“Do we have to? I bloody hate going to the dentist,” my husband, Jack, groaned.
“Don’t make such a fuss,” I replied, “at least you haven’t got a problem, I’ve got a chipped tooth that needs sorting out.”
“Well that’s your fault for eating all those sodding apples isn’t it? I told you all this healthy eating wasn’t good for you.”
Not many of us look forward to a trip to the dentist, but needs must. When we first came to France I had no idea how to register with services such as a dental clinic, but fortunately it turned out to be fairly easy. Taking care to heed advice from those with a headful of pearly-white gnashers, I ignored protestations from my mainly-toothless husband and booked us in for an appointment with a local dentist.
Sadly, our first attempt ended in failure. The highly recommended clinic was located halfway down a gritty backstreet and hidden behind a very large security door. The access buzzer rarely worked, which meant loitering outside and waiting for someone to wake up and activate the unlocking procedure. Once open, one was faced with an interminably long, very steep flight of stairs which led to yet another security door. It was not uncommon to meet a straggler mid-ascent, hanging on to the bannister gasping for breath.
Inevitably, the climb meant that upon their arrival at the reception desk patients had worked up a decent sweat. This is probably why the desk was never attended, which meant hanging around until the receptionist decided the patient was no longer a health hazard. The only distraction here was the ominous collection of dentures which glared ghoulishly out of an old glue pot.
The next leg of this dental visit marathon was the requirement to spend a very long period in a box termed la salle d’attente. It happened every time. Patients would be directed to the waiting room, which housed several cracked plastic chairs and a coffee table piled high with an assortment of heavily soiled, dog-eared magazines. Heeding the sage advice of my Grandma, who told me that one could never be sure what previous users had been fiddling with, I have always avoided reading material like this.
Internet connection and mobile phone signals never functioned in the Tardis-like salle d’attente, so the only form of entertainment was to examine the wall art. I tried not to, but the macabre side of my nature always got the better of me. The walls were covered in ancient posters. These displayed a series of grisly teeth, mostly in various states of decay, and one of a strangely coloured, slightly furry tongue. The only cheerleader in this grim collection was a perky post-it note sized photo displaying a tube of toothpaste. This probably contained a wise reminder about the importance of brushing one’s teeth. However, it was lost on all but the very young, and those with acute vision, because the writing was miniscule.
In contrast to his office decor, Docteur Boureau, the dentist, was a very pleasant man. And refreshingly clean. He had piercing blue eyes and a magnificent handlebar moustache, which despite being pinned down by the straps, sprouted defiantly either side of his surgical mask. I felt it was a very French look. There were two tiny glitches though. The main one was his speech, he was a mumbler. Try as I might, it was awfully difficult to understand what was going on behind that mask as it gently puffed up and down in time to his sotto voce tones. This created a lingering anxiety that I might inadvertently agree to unwanted dental action of a permanent kind.
The other issue was his diet. Docteur Boureau was quite clearly a garlic devotee. Whilst I applaud anyone who follows a healthy regime, it can be rather off putting when second-hand waves of garlic fumes scream through the mask of one’s dentist merely centimetres away.
The last straw for me came one day last summer, and it had nothing to do with dentistry. It was a boiling hot afternoon and I was wearing my usual tee-shirt, Bermuda shorts and flip-flops. Jack was still having his check-up so instead of gently melting in the sauna-like salle d’attente, I decided to wait outside in the relative cool of the street. Minding my own business, I was checking my phone for messages when there was a light tap on my shoulder.
I looked down and there was a very grubby oldish man leering up at me. Resisting the inclination to recoil and run for the hills, I asked him what he wanted. He smiled gummily at me and, reaching into his mac pocket (which seemed altogether the wrong attire for that day), he produced a scabby 20 euro note. Still clueless, I repeated my question which seemed to delight him, and brought on a decidedly unpleasant chesty spasm. Fortunately, well-practised at this particular skill, he spat the unwanted gubbins in a different direction to ours. Once recovered, he pointed in the direction of a herd of wheelie bins and asked me if I would like to join him in his apartment. And just in case I was in any doubt as to what he wanted, he sealed the generosity of his offer by giving me a knowing wink and proffering the 20 euro note under my nose. The penny finally dropped.
I’m not sure which horrified me more, being propositioned by a man who was probably stark naked under his dirty mac, or that I was only worth 20 euros. I managed to stifle a scream, refused him in my typically polite, frightfully British way, and scurried off back to the car. So that was that, we needed to find a different dentist.
As luck would have it our insurance man came to visit and recommended an alternative clinic in the local city of Montauban. In France all dental care is paid for by the patient, but the rates can vary considerably. Despite Jack’s whinges about it probably being ridiculously expensive I went ahead and booked our first appointment. What a difference!
We found our city centre location easily, and drove into the private carpark. Ambling between the landscaped rockeries and assortment of Zen-inspired borders, we arrived at the single-storey building and pressed the entry buzzer. As if by magic it swung open and we were ushered into the reception area.
The first clue that this might turn into a fairly pricey establishment was the arrival of our dentist’s personal assistant. Each dentist in the practice had one. We filled out a wad of forms and were led down a plush corridor to the semi-open plan salle d’attente, which was more like an aquarium. One wall masqueraded as a fish tank. It was filled with shoals of colourful fish which drifted around dreamily, oozing calm and tranquillity. Another wall was made of glass and offered further views of the Zenful garden, and the final section contained abstract art, which was gentle to the eye and enabled even the most nervous client to banish the ominous sound of dentists’ drills. It was all very pleasing.
When our turn came we were plucked out of our cosy cocoon and wafted into the dentist’s room, which was pristinely clean and could easily have housed six practitioners. It also had the interesting addition of a small gallery of observer chairs.
Docteur Cabane proved to be every bit as good as our insurance man had said. She was extremely polite, listened intently to what we said, and even spoke the odd word of English. She attended to her work with great care and attention too. We were very impressed. So much so that Jack only winced a little when we were presented with the unimaginably enormous bill at the end.
When I had my unfortunate tooth chipping incident I was absolutely confident that our new dentist could fix it in a trice. I booked us both in (Jack just for a check-up) and we arrived on the appointed day. Docteur Cabane, perfectly punctual as usual, shepherded us into her treatment room and decided to sort me out first.
While her assistant unfurled a brand new set of instruments, our dentist kitted herself out. This was a very thorough business. I’m not sure whether Docteur Cabane had experienced a life-threatening trauma at some time during her early career, but she certainly left nothing to chance now. She wore safety glasses, a theatre mask then a clear Perspex faceguard over the lot. She could have been chewing on a clove of garlic for all the patient knew, there was no possibility of any fumes escaping that protective covering. She then donned her extra-long rubber gloves and we were off.
It only took her a second to spot the offender on my bottom set. With a gentle utterance of “Oh la la,” she slotted a cotton-wool sausage between my gum and bottom lip and fired up her drill. This was a tense moment. I hadn’t been injected and was certain that it could only be moments before the instrument struck a nerve. Feeling it might be useful to mention this unusual omission I tried my best to alert her. But speech was difficult with a lump of hard material that felt like a railway sleeper in my mouth. Instead I made injection squirting motions with my hand in an attempt to attract her attention.
Quick as a flash the ultra-sensitive Docteur Cabane detected my anxiety, moved her drill to one side and looked at me enquiringly. I attempted to explain the situation, but of course communication was difficult. The cotton log had swollen, and the tube which she had now hooked onto my mouth was doing its best to suck the rest of my teeth out. Nevertheless, I managed to burble, “Njekshun” which she seemed to understand. She waved away my concerns, explained that there was no risk of hitting a nerve, and re-ignited her machine.
Somewhat comforted I stared fixedly at her floaty Zen mobile, trying to ignore the whine of the drill. Happily the tortuous sounds didn’t last long, but my feelings of relief were short-lived. Our diligent dentist downed tools, peered at my chipped tooth from several angles and then pronounced herself dissatisfied. Her drill wasn’t man-enough for the job – more substantial equipment would be needed. After a short debate with her assistant she was handed something that looked like an industrial grinder. Muttering something sweet about getting everything ‘just right’ she probably smiled, pressed a button and the machine roared into life.
I’m not sure what was worse, the smell of burning coming from my tooth as it was being ground down, or the torrent of water gushing out of another tube that had mysteriously made its way into my mouth. The sucky tube had now stuck itself to a gum and was of no practical use whatsoever, which left me at real risk of drowning. Nobody likes a dribbler, so I started waving again to attract my dentist’s attention. Unfortunately she was so intent on her grinding that she didn’t seem to notice my protestations. Fortunately Jack, relaxing in an observer’s chair, did.
“Why on earth are you waving? Just keep still, you’ll put poor Docteur Cabane off.”
Not a remotely helpful comment in itself, but it did distract Docteur Cabane for long enough for me to attempt a swallow, and un-stick the sucky tube. Nicely reassembled, she set to work once again.
Finally all equipment was removed from my mouth and I was handed a beaker of pink mouthwash to rinse out the remaining particles of tooth and strings of cotton wool. She handed me a dental mirror and we both studied her handiwork.
At first glance I think we both felt that it was a job well done. Yes, the tooth was a little lower than the others now but, as Jack annoyingly reminded me, “That’s what happens when you eat too many Grannie Smith apples.” I thanked our dentist for her help, un-bibbed myself, clambered out of the chair and went over to the large wall mirror to have a proper look. Docteur Cabane came over to join me and motioned for Jack to sit in the treatment chair.
We both examined my bottom row of teeth. Unfortunately something wasn’t quite right. The act of grinding the chipped tooth into shape had caused two others (one either side) to stick up somewhat.
“Ah, I did not see this before,” commented Docteur Cabane (in French), the personification of concern.
“No, nor me,” I replied, searching for the correct French word, “it’s this tooth here,” I said tapping a sticky-up one, “it looks a bit…”
“Vampire! Yes, I know, you look like a vampire,” Docteur Cabane concluded with absolute sincerity.
This was a tad mortifying, that wasn’t at all what I was going to say. But now that she’d mentioned it, I suppose I did. I nodded morosely.
“This is no good, I must work again on your teeth,” she added decisively.
With that, Jack, now grumbling about me taking so long over a single tooth, was ejected from the dental chair and returned to the gallery. I was re-positioned, re-bibbed and Docteur Cabane was supplied with a brand new pair of rubber gloves and completely new set of instruments. My mouth was re-filled with tubes and bolsters and she began to grind vigorously on the latest offenders.
The smell of burning was becoming significant, but my anxious thoughts about accidental combustion were quashed by the new deluge of water that bypassed the sucky tube and flowed down my throat again. I was also becoming slightly worried that if we carried on like this my bottom row of teeth would be reduced to stumps. Happily, before that concern took root, she stopped. Everything was removed, I swallowed, and we paced back over to the big mirror for another look. Docteur Cabane made her pronouncement, this time in English.
“Yes. This is good. You have the, how you say in English, la vague.”
“Oh dear. A wave in the water?”
“Ah, yes, thank you. Now you have the wave where the chipped tooth is lower but you are not looking like the vampire any more. This is a good thing.”
A wave – I could live with that. Mightily relieved that I still had a bottom row of teeth left after all that grinding, I thanked our diligent dentist profusely and swapped places with Jack.
Jack has been entirely merciless with his teeth over the years, subjecting them to bouts of neglect and gallons of Coca Cola and coffee amongst other tooth-decaying substances. This has taken its toll but there is still a small battalion of hangers-on left. Docteur Cabane takes each one extremely seriously. After fishing around for a bit, she repeated her lecture to him about dental care and the need to cherish the dwindling army. Already irritated by our prolonged treatment session he rapidly gargled various promises to treat the remaining survivors with the respect they deserved. He then removed the tubes and sprang out of the chair.
We were finally done, me with a reformed bottom set and Jack with a posh new soft bristle toothbrush. We bade farewell to our lovely dentist and returned to reception where we were presented with another eye watering bill. But it was all worth it. We had avoided grubby back streets and buzzers that were never answered. We had received first class treatment from a superb dentist, and I hadn’t been propositioned. My chipped tooth had been sorted out and I no longer looked like Dracula’s bride. All in all it had been a successful visit to the dentist.