Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Coke and a smile

G wasn't feeling well. Occasionally she gets this malaise in which her stomach is upset and she lays in the big brown armchair, too listless to read. When this happens, C and I generally huddle in the other room having whispered conversations that begin with going over what she's had to eat in the last 24 hours and end with working out how she'll be able to keep up with her schoolwork during chemotherapy. And then, the next day, she wanders into the kitchen and announces she's hungry. Another crisis passed.

This last time, though, I had the bright idea mid-crise of going up to the pharmacy and asking for advice. A pharmacie in France is not the same as a pharmacy in America. You cannot buy last Easter's Peeps on closeout. You can't buy film or have it developed. You can't buy a Happy Birthday Great-Nephew card with a handy built-in slot for cash. Nor, lest it seem that I am unfairly stacking the deck against my fellow Americans, can you buy large bottles of store-brand Tylenol or Pepto-Bismol or Motrin or Robitussin. Not, that is, without consulting the pharmacist.

A French pharmacie is designed in the way that old-fashioned general stores are always mocked up in movies: there's a counter or two, and, behind the counters, shelves of neatly arranged boxes and jars and bottles and tubes. Around the perimeter of the store, more shelves, more neatly arranged products. The lighting's always really good, bright but not harsh, and the colors are soothing greens and creams. I've never been in a pharmacy with that gross flat carpeting that American pharmacies often have--the kind that I'm pretty sure comes off the truck pre-stained with God knows what. The floors are always shiny and clean.

But the most important aspect of the French pharmacie is what lies between the counter and the cupboards: the pharmacist. At the pharmacy I frequented the year that G had strep eight times, the various overworked and undereducated technicians behind the counter would amble back to the open bins and root around for up to ten minutes trying and generally failing to find the prescription that our doctor had called in. If they did find it, we then went through the insurance card routine: I gave them the name of the patient, they looked in the computer and didn't find it, then I repeated the spelling, then, after consulting with their fellow-technician, they found the file, alphabetized under its Cyrillic transliteration. (Although there was the day that, when they told me that the name wasn't in the computer, I leaned across the counter and said: You know me. I was here yesterday. That day, they called out the real live pharmacist from his post deep behind the counter. Evidently he only comes out for incidents that require backup.)

Our pharmacie has a couple of pharmacistes, and then a couple of assistants. They all wear white coats, with their names embroidered on the left front. The women are carefully made-up, with neat, clinical but still sexy hair, and the men look like they will be doing a photo shoot later in the day for a mid-range eyeglasses designer--handsome in a clean, low-key, approachable way. The assistants generally help you with the low-rent items, the stuff on the shelves in front of the counter: face creams, sunscreens, baby supplies, lip balm. Anything more complicated that that, and you get the pharmacist. If you have a prescription, fine--she'll fill it, remark on how she wouldn't necessarily dose it quite the same way as the doctor recommended, and make sure you take it with plenty of baguette (really, she said that to me once)--and you'll hand over some pocket change and waltz out with a bon fin d'après-midi, madame ringing in your ears.

If you don't have a prescription but just an ailment, you can explain your douleurs--a cut, a headache, a bruise--and the pharmaciste will tilt her head, listen, examine the problem, and then start pulling boxes and bottles off the counter behind. That's what I expected when I went in for G's mal au ventre. I told madame la pharmaciste about the upset stomach. Is there anything that you could recommend, madame? Something that might make her stomach feel better?

Madame la pharmaciste reflected for a moment. I could see her thinking about the remedies for upset stomach, and I was waiting for her to reach behind the counter and produce some magical herbal remedy--drops to be taken after warm croissants, or maybe some balm made from the oil of lemon verbena.

Instead, she said: Avez-vous du Coca à la maison, madame? If you give her some Coca-Cola that you have stirred well, and that is pas trop froid, that will help her.

When Dr. John Pemberton invented Coke a hundred and twenty years ago, my ancestors were living about a weeks' buggy ride away from Atlanta. Anywhere in the world, beyond the world, the moon, Mars, even, America is synonymous with Coke. French people tend to assume that it's about the only thing that Americans ever drink--open a giant American refrigerator in a giant American suburban house, and it will be filled with giant bottles of Coca-Cola (and maybe some ketchup).

So when I said, No, en fait, I don't have any Coca at the house, do you know if the café next door would sell me just one can? madame's eyes widened a little bit.

Vous venez d'où? she asked.

Je suis amèricaine, I replied. La seule amèricaine who doesn't have Coke at her house. (And, I could have added, probably the only American who would forget that flat warm Coke was the universal remedy for an upset stomach.)

She smiled, and nodded. The café will probably sell you a can.

They did--although when I asked for it, that madame looked at me curiously enough (why would anyone want a can of Coke at 3 o'clock in the afternoon? was I going to walk down the street drinking it?) that I felt compelled to explain why I needed it. And we went through the whole yes-I-am-American-I-just-don't-keep-Coke-in-the-house routine. I took the Coke home, stirred it for a while, and brought it to G, still in the big chair, to sip. E, across the room on the sofa, looked up from her book for long enough to say, Wow, Coke, we never get to have that. G must really be sick.

She was fine the next day.

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