In the Centro Histórico of narrow, inclined sidewalks teeming with Saturday humanity, I zigzag and stumble my way to the corner drugstore par excellence, Farmacia París on Calles República de El Salvador and Cinco de Febrero. I’ve been making this pilgrimage almost yearly since 1998, when on my maiden voyage to Mexico City, I passed by the París on my way to the Hotel Isabel down the street. For a cosmetic junkie like me, the tall red letters announcing the place were magnetic North. I was there before I had even unpacked my bags.
Farmacia París has taken over three separate storefronts (as do many popular businesses in the Centro) on the same side of the street, although distinct products and services are on offer in each. On one trip, I happened to be coming from an unusual direction, and reached the condensed version first. This location is similar to a convenience store, containing a fraction of the París’ wares. Disoriented, I knew I could not possibly be in the same chaotic, claustrophobic, overwhelming pharmacy I knew and loved, even though the place indeed billed itself as the Farmacia París. So I continued my jaunt and happened upon the ensuing locale, in which you enter a colonial courtyard filled with herbs and medicinal plants. This is the herbolario of the pharmacy, where you can pretend to live the life and times of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. It is even possible to custom order your own herbal concoctions, as long as you have a calculator for a brain and are capable of dreaming up the ingredients in proper metric proportion. On one occasion, feeling brave, I went in determined to fabricate my own toothpaste. I might have listed a chalk base, with the addition of glycerin for slip, vanilla, peppermint, lavender, and chamomile extracts. I didn’t list the measurements in milliliters, however, nor did I think to ask for a conversion chart. This being México, land where the customer is always wrong, one was not offered to me, either. Thus, my recipe was rejected outright by the pharmacist.
The real deal, the granddaddy of the Centro’s pharmacy district, is on the corner, with a couple of garage door-size entrances. It’s nothing like a warehouse superstore: the building’s proportions and décor are vintage, the detestable crowds are modern. Following is the protocol one adheres to upon entering—I think I might have just mastered my walk-through on this most recent visit (it’s an unguided ritual).
First, if you are carrying any packages, parcels, or large bags, you should check them before passing through the turnstile. Mind you, this turnstile leads to product heaven only—prescription and other drugs are dispensed from an immense square, glass-countered island in the front of the store (although you would be forgiven for missing it, with all the masses of humanity milling around and scurrying to and fro). When you relinquish your outside purchases to the genteel attendant, she gives you a thick, translucent, red plastic claim ticket and deposits your things in their own painted wood cubby. This is a huge relief to your wrists, as now you’re free to shop as you please, unencumbered by non-París stuff.
Once you’re in, navigate carefully. The aisles are narrow, loaded with merchandise, and it seems like they’re eternally stocking the shelves. Boxes of semi-unpacked merchandise are everywhere, including in the middle of aisles. But there is order in chaos, and they haven’t changed the items’ shelf location since my love affair began. A caveat: the Saturday crowd is rude. Not one person uttered “con permiso” as they passed in front or in back of me, and they are literally pushy (more on this later).
I made a beeline for my tried-and-true fetish products I can’t get in the U.S.: a variety of Nivea roll-on deodorants, in thick glass bottles, for about 75 cents each. One with pearl powder, another with mineral salts. Klorane hair products from France, prohibitively expensive but always in stock. I purchased a mango butter leave-in conditioner. Result: my hair ends up so soft and limp, I can’t style it properly.
If you go over to the far wall of the building, there is a counter womanned by some fierce ladies in white lab coats. They are the gatekeepers to the luxury goods: imports, perfume, high-end cosmetic brands. In other words, my favorite section of the store. I intentionally ignored the crazy selection of fine fragrance and Maja products, since these are in oversupply on my dresser. I did, however, spy a brand that has long piqued my interest and is not readily available in U.S. brick-and-mortar stores: Avène. I asked to see the hand treatment with cold cream, which was rather pricey at 165 pesos. I also checked out a travel size skin-care kit, which came in at 285 pesos. Perhaps I was feeling a bit lazy to cart this stuff home, being that in the not-so-distant past, I’ve had emergency chiropractic visits due to lugging carry-ons filled with 30 pounds full of newly-acquired cosmetics through sprawling international airports. Never again! So I exercised extreme restraint and limited my purchase to a small aerosol of Avène thermal water, for my by this time wilting countenance.
Here is a rundown of the rigamarole involved with this transaction, which I’m proud of having finally mastered, after years of feeling like a clumsy and uninformed tourist:
When you are at the hoity-toity counter, you tell them what you desire and they print out and hand to you a ticket with your purchases on it. Then, you go through the delightful proletariat mayhem of the regular checkout lines, themselves excruciatingly narrow and confusing (you must ask everyone remotely in the vicinity if they are indeed in line), paying for all your goods purchased in the regular section and for whatever is listed on your special ticket. Next, bags of mundane purchases in hand, you go over to yet another chaotic line with no beginning or end and wait to claim your fancy purchase with the ticket. This line is the worst of all: everyone is complaining and swears they are going to come back on another, less congested day, but they all stay put and duke it out. There are at least seven female clerks tending the pick-up counter, loudly calling all the while to “keep it moving”, meaning that we are supposed to progress forward as a single-file snake, even though we have given our claim ticket to someone and have not yet received our purchase. Everyone ends up in a throng at the far end of the counter, reaching over each other for their packages. The woman behind me was literally pushy—if I slowed down out of courtesy for the person in front of me, she would put her hands on my shoulders and propel me forward to “keep it moving”. When my package was announced, she grabbed it from the clerk and thrust it in my direction without even making eye contact.
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I was drained after patiently tolerating almost an hour of seething masses in my most beloved place in Mexico City, but not to forget the last step of the journey: picking up my outside purchases from the claim desk. I handed my thick red plastic “ticket” to the kind attendant and bade adiós to seventeen varieties of Labello lip gloss; soaps made of yogurt, chamomile, seaweed, cold cream; almond-scented lotion from Spain, ginseng ampoules from China, and pills to cure every ill. I couldn’t wait to get “home” to my newfound lodgings, Hotel Lafayette (across from an English-language school on a pedestrian walkway), sprawl on my vintage bedspread with a juicy telenovela, and recharge with a blast of French thermal water…my reward for an afternoon shopping trip a la chilanga.