magical thinking

The Mysterious Allure of a Foreign Drugstore

Photo: Myron Wood/Science Source/Getty Images

Some people find foreign pharmacies and drugstores to be hostile and intimidating places — too full of inscrutable products, too much time spent explaining to the pharmacist that you have been Taken Ill, and the pharmacist doesn’t speak English, and now you have to mime the nature of your illness in front of a growing queue of older ladies. (Your illness is of course embarrassing. The medicine is of course reminiscent of a pill given to horses, and you have no way of Googling what it is and whether it is going to make you cry orange tears — this really did happen to someone I know — because the writing on the bottle is in Cyrillic script.)

Why would you want to be inside, under strip lights, staring intently at different kinds of soap, when you could be in a square drinking Prosecco and laughing into the faces of your friends? Hmm? Aren’t you hungry? Can’t we go? It’s just soap, buddy. Can’t we please go we have been in here for like 45 minutes please let’s go?

No. We cannot. We have to stay here under these lights until I get bored, which will be never. I am crazy about foreign pharmacies and drugstores, and I like to just cruise around in them for as long as I can. I drive my traveling companions mad. To the beach, they say. To the unspeakably beautiful church at the top of the hill, with the cypress trees all around and the orange blossoms, and the navy blue expanse of the Adriatic. I hold up my hand and I say, No. We will do all of these things in time. But first, the drugstore.

There’s always so much good stuff in there — slithery clear lotions, or shampoo bottles with a lot of roses on them, and packaging that just generally hints at priorities different than my own. Beauty editors have a lot to say about French and Korean pharmacies, and the miracles they contain. They write glowing articles about cult products that make you look younger than when you were born, about emerging from a sheet mask as radiant as the sun. I read every one of these articles, and while I do pine quietly for the pharmacies of Seoul, I am even more strongly drawn to the unsung pharmacy destinations. It makes me feel like a pioneer. I like to see as much new and weird stuff as possible in them. I like to hold up a bottle in the shape of an egg with two ladies dancing on the front and have absolutely no idea at all what it might contain. I see them as places of learning. I ­­­­­didn’t know how much some people wanted their hair to smell like fruit, for instance, until I went to an American drugstore for the first time. It’s just not a thing in South Africa, to have hair that smells violently of strawberry or passion fruit or bananas, but apparently in America it is, and this is naturally interesting to me. Dutch people always have incredible skin, and do not seem to wear a lot of makeup, and I had never understood what kind of witchcraft was afoot there until I went into an Amsterdam pharmacy and saw that these are people who take cleansing very seriously indeed. Dutch people know that if you want to look like you have just emerged from the spring woods after an exceptionally good night’s sleep, then you need to make sure your skin is clean. No, cleaner than that.

I have learned many such things, come home from trips overseas with gels and milks that leak all over my suitcase and make everything smell like honey for weeks. Foreign beauty products are sort of like other people’s clothes, in that they exude the glamour of the unfamiliar. They offer the potential of overhaul. The promise that they offer is sometimes illusory, it is true. I have what you might call Difficult Hair — it is pretty long, and there is a lot of it, and I tie it up mostly because I don’t really know what else I’m meant to do with it. As a consequence, I think too much about shampoo and conditioner and whatever might give me the kind of effortless hair that sits on the heads of Croatian women, for instance.

That hair. Jesus. Where does it come from? The young women’s hair, specifically. Brown and swishy and shiny and straight, and in great quantities. They all have it, this beautiful rich-person princess hair. I spent a recent trip to Croatia fixated on that hair, wondering how it could become mine, and walking up and down the aisles of the drugstores hoping to find the answer. I knew from bitter experience that I was unlikely to do so. A friend once walked in on me in my bedroom whispering “fuck you fuck you fuck youover and over again to the ends of my stupid hair. It resists. It says “No, fuck YOU.” Still. In the aisles of the Kozmo, I briefly held out hope that things would be different. I bought a conditioner labeled Olival because of its vaguely scientific aspect (austere font), and because it contained extract of burdock, which in my head is what old-time queens used to poison each other. It made me suspect that I might be about to participate in some arcane rite.

I took it home to test, so excited. I followed what I believed to be the instructions (I saw the number 3 in there somewhere), dried my hair with much more reverence than I usually do, and I waited for a miracle. I am waiting still.

The mysteries of the Croatian pharmacies eluded me, but I remain hopeful that one day I will come across some absolute jackpot of a product and wonder how I ever lived without it. It’s not just the beauty products. I believe with all my heart that a painkiller purchased in a foreign drugstore will work faster and better than any bullshit painkiller I could buy in the country of my birth. This is the other, sketchier allure of foreign pharmacies. I asked a bunch of people I knew what the best thing they’d ever bought in a foreign pharmacy was, expecting them all to give answers to do with Les Petit Marseillais shampoo and soap that smelled like pears, etc. Nope. Medication. From hard-core hangover cures (“Solpadiene Max — paracetamol and codeine and caffeine in one dissolvable tablet”) to proper Schedule IV stuff (“Benzos, obviously”). People spoke fondly of requesting sleeping pills and being given a knowing look and a handful of Valium by a benevolent Indian pharmacist. I know someone who trawled the pharmacies of Bangkok and got himself enough Klonopin to sedate an entire family for weeks. He said he needed it for an arduous bus ride. It is easy to judge these types of antics. No one needs four Schedule IV sedatives to go on a five-hour bus ride.

But I understand where the medication-hunters are coming from, and not only because I would not turn up my nose at a lovely handful of Valium. We are of the same blood, they and I. What I want is the Schedule IV equivalent of shampoo, a rare and over-the-counter shampoo that you only get to use after proving yourself through a series of tests. I want it to be strong and I want it to work. I want it to hurt my head and I want it to be worth it. We all share the same fantasy, I think, of there being better and more powerful panaceas on the shelves of the pharmacies abroad. Our job is to find them, and to have our lives changed. You will find us in an ill-lit chemist in Indonesia, maybe, staring at some kind of ointment that looks like it’s meant to be used on sticks, while our companions are outside braying loudly with laughter and learning how to surf. Leave us here. We are happy.

The Mysterious Allure of a Foreign Drugstore