on never missing a chance to have a chat whenever and wherever possible, whether that’s on the terrace of the Marine Bar or in the queue at the pharmacy. That, and never being afraid to say “suppository”.

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