There is a scene in the last season of Master of None where Aziz Ansari’s Italian love interest goes wild in the aisles of a neon-lit New York City pharmacy. “I love this place. Can we stay here forever?” she beams, scanning shelves full of possibility. “That’s my paradise!”
I know this feeling. The local drug store is always my favorite souvenir shop, offering a bounty of affordable and curious gifts (to myself or others) that will likely be used rather than gather dust.
For under $3 in Italy, for instance, you can bring home a bit of history and the best smelling talcum powder around. Packaged in a charming green plastic shaker bottle, Borotalco has been a staple of Italian households since 1904. Seeing the bottle in my medicine cabinet in Brooklyn recalls a day trip to Parma where I resisted the urge to buy a hunk of parmigiano or culatello, and came home with two canisters of the Italian classic instead.
The same warm feelings come to me when I reach for the extra-potent mosquito spray I picked up in Juba, South Sudan; the pleasant gummy throat drops from the Paris airport pharmacy; or some unusually-puffy cotton swabs from Monrovia, Liberia. The product packaging give quick language lessons (wattestäbchen is German for cotton swabs and spray gorge is French for the medicinal sore throat spritz sold as chloraseptic spray in the US).
A local pharmacy offers a heady cultural immersion—not the aspirational, fictionalized version peddled by tourism departments, but the true physical reality its people live in. And of course, the best way to know a city is via its maladies, neurosis, tics, and tastes.
This explains why a walking city like New York has drug store aisles dedicated to shoe insoles and foot aids or beauty-obsessed place like Bangkok stocks its pharmacy shelves with sheep placenta face creams and other curious cures and youth elixirs.