Friday, January 18, 2008

The Blue Danube

We went to the dentist this week. I had never been to see a dentist in France before; their brass plaques, marked Chirurgien-Dentiste, were always off-putting for me. My association with the French word for surgeon, chirurgien, is an eighteenth-century one. I picture someone with a closet full of hacksaws and anesthetic that comes from the bar on the corner. But C. felt strongly that we should do more than brush our teeth for the duration of our stay on this side, and, since the girls are a year into orthodontia treatments that are considerably beyond my powers of deduction, I agreed.

Both E. and G. took their turns with the dentist while I filled out our complete medical histories. None of us are pregnant; none of us have pulmonary disease; none of us smoke a pipe. Then it was my turn to have my visite de controle. It's not a checkup in France--a checkup is such a friendly, just looking in on your molars and by the way would you like root beer or grape flavoring in your polish? kind of word. This is a visite de controle, an inspection, an examination. This dentist wore ironed blue scrubs with rubber clogs; his wife, who ran the front of the operation, wore a white coat over street clothes, and I'm not sure whether she was actually wearing black spike-heeled leather boots or whether she just managed to convey that impression.

The examination room was space-age. A flatscreen panel was perched on an arm above the examining chair, and instead of a little tray with stainless shrink-wrapped dental tools laid out, there was a large panel that swung in front of the chair, so that the dentist could sit beside me and reach around for his tools, which were all electric and had specially designed spots where they rested on the panel. All well and good until the dentist began cleaning my teeth. Gone was the old-fashioned metal scraper I have been used to; here in the 21st century, there is a sonic cleaning tool that polishes and rubs and polishes some more, all electrically. The sound ricocheted through my head. It was like the computer Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey had moved in to my mouth.

When the cleaning was finished, it was time for an x-ray. The dentist gestured me towards a tall machine that stood against the wall. It looked a lot like the kind of hair dryer that my grandmothers used to sit under at the beauty parlor, except that you stood under it and put your chin on a platform, and then there were two panels on either side of where you put your head that revolved slowly around you. In front of where you put your chin was a mirror, the better to watch yourself being x-rayed. The machine was lavender.

The dentist adjusted my chin on the platform, gave me a plastic something or other to bite down on, and then turned on the machine and stepped out of the room. Slowly the panels began to rotate around my head, making little x-ray sorts of zips and zapping sounds. And then it began to play music, tinny, flat computer music, but music. Johann Strauss's The Blue Danube, to be exact.

There are moments living in a foreign culture in which the dislocation is particularly intense, in which the world as it is is so different from the world as you have always known it. Having an x-ray taken by a purple machine that plays The Blue Danube is absolutely one of those moments. The machine was technologically far more advanced than anything in our American dentist's office--but if that machine had been American, it would have been white, and it certainly wouldn't have played a tune. It seems a peculiarly French combination of technological savvy, an interest in style, and then that extra je ne sais quoi.

I've noticed that French women, when they dress, do not follow the style dictum that I have always been taught: before you go out, look in the mirror and take one thing off. So I emerge with either a pin or a necklace, either a scarf or a jacket. French women seem to do the opposite: look in the mirror and add one thing. So, necklaces and pins, scarves and jackets, chunky belts and high boots. I imagine the designers of the x-ray machine taking a look at their work. They've already decided to go with a soft lavender, and it takes a good x-ray, and then, you know, the mirror's a nice touch. But there's a little room left on the chip inside. Couldn't we do a little bit more? Isn't there a final uumph that the machine could use to really push it across, make it noticeable? How about...a few bars of Strauss?

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