Prèservatif versus Conservateur


The pharmacies in Paris are pretty neat. They are a stand-alone shop and sell pretty much everything like a Bartell or Rite Aids. All of them are named Pharmacie. And when the green lights are on, it indicates they are open. They are everywhere in the districts; some of them open twenty-four-hours-a-day. What I like about the French pharmacies is that the prices are significantly cheaper than the U.S.

Recently Nick ran out of his eye drops, and we visited a pharmacy to replenish his stock. There were two ladies working, and we were greeted by the older one. She couldn’t speak English and we didn’t know how to say eye drops in French, so she directed us to her younger colleague who spoke some English.


“Bonjour,” we said.

“Do you have eye drops without preservative?” Nick asked.

After a brief moment, the girl said yes after processing his request. “Eye drops for contacts?”

“No, not contacts,” Nick said. “For dry eyes.”

“Okay.” She pulled a small Bausch and Lomb box out from the back wall and set it on the counter in front of us. We read the prints on the box and it looked fine to me, but Nick is notorious for being 150% sure about everything so he asked, “Is this without preservative?”

The girl looked confused. “For eye drops?”

I noticed on the box it stated: sans conservateur. I was pretty sure from my memory that meant without preservative. I tried telling him, but my soft voice wasn’t heard and he was already on a roll with his question again.

“Um … is this — sans preservative?”

“For the eye drop?” She pointed to her eye and gave another confused look.


I tried telling Nick again what I saw, pointing to the print. “It is without preservative,” I said. The girl watched as we discussed the matter, then interrupted us, lowering her voice into a whisper, smiling. “Just so you know … in French this means—“

She pulled a toothbrush rack forward and I thought it meant toothbrush, but why the whispering and smile? Because that wasn’t it. She pointed behind the rack where our eyes followed to the boxes of condoms. That explained the whispering. And we understood what Nick had been asking her all along: “Is this eye drop without condom?” Everyone in the store started laughing: the two female pharmacists, the female customer in the next line over, and me.

Oh. How embarrassing,” Nick responded, cool and calm. We all laughed some more.

Lesson learned: The English word preservative that has the same pronunciation as prèservatif in French does not mean the same thing!



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