Boundaries and Care: On Touring French Pharmacies Before the Pandemic
Lucie Elven Charts the Research Process of Her Latest Book
“I am giving one star because less is impossible,” the review began, inauspiciously. “I simply came to buy some toothpaste…”
I was idly Googling pharmacies as I worked on a project, a book about a pharmacist. Near where my family was from in the Auvergne region of France, I had found one that looked like it was made of gingerbread, with icing-white lettering. I had an idea I’d go on a pharmacy tour next time I was in the area.
I had a vision of myself in a little car, pulling out a map on which certain villages were ringed, bouncing from this idyllic, albeit rude, establishment to another I’d heard of nearby, whose front window displayed jars of snakes collected by local children preserved in alcohol, in a gruesome interpretation of the Bowl of Hygieia.
Then the pandemic struck and while pharmacies remained open, the picturesque ones I had been looking at were inaccessible in a world with limited international travel—as were driving lessons.
Locked down in London, I became grateful for the smallish interactions I had regularly with the owners of the shops I relied on. I particularly loved the man with a basket full of miniature ducks who reached out of the door every time he saw a pram on the pavement outside, and bestowed one on passing children.
My attachment was probably intensified by loneliness, but maybe what I’ve come to appreciate as we adjust to life under the virus is the semi-formal amiability and care we show people we barely know. These limited, gentle exchanges give me a sense of stability.
It was August before I arrived in the Auvergne, where I was driving around with my mother. When the heat is intense in the most rural part of Europe, a large natural park spread over a bed of extinct volcanoes in the navel of France, there is shelter to be found in the pharmacy. The middle of the land can feel like the earth’s mantle in the summer, but luckily, there is a pharmacy for every 3,000 inhabitants, and most are air-conditioned. An authoritative woman in a white coat will ask you about your particular hair needs, or in what form—nasal spray, oral tablet, suppository—you prefer to imbibe your medicine.Then the pandemic struck and while pharmacies remained open, the picturesque ones I had been looking at were inaccessible in a world with limited international travel—as were driving lessons.
My mother hadn’t asked any questions when I told her my plan to visit them one by one. She just went along with it, keen, I think, to help and to spend time together after so many months apart. On the road to our first pharmacy, we passed through a village bookended by two industrial mushroom warehouses, stopping at the first for a crate of girolles and another of blueberries. The area had been almost unhit by the pandemic but we wore our masks as we waited in the white, strip-lit antechamber. A news article had been sellotaped to the wall. Gazing back at us was a photograph of the warehouse we were in, completely incinerated, its roof collapsed, in 2014. According to the paper, the owner of the second mushroom warehouse on the other side of the village had given his son-in-law the green light to burn this warehouse down, paying him 10,000 euros after the act, from the safe distance of a holiday in Thailand. As we drove on, the grand home of the mushroom arsonist—built, it appeared, in the flush period between the fire and his imprisonment—stood shuttered and empty on the hillside.
Our destination was in a town organized around a large abbey with a Danse Macabre fresco, a motif popular during the Black Death. Skeletal figures and people from every station of life—a pope, a skeleton, an emperor, a skeleton, a cardinal, a skeleton, all the way along to a monk, a skeleton, and a peasant—jived across the walls. On those of the pharmacy in our own plague year were displayed children’s pictures of the shop, its windows clumped together in dream-like agglomerations.
My mother went to the counter to buy time by asking about an antifungal cream for my sister’s nose, while I looked around, unsure what I was searching for. I wasn’t interested in the architecture or detail of the shops so much as whether they would reveal traces of interpersonal dynamics: a savior complex, a powerful actor, a rumormonger. The pharmacist’s office door was ajar. Behind it, the room was wonderfully messy. A graceful indoor tree arched over elegant oak furniture bearing mounds of books, stuffed envelopes, an anglepoise lamp, and a Minitel, a cubic machine once the French challenger to the World Wide Web. Under the pharmacist’s desk was a cardboard box of the sort wine bottles come in when bought in bulk. Sneaking a few photos of the comfortable scene, I imagined the owner as a bon vivant. Outside, my mother objected to my approach, saying that next time I should ask the pharmacist some questions directly rather than sneaking around to form an impression.
She was right, I was putting her in an awkward position, but I already had a theory, something I’d been exploring in my writing. A pharmacist is an extreme example of a caring profession that requires formality. Even in this pharmacy, with its personal touches, I didn’t think the pharmacist would let her mask slip, and tell me anything.
Jellyfish demonstrate the effectiveness of being soft, maximizing speed and minimizing energy-loss as they travel across the ocean. Just as counter-intuitively, modern pharmacists demonstrate the effectiveness of being formal. We feel oddly at home in the cold, clinical atmosphere of a pharmacy. We are more willing to divulge bodily details when met with a uniformed person. A theatre of professionalism is at play.
I’d found a pdf online of ancient pharmacies that listed one in a village where there was a good butcher, so the next day my mother and I set off there for sausages and research. The old pharmacy was nowhere to be found on Google Maps, and after walking up and down the stretch of road indicated on the pdf, we realized it had been converted into an artisanal coffee roasters of the sort you can find anywhere in the world.
When we pushed open the door, the cafe tables were empty. Behind sachets of coffee and tea were signs of the apothecary the room had once been. The walls glistened with mirrors encased in dark wood shelves still holding old bottles marked semen contra (wormseed), “potion,” bicarbonate potassium, and chloroform, alongside a mysterious tin bearing the image of a Bourbon king. We bought some coffee grounds and asked a few direct questions but the new owner knew nothing of the building’s history. Up the hill toward the butcher’s, a modern pharmacy was run by three women. The rod of Asclepius, with its curled snake, had been repurposed into a sleek logo for the digital age, something like the G of Google.
The women told us that that they had opened the pharmacy ten years ago, after the ancient pharmacy’s owner had retired. Two pharmacies would have been excessive in the village, but theirs was cramped given the demand. The apothecary had become a florist, a shop, and now a café. “The world has changed,” they said. The butchers’, with its smell of pigs’ trotters and andouillette, provided an exception.
Over the next week, the pharmacies we visited were each quite similar to the next, the pharmacists more remote in the time of coronavirus than usual, behind their masks and Perspex screens. They displayed disappointingly—staunchly—few signs of the idiosyncrasies of their owners. Instead, each was impersonal, which is perhaps soothing in regions where the personal is everywhere: landscapes of myth and gossip.If we tend to associate care with physical closeness, this was one of the first assumptions to be challenged by the pandemic, as boundaries were erected to prevent the spread of the virus.
When we weren’t buying scalp-stimulating shampoo in order to look around, my mother and I would stop for coffee or lunch or dinner at the auberge. In these breaks, pharmacists in less professional guises kept coming out of the woodwork. My grandfather recalled, as a boy, being led down a corridor and given whiskey and cigars by the local pharmacist, a right-wing man whose office was stuffed with animal hides. He would leave the shop to his wife, who was not qualified but knew more about pharmacy than he did, as he took men and their sons into the back and regaled them with stories of his conquests among the fraulein he had worked with serving as a military pharmacist during the war. His house stood on the corner, empty for forty years, dark grey with gates of wrought iron. Our waitress proudly told us that her aunt was head pharmacist at the big pharmacy outside Paris’s Gare-Saint-Lazare, employing sixty people under her. My sister was repeatedly invited to a poolside barbecue by a friend whose aunt was out of town—she was a wealthy pharmacist with a large house in the valley.
If we tend to associate care with physical closeness, this was one of the first assumptions to be challenged by the pandemic, as boundaries were erected to prevent the spread of the virus. Suddenly, care became letting friends know your exact movements in the days before you met up.
Even in less hazardous times, so many jobs, so many relationships, so much of the work we do when we want others to flourish—nursing, teaching, waitressing—requires a line, some distance, even formality. That’s not to say that the line can’t be crossed, but an agreement as to roughly where it lies at its natural point is helpful.
I’ve long dreamed up stories about jobs, the different ways in which they both hem in and require us to mobilize a part of our humanity. My first story was about a person who fell in love with an estate agent and would move house all the time to see him. Work is, sadly, a structure within which we live, and can provide a set of expectations, a rhythm, to play with and frustrate.
While writing my book, I worked as an editor and as a tutor, mainly facilitating fiction writing. In both positions I was attempting to draw potential out of others while keeping a distance. I developed a working rule: the more personal the material, the more formal and structured you should be in your professional interactions with it—like therapists having strict boundaries and forty-minute slots. Still, I often secretly wondered if I was insisting on that distance out of a personal coldness, a sort of individualistic insistence on the transactional nature of the work. The demand that customer-facing workers provide care to members of the public has become more pronounced over the past decades. As the Care Collective state in The Care Manifesto, with neoliberalism “We have (…) been rendered less capable of caring for people even in our most intimate spheres, while being energetically encouraged to restrict our care to strangers and distant others.” (Putting the manifesto together, they note, was to “redress a lack of care,” as good a reason for writing as any I’ve come across.)
In the end, our pharmacy tour was interrupted and I had to rush home early. It was a wrench to leave behind the routine of hopping into the car with my mother and sometimes my sister, and driving to a different village every afternoon.Even in less hazardous times, so many jobs, so many relationships, so much of the work we do when we want others to flourish—nursing, teaching, waitressing—requires a line, some distance, even formality.
On the road back, day after day we would forget our resolution to stop by the mayor’s office to warn him about the Japanese knotweed my mother had spotted on a nearby path, and swim in the lake or stop to look at the volcanoes rising like sea monsters on the horizon, the tectonic plates under our feet moving at a pace somewhere between purposeful and reluctant.
Back in London, real life returned. When I suffered setbacks or came into his shop looking tired, the man with the ducks offered me medjoul dates and recommended varieties of hummus.
The Weak Spot by Lucie Elven is available now via Soft Skull Press.