Wednesday, 24 October 2007

What it says on the packet

Suffering from what is almost certainly post-party flu, I've been a recent visitor to our local chemist's and I've been struck, as always, by the subtle, and not so subtle, cultural differences between the UK and Italy. In England, medicines are stocked and shelved, named and labelled, in much the same way as any other consumer good might be. The packages are designed to catch the eye, the names to suggest what good the medicine is designed to do. In England, I'd probably have wandered around the colds and flu section of my local Boots and ended up buying a box of Lemsip. Lemsip. Sounds good, Tastes of lemon, made to be sipped. The box has a tick to emphasise positivity, rich, cosy colours, a gleaming yellow mug with some warming steam rising from it and a human hand around its tummy. In the TV commercial, arms and legs spring out of the box's corners and, before you know it, the medicine is not only making you feel better, it's physically caring for you. It actually makes itself.

In Italy, an almost identical product in terms of active ingredients (paracetamol) is called, wait for it, Tachifludec. Apart from the middle syllable, the name tells you nothing except that the stuff inside the box is medicinal. It doesn't coax or comfort; it doesn't do anything but distinguish what's in this box from what might be in the one next to it. It is not, in other words, a publicist's dream. Granted, there's a silhouette of a mug on the front and a picture of half a lemon, but the general look is 1960s clinical; you can see that, whoever designed the box, their heart wasn't in it. Interestingly, neither the box nor the sachets inside have any information on how to use the stuff. For that you need to read the closely printed four-paged sheet of information inside, which I no longer seem to have. Even there, the how is lost in columns of what that might mean something to a specialist, but leave an everyday flu sufferer woefully uninformed.

And that's the other difference. Chemists' in England are, essentially, supermarkets. In Italy they're more like designer boutiques. No other kind of Italian retail outlet has quite the same aura of wealth. My local chemist's, until recently lined in sumptuous prestige hardwoods with satin glass shelves in eau-de-nil and touches of burnished aluminium here and there, has just been made over. All surfaces are now protected by heavyweight slabs of marble, it has a multi-layered false ceiling Borromini might have designed, and bullet-proof automatic doors that slide open with an affluent hiss the minute you approach them. Money's been thrown at it, and thrown again, until it won't stick any more. In the heart of this shrine to conspicuous expenditure, like serving vestals, are the chemists in their starched white coats, their voices low, their origami skills exquisitely honed as they take the box of Tachifludec and wrap it in a pre-cut rectangle of paper, and fold in both ends, and apply just a touch of sellotape. Voilà.


Anne said...

They sound like French pharmacies. The French have strict regulations to protect pharmaceutical products from the general public. (Yes, I think that's the word order I mean.) Packaging is part of the theatre. This air of mystique, incidentally, applies equally to the homeopathic remedies so often on sale (though 'sale' seems much too prosaic a word to describe the transaction) in these august premises.

Get well soon.

Charles Lambert said...

Yes, and both countries seem to have similar levels of hypochondria too. What's interesting is that the mystique creates an immensely informed public - exactly the opposite of what happens in religious matters, where people appear perfectly content to let all knowledge reside in the figure of the priest (perhaps a reflection on its perceived uselessness). I remember a little Italian girl, five or six years old, once explaining that she hadn't come to a lesson because she had spleen ache(mal di milza). I didn't know what the milza was and the fact that she could point it out on her own body didn't help at all.

Thank you.

Chancelucky said...

Well, here we call them "drugstores"
which makes them a much more commercial enterprise. Chemist implies some sort of dispassionate scientist. Not sure which fits better.