Open a medicine cabinet in just about any British household and chances are you will find a packet of Alka Seltzers (for hangovers), an out-of-date tube of Rennies to settle the stomach after a dodgy Indian takeaway, and a bottle of Calpol if there are any children.
Depending on whether they live in Chelsea or Cleethorpes, you might also find a few homeopathic remedies, some Ginseng tablets and maybe a bit of Echinacea. Try the same exercise in an Italian household and it will take a lot longer to rummage through the contents. For a start, there won’t be a medicine cabinet — far too small.
Most Italians keep their drugs in plastic baskets, so you can cram them all in, neatly sorted and meticulously scanned for sell-by dates. There won’t be any hangover remedies, since Italians tend not to need them. But there will be a whole panoply of drugs for just about every other ailment under the sun, some of them administered in powder form to make a bilious orange-flavored drink and many of them presented in strange oblong-shaped gel-coated capsules. Being English, it took me a while to work out what you are supposed to do with these, but I now know that the fastest way to get rid of a headache is to ram a suppository up your rear end. Being English, of course, I prefer to hang on to my headache for a few minutes’ longer and wait for my paracetamol to kick in.
Until very recently, you couldn’t even buy an aspirin without going to a farmacia, so it comes as no surprise that running one of these little goldmines is one of the most sought-after jobs in Italy. A new ruling which allows other outlets to sell over-the-counter drugs means that some Italians now slip a packet of painkillers into their shopping basket at the supermarket. But for most of them, only hard-core prescription drugs will do, and the more the merrier. I don’t think I’ve ever been into a chemist in Italy without finding a queue, full of people clutching prescriptions — no doctor would ever dream of sending a patient away without at least a couple.
But though it may be lucrative being a farmacista, it can’t be an easy job. Whatever their social background, most Italians are experts on medical conditions and how to treat them, so you need to be on your toes. Italians also tend to travel with a small armory of pharmaceuticals wherever they go. My mother-in-law carries a plastic bag of pills and capsules around with her when she comes to stay, and a friend of mine complained bitterly the other day when she found that she wouldn’t be able to take a phial of a drug for stomach cramps and a hypodermic syringe on the flight with her. I pointed out that she was only flying to Dublin, but that did nothing to sway her resolve to be prepared for all eventualities.
Further investigation of the emergency kit she had packed for her 10-day holiday revealed she had taken “just the essentials,” including Imodium for diarrhea and an injectable drug for some unpronounceable condition that may result from an allergic reaction. Seeing my bemused expression, she explained that sudden allergies could easily cause your tongue to swell up followed by a swift and painful death. The tricky thing, she went on, was to know whether to inject the drug into the vein or the muscle.
That is the other weird thing about living in this country. One of the reasons that I could never have been a drug addict is that the sight of a hypodermic syringe makes me go weak at the knees. But Italians whip them out at the drop of a hat. Every household has packets of them, and they all seem to know how to use them. I once had an annoying bladder infection, and finally went to the doctor, thinking he would give me some antibiotic pills. He scribbled on his pad before explaining that he was prescribing a course of injections. I looked at him uncomprehendingly. “But where do I go to get these things done?” He looked at me with equal disbelief. “You must have someone who can do them. Ask around in your apartment block.”
So I did. And sure enough, there was a lady who regularly administered injections to all the residents. No medical training of course, but she was very good, I was told. It turned out to be the porter’s wife, whose fingers were perpetually stained with nicotine. It was at that point that I underwent a sudden and miraculous recovery. I made my excuses and tore up the prescription. Back to the paracetamol. Taken by mouth, of course.