Naar de Apotheek in Messinia.

Greek village pharmacy

For various reasons ranging from cut fingers, tummy-runs, dental pain, tooth infections, sprained toes and yet more dental pain, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in our local pharmacy here in Messinia. The word Apothecary is of ancient Greek origin, but there are times when I imagine that – were Archimedes to return today and go into a village pharmacy – he wouldn’t notice much in the way of change. Very little suggests there might have been a Eureka moment over the last 3,000 years in the Hellenic chemist trade.

The first thing one notices about such places is that they keep very strange and unpredictable hours. What’s more, each pharmacy keeps its own individually strange hours, something which seems to be a point of pride among pharmacists in Greece. You notice this from the disappointing number of times you turn up to find them closed. It is technically possible (I know this because I’ve done it) to drive almost the entire length of the Mani Coast and arrive at every chemist either an hour before they open or two minutes after they went for a siesta.

What you immediately realise on entering the premises, however, is that there is always one person in charge who is completely pointless. Usually, it’s a bloke sitting at a desk to one side with a large ledger, taking notes. For all I know these guys might be bookies running a covert betting syndicate: the only thing I’m sure about is that they add nothing to the customer experience.

In front of the counter, there will be an old lady in black, bent nearly double and demanding a very obscure medicine.The staff behind the counter stretch to lean across it so they can hear what she’s saying, as she is addressing her enquiry to the wooden panel halfway down.

The obscurity of the medicament is clearly fascinating to the staff, all of whom join in a discussion as to WTF she might be on about. Medical dictionaries are consulted and pharmaceutical reference books introduced to confuse matters as much as possible, but the old girl isn’t happy. She’s had the fizzy version lots of times before and she can’t swallow the tablets, and so she wants her fizzy option or else.

While the debate goes back and forth, a queue develops out of the shop and halfway down the street towards the Post Office. The one from the Post Office is in turn heading for the one from the pharmacy, because some old bloke bent double in there is demanding to know why he needs to pay for air mail on the letter to his grandmother when the packet steamer rate would do just as well.

The politesse of the customers left waiting in the chemist is truly extraordinary. It happens in France too, but there you would hear stage sighs, and mutterings. In the Greek village pharmacy there is only a near vacuum of respectful silence, as if behind the counter lay a Saint’s bones – to be brought out for use only under the most dire of circumstances. The bloke at the desk ticks more items in his ledger, looking up occasionally with a smile of satisfaction: it is good, there is a queue in the pharmacy, this is what we wish to see. If the day comes when no people are waiting for medicine, all the ravens will leave the village and a plague of herbalists will descend upon the populace. It is written, somewhere or other. Possibly in his ledger.

Further back in the queue, men are considering leaving to go home for a shave, and pregnant women who came for morning sickness drugs are about to go into labour. But still total and utter discipline is retained. At last, the old lady collects her drugs, offers up a rasping rant about the price, and is led away by a large retinue of grandsons. Instantly, the queue moves noticeably forward. And it is only then it dawns on the foreigner that respectful young males with old crones in tow make up seventy per cent of the queue.

Yet despite this daily ritual of painstaking formality, it’s amazing the drugs you can get over the counter in Greece. I’m sure if you pitched up and asked for a kilo of ecstasy tablets, they’d hand it over without batting an eyelid. And there’s none of the “Have you taken this medication before?” crap you get in Anglo-Saxon countries. Somebody might ask that if you ordered 500 grams of Valium, but if you answered “Yes”, they’d ask “Did it make you happily bonged out of your brain?” and if you answered “Yes” again, they’d say “Good” and sell it to you, entirely satisfied that the drug was doing its job properly.

The village pharmacy tells you a lot about Greek forbearance. What it doesn’t reveal is how, after things have been getting no better for just that bit too long, the Greeks will suddenly snap. It has often been claimed that the storming of the Bastille was sparked off by an aristocrat’s coach running a street-urchin down without stopping. You never know: one day a Venizelos motorcade might encounter a pharmacy queue blocking the road, and blast the horn just a tad too aggressively. That might be the moment when the armed cars are smashed, Fat Boy Veni ends up being dragged through the streets, and the Hellenic revolution gets under way.

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