A knock at the door.
I jolt awake and stumble to open it. I’m not tipsy, just tired. I’ve been shepherding university students around Rome for a week. Enough said.
A gaunt, tired-looking one-such-student greets me from the other side of the threshold. She’s leaning against the door frame, one hand on her stomach, looking just about as displeased to be waking me as I am feeling at having been woken.
“Darcy, hi. What’s wrong?” It’s not a stellar opening line, but it’s all I can manage, squinting into the light of the hotel hallway.
“I’m sick. I’m going to the pharmacy. I just thought I’d let you know.” Her voice is a whisper.
“What time is it?” I ask. Then I realize it really doesn’t matter. “Just a sec. I’ll come with you.”
“If you want. You don’t have to.” Yeah. Right.
“Yes. I want. Wait here.” I return to the welcoming darkness of my room and grope around for the light switch. I quickly find the clothes I had been wearing the day before, grab my purse and pull my hair into a semblance of a ponytail. Back into the hallway I go. Darcy seems to have worsened in the 2 minutes that have passed.
On our way to the hotel lobby, she tells me her ailments: upset stomach, headache, diarrhoea, aches, pains the usual. Of course, she hasn’t brought any medicine with her from Canada and of course, I’m not legally allowed to give her anything. That leaves the pharmacy.
I call a taxi and we wait outside. At least it’s warm. But it’s Rome, on a weeknight, at some little hour of the morning. What pharmacy is going to be open? This is Italy, after all. I pray the taxi driver will know, because I don’t. I don’t let Darcy know this though. Nope. Me, I’m cool as a cocomero.
Soon enough, a taxi pulls up and the driver greets us through mouthfuls of potato chips. “Ciao belle, dove andiamo stasera?” Hi beautiful girls, where are we going tonight?
We get in. After a brief conversation between the driver and I, we decide to go to the Farmacia on Via Nazionale, because it’s one that’s supposed to be open 24-hours a day. I’m skeptical, but keep my mouth shut and employ my lips to shoot a reassuring smile at Darcy instead.
We turn onto Via Nazionale, which, by day, is hustling and bustling. In the middle of the night, it’s a different story. We don’t pass another car. Don’t see any pedestrians. My hope of a 24-hour pharmacy dwindles. My patient starts to grow carsick, but seems to ever have faith that there will, indeed, be a Shopper’s Drug Mart-like haven of medicine waiting for us down the darkened Via Nazionale. I have to tell the driver to go more slowly to help Darcy keep her dinner down. I curse myself for not thinking to bring a plastic bag and make a mental note to always keep one in my purse in future.
Finally, the green LED cross, symbol of the farmacia all over Italy, comes into view down the street. I’m still skeptical. All too often the light’s on and nobody’s home.
The driver pulls up to a darkened storefront and executes a relatively smooth stop. (Bravo). My heart sinks as I look at our destination: doors closed, barred security screen locked in front. It’s not open, I tell him. You have to ring the buzzer, he replies good-naturedly. I tell him I’ll take his word and pay him our fare. He drives off into the night, but not before offering us some of his potato chips. We decline.
I survey the deserted street, all the while trying to look confident for my ailing student. Sure, this is no big deal. Sure I’ve done this before. Sure, this is normal.
[No it's not, the Canadian in me screams. The Italian in me shrugs.]
Feeling oddly like I’m on a movie set, and worrying that something terrible is about to happen (cue scary “don’t do it” music) I approach the door and ring the buzzer with trepidation. Within 5 seconds a light in the back of the store comes on. A curly-headed guy in track pants and a tshirt approaches the doors scratching his head. The glass doors slide open and he appraises us through half-closed eyes. Surely this can’t be the pharmacist. He looks to be about 18. And yet it seems to be.
“Cosa volete?” he grunts through the security screen. What do you want?
Ahh, a charmer.
I respond in an equally abrupt manner and explain my student’s symptoms and the type of medicine we need. I wait for him to open the screen and let us in. Instead, he takes a long look at us, steps closer to the screen and looks up and down the street. Seemingly satisfied, he turns away and shuffles back into the store.
Can’t we come in? I call after him, curious about all the cloak-and-dagger stuff.
No, is his reply.
Because too many people steal drugs at night.
Oh. Well then.
Soon enough he’s back with a little rectangular box. He slides it to me through the bars of the screen and stands with his arms crossed while I check it out. There’s no brand, no pictures, no niceness, just a long medical name I wouldn’t recognize in English or Italian.
I ask the price. It’s surprisingly cheap. Darcy looks at the medicine, shrugs and says she’ll try anything. She hands me money sits down on the sidewalk.
I pay Mr. Charming. He starts to wave us away. I ask for a receipt and foil his plans of going back to sleep 30 seconds earlier.
He reluctantly goes back to the back of the store and rings one up for me.
All of this is done by passing money, medicine and receipts through the security screen. It feels more than a touch clandestine. Again, I’m waiting for someone to yell “cut!” and for our scene to be over. Or for some drug thief to make his grand entrance.
We thank him. He dismisses us with a wave as he disappears into the back of the store. As if by magic, the glass doors close again, and we’re left to find a taxi back to the hotel.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my nocturnal foray to the farmacia.
[When I asked some Italian friends if this type of thing was normal, they agreed. I then had a similar experience at a Florentine farmacia late one Friday night where money, medicine and receipts were slid back and forth in a little metal box through a hole in the wall of the store. Orders were yelled through a pane of opaque glass.]