Read, Write, Run, Roam

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.

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15 responses

  1. I had to go to a apoteka in Bosnia and the pharmacist was smoking behind the counter! Also, you sounded EXACTLY like my Serbian MIL when she visits (“Ohhh, da air conditioning. It cut me in da neck like a knife!”). When we were sick and they were visiting, I was sent out for double smoked bacon and garlic, which she cut up with garlic, and was washed down with Rakija. Guess what? All better (but much stinkier!).

    June 20, 2011 at 6:42 pm

  2. I should write a post on air conditioning in Belgrade. I could probably write a whole book on the subject. I’ll try some double smoked bacon and garlic, too (for medicinal reasons only, of course). Was the bacon raw? I can’t stand raw bacon–it’s the only Serbian meat product I have not embraced.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm

  3. Kuma

    You should have picked up your cold medicine in Turkey. The cough syrup I got there was top notch! PS For the record, I did not give you the cold OR the bronchitis; the incubation period is well past.

    June 20, 2011 at 10:07 pm

  4. Jovana

    I laughed so much at this article!

    Went through a similar experience recently. I always prefer natural treatments but when I’m sick – I want the proper stuff!!

    June 20, 2011 at 11:08 pm

  5. I would have, if I had known better! And I don’t blame you for the bronchitis. I think there’s a summer cold going around.

    June 21, 2011 at 8:02 am

  6. Anonymous

    I’m sorry you got sick and am glad you feel better now. However this post made me laugh so much. You forgot one of the staples of natural medicines – propolis tincture. 😉

    Next time when you have sore throat, try out Strepsils lozenges. I’m pretty sure cough syrups with antibiotics are reserved for children around here.

    I’m curious to know why you don’t like smoked bacon? 😉

    June 21, 2011 at 11:23 am

  7. Interesting. Well, I had a childish reaction to being sick so you’d think the pharmacist would have helped me out! I love smoked bacon, but I like it cooked. It seems like most Serbians eat it cured/raw. I haven’t gotten used to the texture or taste since I grew up with crispy bacon.

    June 21, 2011 at 12:05 pm

  8. It was double-smoked, so…that’s a form of preparation so it’s not raw, right? RIGHT?

    June 21, 2011 at 2:08 pm

  9. I think that’s right. In Belgrade we often see cured bacon that is eaten like prosciutto–but it’s not smoked as far as I can tell. Believe me, you’d know if you were eating cured bacon.

    June 22, 2011 at 8:15 pm

  10. Marjan, MT

    For coughing “paracetamol”.
    And if you have a high temp.+bad coughing “acetaminophen” always helps.
    Acetaminophen is something like a form of Tylenol in States.
    Hope that helps a bit.

    P.S. I prefer a few shots of Jabukovaca which my Grand-Grandpa made 30years ago. Helps 100%. If not…you forget about it after …2nd-3rd shot 🙂
    Want some?

    June 23, 2011 at 7:28 am

  11. Yes, that sounds awesome! I tried slivovica we bought at Studenica. I figured the combination of church and alcohol was the best remedy. It seems to have worked with a little dayquil. That, or I’ve been wandering around buzzed for a week. I have not tried jabukovaca. Is that from a particular region? I don’t recall seeing it anywhere.

    June 23, 2011 at 7:50 am

  12. Kris

    Omg, yes, if you don’t specify to pharmacists here what is it that you want, they will give you something mild. You just have to know what you need before you even go there. If you’re yang they think that your body just needs little help (emphasis on little), tea and rest is enough. Especially if you say that it is for allergy, or something like that, they will not take it seriously. My friend almost died in Montenegro of diarrhea, and they kept giving me that yogurt staff and similar useless things.
    Get better

    June 24, 2011 at 12:35 am

  13. Neptun

    @Marjan Paracetamol and acetaminophen are the same thing and they are used exclusivly for reducing fever not against cough.

    @RHOB One of the reasons that pharmacists offer you herbal medicines is that the prices of “real” medicines is controlled by the government while the prices of herbal medicines are not so the pharmacy just makes more money that way. The other reason is the Serbs just believe that pharmaceutical industry is out to kill them and that “prirodno je najbolje”.

    June 24, 2011 at 6:22 am

  14. Thanks, I am getting better. I think the Serbian method a good way to go, since Americans tend to (in my opinion) over-drug themselves at any opportunity. But there are times when you need the harder stuff. Maybe they should have an “I’m serious” display of drugs for people to point at!

    June 24, 2011 at 7:51 am

  15. @neptun That’s interesting! Hopefully I won’t get sick again anytime soon but if I do I I’ll just figure out which brand name drug to ask for.

    June 25, 2011 at 2:22 pm

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