Sunday, 2 October 2016

Dutch Pharmacies

I woke up this morning, but one eye didn't. I thought little of it (I never think much after just waking up) and went back to sleep.

About an hour later, the same thing happened again.

"That's strange," I thought, and as any modern individual would do I reached blearily for my phone and took a selfie.

For your well being, I won't post the image here, but maybe I'll use this as an excuse to finally get Instagram and upload it there instead. It was not a pretty sight. From what I could see of the bad picture, my right eyelid was swollen and would only open half way and my forehead looked like my first and last attempt at constructing a balloon animal.

I sent the picture to Dr Dad and asked Dr Google for advice while waiting for a response. Getting medical advice from the internet is like trying to drink from a fire hydrant, so I was fully expecting that the first five results would inform me of likely terminal cancer, but I was surprised to learn that it was probably caused by the mosquitoes that had been bothering me during the night and that the suggested treatment was to take a walk and wait a few hours. Dad seconded the recommendation and added one for antihistamines.

I reluctantly departed my bed and prepared to sample Groningen's pharmacies. I'd been to one before to pick up a package that had failed to find me at home, so after putting on boots and a coat against the morning air (which was whispering "go back to bed, go back to bed" in a fairly persuasive tone) I stepped outside.

I left my bike behind, remembering the 'take a walk' advice, and 20 minutes later I found the place. It was closed. Bloody Europeans and their sensible family-friendly laws, which make so much theoretical sense (families get to spend weekends together) and which are practically inconvenient (businesses are closed). "It is the duty of a business to be open," I thought, and realised that I needed a few more decades of practice if I ever wished to be comparable to Wilde.

After the few seconds delay that my coffee-free brain takes to react to unexpected situations, I opened Google Maps and searched for nearby pharmacies. There were half a dozen or so within walking distance, and I clicked on the nearest one to check its opening hours.

"Closed today"

I tried the next.

"Closed today"

And the next. And the next. And the next.

Finally, there was only one unclicked red dot left on the map. I pressed on that too, with expectations even closer to zero than usual.

"Open 24/7".

Pleasantly surprised, I strolled the kilometer to the obscure part of town that I had not yet come across in previous aimless walkabouts. When I arrived, I was greeted by a bank-like setup with one of those machines whose sole purpose is to print out tickets with numbers on them so that people can queue in a non-linear fashion, and a line of counters protected by reinforced glass. I wondered what the chances were of an imminent hold up, but after looking around for people wearing balaclavas and not seeing any (there was only one other customer) I pressed the friendly red button on the machine and got a piece of dead tree with "103" printed on it for my efforts.

Looking up, I saw a screen with "Currently processing ticket 0. 0 people in queue" or something similar in Dutch (I can't speak Dutch). I inferred that they weren't using the expensive ticket system, and waited in line behind the only other customer.

When he left I approached the counter with a friendly "Hello". I was told to wait for my number to be called, and I then realised that there was in fact another customer, waiting hidden behind a corner, where there were several seats. The pharmacist shuffled papers around importantly for several minutes, and then indicated to the other customer to approach. The screen had not changed.

After another ten minutes or so, the pharmacist closed the counter she was at, opened the counter at the far end of the building, shuffled some more papers around, played a couple of rounds of minesweeper, and then indicated that it was now my turn.

"Hello," I tried again.

She seemed more friendly this time and asked how she could help. The Dutch in general speak English perfectly and are happy to do so at any opportunity, but this pharmacist was the exception to prove the rule. After figuring out what I wanted and why, she looked seemingly at random at one of the shelves behind her. Not finding anything to her fancy, she walked down the row and picked another shelf. She seemed to like these two shelves in particular, out of a choice of dozens, and proceeded to walk up and down in front of me, looking repeatedly at her two chosen shelves. Eventually she returned to the window.

"Do you want something to put on your skin, or do you want to swallow something?" she asked.

I've never taken antihistamines before, but I told her that I assumed the latter.

"Yes," she agreed. "I thought so." And she resumed her pacing and repeated inspection of the two shelves.

After several turns, she returned again, looking bewildered. "Um, I don't know where anything is," she admitted, and waited hesitantly for my advice.

"Neither do I?" I tried. "But no stress. I'm not in a hurry".

"Oh good," she replied. "Because I need to look for it". She waited again.

"Sounds good," I said, wondering if I should offer to try squeeze through the communication hole in the glass to come help.

She resumed her pacing ritual, looking again at the same two shelves, and completed five or six more circuits. I was beginning to wonder how to break her out of the loop, when an older lady appeared from the back, to do some more important shuffling of scrap paper on one of the desks. The two communicated briefly and the older pharmacist came to help out. She immediately found the antihistamines, and the younger pharmacist brought them to the counter for me.

"I got them," she said, triumphantly and with new found confidence.

She scanned them and hesitated, the confidence visibly fading. "There are seven tablets in here. That will be enough for one reaction?" she said, with a lingering question mark, as if undecided about whether she was asking or stating.

"You're the expert," I replied. "But one box sounds good to me."

She pressed more buttons on the computer, and hesitated again. "Unfortunately, there will be a fee?" she asked.

How civilised, I thought. I suppose asking people for money in return for medicine is not common practice around these parts.

"It's one euro and forty cents," she said.

"No problem," I replied, showing her my card to indicate that I was expecting to pay. But she hadn't finished

"... plus seven euro fifty because it's weekend," she continued. "Perhaps you should come back tomorrow? Then it will only be one euro forty".

I repeated what she had said back to her to make sure I hadn't misunderstood. "Seven euro fifty because it's Sunday?" I asked.

"Yes. But if you come back tomorrow, you don't need to pay. And you probably won't even need to come back, because normally the swelling will go away after 24 hours by itself," she said brightly. She was holding the box tantalizingly in front of me. "I think it's much better if I just put this back?" she asked.

I agreed with her that paying the weekend tax was probably not worth it, as the swelling was already decreasing, and left. I instead spent €4 on coffee and and a croissant from a nearby cafe, and contemplated the strangeness of the system while I ate. Why the fee was necessary seemed obvious, considering that it took two highly qualified individuals and a substantial amount of reserved family time to find that box. But there was something ironic about a system that allowed me to get so close to a product and then at the last moment discouraged me from purchasing it. Perhaps it is merely a Dutch flavour of logic to which I am not yet completely accustomed. I cannot deny that it worked out well in the end.