Going to the Chemist’s in Romania is, quite frankly, a pain in the arse. Not actually literally a pain in the arse, though I suppose it could depend on what you’re going there for. No, literally, it’s a pain in the feet, and just metaphorically a pain in the arse. The thing is that pharmacies are one of the few businesses which have apparently remained unchanged since Ceausescu’s time. As you walk through the door of the average pharmacy, you step out of the 21st century (well, let’s say you step out of the late 20th century – this is Romania after all) and enter into this faded netherworld of old posters and long queues and overly complex bureaucracy and strict state controls. This feeling is not helped by the fact that the clientele are (as they are in chemists everywhere in the world) predominantly elderly and unhealthy.
I will attempt to describe this step-back-in-time for those of you lucky enough not to ever have to go to a Romanian pharmacy. Firstly, you can’t see in them from outside, since they have these small grimy windows which often have bars across them, or if there are lower windows they are frosted. I don’t know why. Then you go inside, pushing aside the large iron framed door, to the world that time forgot. The floor is concrete. Just concrete. There is a large area of nothingness in the pharmacy itself, which may, in more upmarket establishments, have a chair here or there round the side, or even a set of weighing scales (presumably so that you may see how much weight you lose while waiting to be served). Around this central void, there are barriers of varying degrees of sturdiness punctuated by serving-hatch style windows. Regardless of the actual composition of the barriers (full wall, counter, half glass wall, even no barrier just space defined by the windows), the impenetrability of it is unquestioned. Something about the lay out and design of the space tells you in no uncertain terms that stepping beyond the defined limits of the customers’ area would lead to imprisonment and possibly a beating of some sort. Probably involving the securitate.
Behind the windows, are a number (never greater than 3, usually 1) of women in white coats. They’re always women, and I’ve never ever seen a male pharmacist in Romania. Behind them, and sometimes surrounding them, are various pharmaceutical products, that you cannot touch, unless they hand them to you through the little window. There are also little wooden drawers and cupboards that look like they haven’t been opened since sometime before the moon landing.
So, you join a queue. If there is only one pharmacist, then you join the only queue. And you wait, patiently, in line with all the other people in the queue. And you have to wait a long time, because every transaction involves not only the handing over of prescriptions, money and drugs, but also the laborious filling in of numerous forms and ledgers full of information. In many of these places they now have computers too, looking seriously out of place, but the benefit of these machines seems to be that the information needs to be entered now both onto the computer and into the ledger.
Now the big problem with all this, other than the olde-world, Dickensian drudgery of it all, is that you have to do this no matter what you want to buy. This system is not just for those who have prescriptions that they need filling. It’s for everything – from aspirins to tampons to baby food to vitamin C pills. Now luckily, a few of those things (notably baby food and tampons), have escaped from the system and are now also available in regular supermarkets and the like. But certain things, notably headache medication and other over-the-counter remedies, are not available elsewhere and have to be bought at the pharmacy in this painfully laborious way. Why it is not possible to use the dead zone in the heart of the shop for some display cases and have a till at the entrance for those who don’t need prescription drugs is beyond me. It’s all about control, it seems. And for ensuring that if you have popped in for some paracetamol because you have a small headache, that by the time you actually get the paracetamol you have a raging migraine. I’d love to take a picture of the interior of a pharmacy here so you could see I wasn’t making any of this up, but frankly I fear that if I got a camera out in the middle of any one of these establishments, I’d be arrested and shipped out to some gulag – or at the very least, forced to live in the Dobrogea and dig canals.
Interesting to note that things are obviously not dissimilar in Hungary. I wonder if this retail-pharmaceutical refusal to embrace 1989 is typical throughout Eastern Europe?