On Dentistry and Life

I sat in the chair, studying the palm tree out the window in the churchyard--as so many patients had done before me. Around me I could hear the chatter of life so woven together that even a visit to the dentist couldn't disrupt it. Here I was on the island of Crete with every traveler's nightmare, a dental problem. And yet I was finding that this experience was as much a social occasion as going to the market or the taverna.

Before we left on our trip, I had what I thought was all the dental work that I'd possibly need for the year. Three crowns I'd been putting off, fillings, periodontal treatments, the works. Imagine my surprise when the day before we were to leave Amsterdam for Greece I crunched down on little hard particles--particles I soon identified as crumbled parts of the back molar and what had been a fairly large filling.

What now? No pain, no problem I figured. We flew to Greece, and before long I was having vivid memories of the film "Marathon Man" while at an Athens pharmacy buying oil of cloves to deaden the pain (yes, it does work). And I figured, rightly this time, that if our friends George and Jean lived on Crete for half a year, they'd have a dentist. Little did I know what an experience it would be.

Salli works in her journal on the roof of Olga's Pension in Crete.

Although George and Jean assured me their dentist could speak some English, they took the time to deliver me to the office and in Greek explain my problem and request to do the minimum necessary work - just enough to get me by.

As they left I seated myself on one of the hard wooden benches in the outer room and waited my turn. Luckily it was a slow day and before too long a raven-haired woman shepherded me into the office and the dental chair. The only other things in the room were a desk, straight back wooden chair, and glass fronted cabinets. As I sat down my hostess began sweeping the floor while carrying on a lively conversation in Greek with her sister – my dentist – and their father who had just returned with some dentures he had made. Other people seemed to flow in and out at will, chatting and laughing.

Although the dentist and I were patient and funny with our communication attempts, we were not very successful. After a few minutes of awkward effort I was startled to hear a deep male voice suddenly ask in English if I wanted my tooth to be numb. I was surprised they asked, and they seemed surprised when I said "yes." A quick shot of xylocaine and I was motioned back to the wooden chair. As the medicine worked on me the dentist worked on someone else.

I met "my interpreter," who chatted with me in English and with everyone else in Greek. He explained that he was making his annual hyacinth round, bring these fragrant harbingers of spring from the wild mountain side to those who helped him during the year. His offering to the dentist and her family rested in a vase on the desk. He learned his English during a 10 year stint working construction in Chicago, he explained. But he had returned home and was now the mayor of a little town in the Amari Valley. As soon as he told some stories he extended an invitation to visit his town and he helped me understand that I needed more work than I had asked for if I wanted the tooth repair to last through Africa. He left to continue his rounds and I returned to the dentist chair.

People continued to wander in and out, sharing bread, olives, the latest gossip, showing off the dress they just bought in Iraklion. As the social fabric of the office wove its way around me I wished I could be more a part of it. I was enchanted despite the language barrier. I was distracted from the bother of a bad tooth, and wondering why our American dental offices are so formidable. Even though I couldn't understand much Greek, this was fun. We were all enveloped by life, it was relaxed and flowing. And like a river that knows its course, the dentist found her way through my mouth and did the necessary repairs, and did them well.

I stared at the palm tree out the window knowing that all who had graced that chair had stared at it, and made a lopsided smile. In Greece, not even a visit to the dentist can alter the flow of life.

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