Expats, immigrants, and people who travel internationally often are impressed with differences between their home country and the country they are visiting or living in. I thought I’d write about some of the daily features of my life in Germany that are different from my former life in Seattle and in NYC; sometimes amusing, other times annoying. If you also have similar experiences, I’d sure like to read about your experiences and observations in the comments thread. Because I only recently found a “drug store,” I’ll start by comparing drug stores — Drogerien — and pharmacies — Apotheken.
If you need to purchasing any sort of drug, whether you need an aspirin or you are filling a prescription from a doctor (something I’ve not done yet), you go to an Apotheke. Unlike in the US, where pharmacies are typically found in the larger drug stores (often in the back), the German Apotheke is a separate destination altogether. They are denoted in Germany by the symbol that you see on the right.
To my eye, German Apotheken closely resemble an overpriced upscale NYC spa, because the walls are covered with clear glass shelves that are sparsely stocked with overpriced skin and hair cremes, shampoos, hair tints and other items that I cannot identify (thanks to my crappy German). Oddly, they also stock a fair amount of herbal “remedies” in these places.
If you wish to purchase aspirin, over-the-counter allergy meds or hydrocortisone creme (for example), you have to stand in one of a dozen or so lines and wait to ask the female clerk (it’s almost never a man) behind the counter for the item(s) you seek. Often, they want me to describe my symptoms before they will allow me to purchase the item I am asking for. After the clerk has figured out what I need (thanks to my crappy German, this might take a few minutes), I get to wait while they fetch whatever it is that I am asking for. Unfortunately, because I have no idea what brands are available in Germany, nor their prices, I am stuck with whatever the woman gives me after she’s deciphered what it is I am seeking. Why won’t they allow me to choose my own over-the-counter items?
While standing in line, waiting, waiting, waiting for the customers in front of me to finish their business and just leave already, I’ve also found that many people view this interaction with the pharmaceutical clerk as a social event of sorts, instead of a business transaction. I suppose that my perspective results from numerous relocations, my general impatience and my crappy German, but I find it to be rather annoying to be stuck in line, suffering from a nasty headache or eyes and nose streaming due to an allergic reaction, while families brag about their babies and whatnot.
Because I despise shopping, especially for pharmaceuticals, I tend to purchase as much as I can when I finally do go into the Apotheke. Unfortunately, the German system is not set up for this. “Pill” medications are sold in very small quantities (generally one dozen per package), so when I ask for more than one box to avoid having to return the following week for, say, allergy meds, the clerk “counsels” me about how to avoid overdose and occasionally asks about my suicide risk. Honestly, I find this annoying and extremely offensive since my state of mind is no one’s business but my own.
Another difference is that medications in pill form are heavily packaged — even more so than in the US. Individual pills are packaged inside their own compartment in a plastic blister pack which is then packed inside a box containing a paper insert describing the properties of the medication and its side effects. Why don’t Germans put pills into bottles instead? Wouldn’t that be less labor-intensive and produce less packaging waste?
There are drug stores in Germany too — Drogerien — although why they are known as Drogerien is beyond me since they don’t sell over-the-counter medications like they do in the US. Instead, these Drogerien sell all sorts of other householdy items items, such as cleaning and bathroom supplies, skin and hair care products, cosmetics, baby supplies, toys, candles, “travel sizes” of various products, condoms, pet food and litter, snacks and a variety of “Bio” (natural) fruit juices — that sort of thing. Of course, as a reward (bribe?) for shopping there, they also sell candy and wine. Yes, Germans sell wine — and even hard liquor — “over the counter” while they subject people to questioning before allowing them to buy one week’s worth of allergy medications.
My American perspective, tempered by a fair amount of international travel and 1-3 month stays in various countries, of German Apotheken/Drogeriemärkte is they are enormously labor-intensive for the staff and are annoyingly time-consuming for the customer who might just wish to go into the store, get some aspirin and leave as quickly as possible. I am sure there’s a reason for the way things are, but those reasons are not obvious to me. Can anyone enlighten me?