Just a spoonful of sugar/makes the medicine: A Belgrade apoteka experience
When Americans are sick, they tend to accept it quickly, drop an A-bomb of medicine, and get back to work ASAP. In Serbia, things are a little different. Serbians take illnesses seriously. They’re in bed for days. They might go to the doctor, but they also rely on rakija, tea, and rest. When sick Serbians re-emerge into society, people debate the cause of the illness, which is usually the weather. Abrupt changes in temperature, air conditioning, and a cross-breeze (aka promaja) are blamed for anything from infertility to cancer to a common cold.
I always thought I leaned more toward the Serbian model. I don’t tend to take illnesses seriously (denial is my preferred method), but I do lean toward herbal remedies and simple rest. But last week, when my “allergies” were taking a turn toward bronchitis street, I knew had to do something about it. Enter the apoteka.
An apoteka is a pharmacy. Unlike the U.S., where a pharmacy sells everything from band-aids to books and beach balls, an apoteka sells only medicine. They’re usually small and have a glass wall dividing the customer from the pharmacist and his loot. Unless you have a specific medicine in mind, the apoteka is also a confessional booth. The customer tells the pharmacist what’s wrong, answers embarrassing questions (what color is your vomit?), and receives a consultation before receiving medicine. It’s a double-edged sword; though there’s excellent customer interaction, the pharmacist sometimes refuses to prescribe the desired medicine. For instance, I once asked for anti-nausea medicine (bad food + long car trip ahead) and received a yogurt supplement. Um, thanks? On the positive side, you can get almost any drug without a prescription, as long as the pharmacist thinks your reason is valid.
When I finally admitted that I needed something stronger than honeyed tea for my “allergies,” I walked into my neighborhood apoteka. I confessed my sins (it’s been six months since my last illness…I’ve coughed 15 times this morning) and received a glass bottle of cough syrup in return. Jackpot, I thought.
I took the surprisingly tasty medicine, eagerly anticipating the end of a runny nose and wheezy voice. Nothing. I resorted to rakija, which made me feel much better but sound the same. Finally, I looked at the label of my cough medicine. ACTIVE INGREDIENTS: water, sugar, glycerin, honey, etc. At first I laughed. But then my American instinct kicked in. I…wanted…drugs! I wanted ingredients that I couldn’t pronounce. I wanted chemicals that weren’t suitable for children. I promote natural remedies whenever possible–until I admit that I am sick. Then I want my a-bomb. You can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take America out of the girl.
Fortunately, I had a friend with the hook-up: liquid Dayquil. Ah, sweet, sweet, Acetaminophen. Phenylephrine, how I missed you so. I gulped a tablespoon and shuddered at the taste. Now that’s medicine, I thought. But I kept the bottle of my Serbian stuff. You never know when I’ll need to ward off the promaja.