The bright green cross had become a beacon of comfort for me throughout my three month-stay in Italy. I could spot one a block away. They are as common in Italy as churches. In America, a green cross signifies a marijuana dispensary. In Italy, this is the symbol of the farmacia, the ordinary drug store.
The farmacia is hardly a cornucopia of over-the-counter drugs Americans are accustomed to. You cannot walk away with a jug-sized bottle of aspirins or antacids. Unless you want to purchase beauty aids, or like me most of the time protein bars, you must ask the pharmacist for everything. He or she (from my experience the pharmacist in Italy is almost always a she) provides you with a two- or three-day dose to get you through what ails you, or they send you to see a doctor.
In my case, I was encouraged to see a doctor.
I never expected I’d need the pharmacy for anything other than the protein bars which I ate while logging mile after mile of sightseeing. I had come to view the green cross as an oasis of nutrients. They are tiny and don’t sell much anything else. Until the day the small rash on my chest I had noticed a week before had spread to my thighs.
Fearing the worst, I visited one of the many local pharmacies near where I rented my apartment in Rome’s Prati neighborhood and in a hushed tone I explained to the pharmacist my problem. In Italy the pharmacist is god-like. It’s no surprise the farmacia is denoted by a cross above the entrance. I stood before a confessional, in a way, airing my sins to a priest. But unlike Catholic churches, Italian pharmacies have no private rooms or stalls. You are asked with signage, sometimes painted on the floor, to show anyone at the counter consideration by not listening. Most everything in Italy is small, including the pharmacies, and it’s difficult not to be close enough to overhear. I smiled at the customer at the adjacent cash register. She gaped at me as if embarrassed for my rash, or perhaps she was appalled more by my awful Italian.
I absorbed the pharmacist’s advice the best I could: no exercise, no smoking, no alcohol, and go see a doctor. She refused to give me any medication without a doctor’s prescription first. I went to one more pharmacy in hopes the pharmacist would give me medicine without a prescription. This pharmacist also sent me to see a doctor.
I had traveler’s health insurance, which cost me $200 for three months. I did not call for assistance as the policy recommends. Instead, I went straight to the blogs of ex-pats and learned about a Rome health clinic that specializes in treating foreigners. Twenty-six hours later I was rumbling along on the Rome Metro to the Piazza di Spagna, the station for the Spanish Steps, to make my appointment.
When I exited from the achingly long walkway from the station, the square was lit up and sparkling. The temperatures were in the fifties, average for a February night in Rome. But the locals were still bundled in heavy coats and neck warmers. Everywhere people laughed and posed for selfies and licked gelato from cones. The steps themselves were covered with so many rear-ends you could barely find a place to plant a foot.
The map on my smart phone guided me like a dowser conveying me to water through the throngs of happy tourists. I was conscious not to sprain my ankle on the ancient streets covered with missing and loose bricks. After several turns I came to a massive mahogany door on Via Frattina. These huge doors, big enough for Mack trucks to drive through, are common throughout Rome. I thought they were beautiful, but this time I was a little afraid to approach. Finally I rung and they buzzed me in.
I climbed the twisting steps to the fourth floor where a smiling, English-speaking receptionist greeted me. The office seemed like a converted apartment yet functional. It was hot, and I sat with a few other non-Italian-looking people waiting my turn while fanning my face with a brochure. The chair was so small, I wondered how the average-sized American would fit into such a seat if I could hardly get my skinny butt into it. I had actually arrived a half hour early, but luckily I waited less than 20 minutes.
The doctor with a Thai-looking last name asked me questions about my condition. She said stress from a new environment was the probable cause and prescribed me a topical solution. The service cost me 100 euros, about $120. Less than my $200 insurance cost, but that’s the gamble we take when we buy insurance.
The doctor’s office was helpful, but it was the farmacia with its familiar bright green cross blinking on and off in the night that I desperately wanted to find. Italian pharmacies seem either packed or empty. I came to one when it was bursting with a pre-dinner crowd of mostly impatient, smartly dressed women smelling of fine flowery perfume and barking at the pharmacist.
I thought they had failed me when the pharmacist told me in Italian that they did not carry the dosage the doctor prescribed. I was about to turn and leave dejected when she asked if I was okay with another dose, one 30 percent stronger. Knowing that American pharmacists would never override a doctor, I said, sure, and left with my $15 medication and priceless smile.
Back inside my Prati apartment I found only six small packets. They never over prescribe in Italy. They give you what you need and little else. Like all countries, Italy has its share of problems; prescription drug addiction is not one of them.
Nonetheless, I rationed the medication fearing I may run out before my rash cleared up. But after only two packets worth of applications I could again show the world my chest and legs, not that I would have much of a chance in a country where people wear parkas even when it’s 65 degrees. I tucked away the four remaining packets in my suitcase just in case.
Another time I was happy to see the green cross was when I had an unexpected bout of dizziness while waking the streets of Prati. I literally began to wobble and felt the earth move under my feet. I entered a nearby farmacia and described my problem. The pharmacist listened patiently and then took my blood pressure. Afterward he said in broken English, “Your blood pressure is high. I think you drink too much Italian coffee. You not used to it.” I knew he was right, and I breathed easier. For the next few days I refrained from drinking too much Italian coffee and my blood pressure and dizziness improved.
And yet the pharmacy came through again when my family and I were visiting Sammichele di Bari, Puglia, my father’s hometown, and our long walks were making us thirsty. The town is closed tight between noon and three, so finding a place that sold water was difficult. Italy has very few if any public fountains. We found the one place open—the farmacia. Unlike most establishments in Italy which still follow the riposa tradition, pharmacies remain open throughout the day. Unfortunately the store carried no bottled water. So the pharmacist reached down behind the counter and gave us her unopened one.
For a foreigner traveling alone like me, the big bright green cross is like a light house in the fog, a blessing in neon. Seeing it always gave me a sense of comfort even when I didn’t require it. I knew, no matter what the situation, I could always depend on the pharmacists inside should anything come up. The protein bars they sold, in particular, were a godsend when I found myself struggling through Italy’s riposa during which few eating establishments are open. So get down on your knees and join me in praising the green crosses of Italy.