Random Cultural Observations about everyday life in Uruguay

Four or five years in, some everyday culture observations about life in Uruguay. Nothing earth-shattering, maybe not even important, but some hopefully-useful, “Hmm, that’s a little different, wonder if I’ll like that?” points. These are, by nature of who we are and where we’re from originally, from the perspective of “Northerners”, “Westerners”, and that particular part of that often called (and inaccurately overstated as) “Americans”. As in, “USAians”, for which while  there is no real word in English, there is the perfectly good and accurate “estadosunidense” en español.

A off-the-cuff post, to relaunch our much-delayed resumed publishing here on the site (we’ve been plenty active on our various Social Media parts of the Uruguay Expat Life & Uruguay For Me network – all available from the menu and sidebar for you to discover and join in!)

Here we go, in no particular order:

  1. In Uruguay, retail store employees believe, and act upon, that their doing their jobs and moving things to wherever they need to move them to, is a higher priority than getting out of the way of a paying customer. Especially in large supermarkets (sometimes called hypermarkets here). If an employee is wiping the floor with a mop, he or she is not going to get out of your way. Rather, you are going to get some serious side-eye implying you should get out of hers. Same for people moving boxes, restocking shelves, etc. It’s the near-total opposite of how supermarket and big-box store employees are trained to instantly defer to customers in the US. Until you realize this, some clashes of expectation and crashes of bodies may occur. It’s not necessarily “wrong” – the employee is doing some physical labor, and you not waiting to go past or shop the next aisle now and that aisle later, is slightly prolonging the discomfort. But if you have that big puffy “The Customer Is Always Right” mentality, you are not going to like this. Deal with it, it’s not going to change. Rights of employees are considered of reasonably high value here.
  2. Still in big retail stores, Thank Heaven!! that nobody taught them the excessively obsequious fawning “10-foot rule” (nor a “Tres Metros” one) that was first formalized by Wal-mart back in the old Sam Walton days, and has metastasized into the most annoying shopping experience ever in many US retail stores. I used to dread going into our local Target in Colorado’s high country, because even if I was walking fast, head-down, obviously in “on-target” mode (heh-heh), going directly towards a product shelf a few aisles away, I would be constantly interrupted, blocked, and from my perspective, repeatedly delayed, by a smiling-but-clueless, obviously-mandated-or-you’re-fired, “Hi! Is there anything I can help you find?”Sweet Christmas, did it LOOK like I needed help? Can’t you read body language and facial expressions?Same thing would happen in Borders Bookstore. (Remember Borders? Heck, remember bookstores at all?). I would be heads-down, skimming a book to see if I wanted to buy it, obviously engrossed in something and obviously having found something, when I would be verbally accosted with a context-ignoring “Can I help you find a book?”You won’t have to worry about that problem in Uruguay, jaja! That’s a big plus for Uruguay everyday culture.However, in small Uruguayan retail stores, you will be warmly and promptly welcomed by a clerk, or maybe even by the owner. Which is also a big plus. “Hola vecino, como anda? Tu esposa? El perro?” Happens all the time at our local corner store and our slightly larger neighborhood grocery (which calls itself a supermercado).

    Dueños de Almacen Nueva Era in Atlántida
    Owners of our nearest “corner store” grocery, Almacen “Nueva Era”.
  3. Dogs. People think it’s entirely OK to let their dogs roam free, even though there are the beginnings of leash-law fines in Montevideo and some other urbanized areas. People also think it’s also OK to keep dogs outside in their yard 24 hours a day in whatever weather, even without any kind of decently enclosed doghouse, because a dog is just a working animal for security to some mindsets.Yet plenty of Uruguayans do love their animal companions, their mascotas (the word for pets in Spanish). The level of veterinary care is high and the cost is affordable. In our little modest beach town, walk past at least 4 veterinarians just on the way to the big supermarket, and there are several others around town. It’s a weird dichotomy of pet-loving and same-species “It’s just a working animal for security” pet-ignoring.And people do think it’s weird we have a Spanish Greyhound (a Galgo) as a pet, and that before that we had a “real Greyhound” (Galgo Inglese) as a pet. Rather than using it for racing and hunting. People keep asking to buy my galgos. (No Way!)
  4. Drugstores. The Farmacia.
    Uruguayan pharmacy standalone store
    One of our local pharmacies, Farmacia Este II. Where everything is behind the counter.

    The whole concept of how you get medications that you might consider (If a US or Canada person, DO consider) as just “over the counter in that “just comparison-shop between 20 choices per drug on the store shelves” type of “over the counter” that really is “In front of the counter” or even “not in a drugstore at all, in the food store”.Uruguay isn’t as totally opposite to that as are some Latin American countries. In Perú, for example, I had to ask a druggist for a toothbrush, and I certainly could not pick and choose between toothbrushes in the store. Here in Uruguay, the toothbrushes and toothpaste are out in the store in supermarkets, and in the larger farmacias.

    But everything else is indeed “Over The Counter” for real – you have to ask for anything that is any kind of medication. There really is little to no differentiation between what US folks think of OTC and what is “doctor’s orders” – in Uruguay, everything including the simplest aspirin or acetaminophen (called paracetamol here as in most of the non-US-dominated world) is behind the counter and you must ask a pharmacist or assistant for it. There may be little to no choice of brands, and you have to ask to compare prices, one by one, if there are any choices. Ask for more than about 2 or 3 comparisons and you will get some of that employee side-eye I mentioned earlier.

    Yet you do not need a “prescription” for most medications, including those that are always prescription-only in the USA. Blood pressure medications, cholesterol statins, non-opioid painkillers even in very strong dosages, medications for kidney or liver conditions, nearly everything – you simply ask and they hand you a box of medications. The only classes of drugs that require what US folks call a “prescription” (and which is not really an exact equivalent concept here), are a) Psychoactive drugs which need a special green form “Receta verde” (and “receta literally means “recipe”, not “prescription!), b) Opiate-based or similar drugs called “estupificantes” because they “stupify” (great word!) which need a “Receta Rosa” (special pink form), and c) Antibiotics which need a different special form or a doctor of medicine (or veterinary doctor) prescription note. That last is because the Uruguayan Ministry of Public Health (MSP – Ministerio de Salud Publica) has gotten smart about overuse / inappropriate use of antibiotics causing drug-resistant bacteria to evolve, and has put controls in place to stop it.

  5. Drug pricing weirdness compared to “back home” – The medications that an “American” considers as cheap OTC generic meds, like aspirin (ASA to you Canadians), ibuprofen (e.g. Advil), naproxen (e.g. Aleve), acetaminophen / paracetamol (e.g. Tylenol) are wickedly expensive here. Yet “real prescription drugs” are ridiculously inexpensive compared to US prices. I’m enough of an old coot cranky-guy that I am on a blood pressure medication. One that in the USA, even with insurance or a pharmacy discount plan, even as a generic, used to cost me about 50 dollars per month and never got less than 20 dollars. Here in Uruguay, not only do I not need a prescription, it costs me about 10 dollars for a month, and that is with no discount. If I play the “over-60” card, or have a receta from my doctor, and pay cash, I get a 25% discount. If I use my medical society (“mutualista”- see our many articles in our Health care topic) member pharmacy, it is only about 5 dollars a month. Similar for many other expensive drugs back “home”.Somehow the pricing balances out, and even nets out much cheaper. Especially if you consider the overall healthcare costs beyond meds, the concept of “medical society membership” rather than US-style health “insurance”, little-to-no fees for services, no cost for hospitalization, etc. But if your major health care routine costs are buying what in the USA is an “OTC Painkiller”, that actually will be a lot more expensive.You’ll also be looked at like a madman if you ask for a bottle of 100 or 500. That doesn’t exist and no Uruguayan in her right mind would buy that much at a time. Pretty much the only thing I ever bring back from the USA on my once or twice yearly visits, are a couple of 200-500-pill-count bottles of dirt cheap generic naproxen and aspirin, maybe some acetaminophen, of Target, Safeway, or some other “store brand” – where for 8 dollars I can get about 200 naproxen for the price of one “blister” card of 8 naproxen pills here!
  6. Packaging. That 8-pill blister, and the earlier mention of a “box of medications” leads into this odd-to-me (originally; normal to Lisa and me nowadays) observation. Uruguayans buy things like drugs and “Band-Aide” (trademark whatever) equivalents in “Just this one headache”, “Today’s cut finger” size. A sleeve of about 4 plastic bandages, rather than a box. Certainly not a big box of multi-size bandages, though as Global North brand Johnson and Johnson exerts some market power, actual boxes of actual Band-Aide Brand™ are getting stuck on shelves.
    Box of medications
    28 pills per box, need 30? Buy 2.

    “Prescription” medications and other drugs come in boxes that have one to three blister packs of enough pills to be a typical dosage for about a month. No, pharmacists do not dispense pills by count into a bottle with your prescription label on that little bottle. They hand you a box of pills. If your type of blood pressure meds come 28 to a box, then you need a box every 4 weeks, rather than every 30 days. Assuming you take one pill a day. If you take 2 pills a day, you have to buy 2 boxes.

    Bag of milk
    Still weird to people from the US.

    Milk comes in bags. (OK, you Canadians may find this normal but it’s darn weird to “Merricans”)

    Tomato sauce usually comes in boxes. Sometimes in boxes with a bag inside you cut open. Almost never in cans, sometimes in bottles.

    Lots of things come in bags that you would think would come in something sturdier or easier. This is no doubt more ecologically sound, and lower-cost for materials and thus eventual retail price, in this high-for-latinoamérica but not high-by-global-north standard of income country. But it’s also weird to see at first, and quite possibly mess-inducing the first time you make spaghetti.

That’s plenty for now. Lots more for another day. By no means are these “complaints”. Lisa and I usually take the “Not wrong, just different” perspective on things. Sometimes, it’s the little things that differ, that remind you that you are indeed living in a new-to-you country. Sometimes even after a few years. And that reminder is a good thing, not bad. It keeps life interesting. There’s more than one way to solve a problem (or package tomato sauce!)

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Mark Mercer

Site co-owner Mark Mercer. AKA Marcos Cristoforo Mercer, AKA the Fuzzy Wanderer. Expat from USA living in Uruguay as of mid-2012, after "test-driving" it for a few months in 2011 and early 2012. Married to Lisamaria, AKA well-known travel and fitness writer Lisa Marie Mercer. Follow Mark on Twitter @mcmxs and his many other sites, which you can find at http://about.me/MarkMercer. I write and engage about many of my other interests, on Google+ at https://google.com/+MarkMercer

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