Strasbourg | Wisdom

I’m bald, I’m bruised and I’m swollen; I look like a kiwi left behind in a lunchbox in the ruins of Chernobyl.

The bruising and shaving I’ve already covered here. In today’s episode of Twat, we shall cover the final insult: the egg-sized swelling on the side of my poor face.

It all started about seven years ago, when my wisdom teeth started to emerge. Many of my friends at the time had theirs taken out in a simple enough procedure and never had to think about them again. I was different, however, because I left Leeds five years ago for Berlin, and from that time until late 2020, I did not attend a dentist. This is not due to any particular fear of dentistry, but because I couldn’t be bothered to attempt the inevitable mountain of German paperwork that comes with… well, everything in Berlin.

Fast forward to late 2020 in Strasbourg, and I find my jaw aching, along with nausea and headaches. I Google my symptoms, and inform Jeanne in a solemn tone that I have incurable head cancer. Jeanne is ambivalent, and when later that same day my teeth yelp in pain while chewing, we decide it is time to see a dentist.

Dentistry in France is not like dentistry in England. The dentists I grew up attending in the UK were situated in purpose-built buildings with large waiting rooms and multiple little corridors lined with puke-green linoleum, off which a dozen white doors led, through which you could hear the high-pitched whine of drills and mothers cooing and children wailing in horror. To the best of my knowledge there are around five dentists in my hometown, which has a population of nineteen thousand people.

In France, by comparison, every second doorway down any given street seems to lead into a miniature dentist’s office. Every day when Jeanne and I go for our afternoon stroll, we pass window after window wherein nervous people are lying reclined on sterilised plastic chairs having lights shone in their eyes and metal implements rattled around their mouths. It always seemed odd to me they don’t close the curtains; on more than one occasion I’ve been sauntering along the riverside eating a tuna sandwich, only to glance through the window beside me and see, beyond the thin pane of glass, two dentists atop an anaesthetised patient, wrenching away at a stubborn tooth with a pair of pliers. We’ve made eye contact before; I’m never sure if it’s appropriate to wave.

Perhaps everybody in France simply performs dentistry as a side-hustle. I don’t know. But they are ubiquitous, and they are tiny, and they are cheap. In England last year I attempted to see a dentist about my wisdom tooth. All NHS dentists were full, and so in pain and desperation I called a private one.

“Okay, so we’ll sign you up and make your appointment. It’ll be sixty pounds,” said the voice on the end of the line, stifling a yawn.

“Sixty pounds for my wisdom teeth out?”

“Sixty pounds for your introductory check-up.”

“Right.”

“Shall I pencil you in?”

“…no.”

In France, with health insurance, the entirety of my dental work—a check-up, a cleaning, two x-rays, three wisdom teeth extractions—cost me around a hundred and fifty euros. Lovely

Jeanne accompanied me on each visit, sitting in the room with me and acting as my translator. I can get by in the supermarket, where the conversation rarely extends beyond baguettes and plastic bags, but in a dentist’s office the language is a little more specialised. While cocking up your language in the French equivalent of Tesco might see you leaving the shop wielding a leek when you wanted a celery, ballsing up your grammar in the dentist’s office may well see you entering the building seeking advice on a stain, and exiting two hours later with your front teeth plated in gold.

The first revelation prior to my operations was that I had only three wisdom teeth. For one reason or another, the fourth tooth (upper left, if you were wondering) just never materialised. The second revelation was less of a thrill; my remaining wisdom teeth had grown in diagonally, shoving hard against my other molars like rugby players in a scrum.

When we got home after my x-ray, I sat on the sofa and declared my misery. I’d vaguely hoped they’d tell me my pains were normal, and would go away in time without interference. Jeanne assumed the usual position at my side—one hand on my back, the other on my knee—and told me it would all be okay.

“That’s easy for you to say,” I gurgled, “they’re not going to mutilate you.

I worked myself into a frenzy of self-pity, and before the evening was through I found myself pacing the living room listing medieval torture methods used on prisoners, and how at least they had the ability to look away while their fingernails were yanked out and their cocks were burned off.

“Just try not to think about it,” said Jeanne.

“Don’t think- don’t think about it?! I can’t escape it! The operation is going to take place in my face! While I’m awake! They’re going to pull out bones from my head – while I look them in the eye!”

I began researching into whether it was possible to be put under general anaesthetic. Multiple American websites said yes: wisdom teeth are always removed under general anaesthetic, you will be fine, you will be asleep. I spoke to friends in France who had had their teeth removed, and they’d been put under too. Friends in the UK had been put to sleep. In fact, out of everybody I asked, 90% of them had slept happily through their extraction.

“Can I be under asleep when you take my teeth, please,” I asked the dentist in my shit French ahead of the operation.

“It is a local anaesthetic,” she replied in English, and I clenched my arse cheeks to prevent a fearful ‘parp’ escaping. “But you don’t have to worry, it is totally easy. It’s my favourite thing to do as a dentist. But you can have Valium if you are scared.”

I’d never taken Valium before but jumped at the opportunity—anything to put a membrane, however thin, between me and reality.

The first operation, in which I had the upper and lower wisdom teeth removed on the right side of my mouth, was fine. It wasn’t pleasant, of course—it’s a very sensory experience, and though you’re numbed to pain, you can still hear and feel pressure and see spooky metal things being lowered into your face—but it was quick. Thirty minutes in total. Easy.

The Valium helped a lot; I felt no fear, and even the most unpleasant sounds and vibrations didn’t faze me. I was practically giggling on the operating table, watching the dentist and her assistant loom over me like aliens probing a 1950’s cattle farmer.

The healing process was easy and gentle; I ate whatever I wanted, drank whatever I pleased, and regardless my mouth made a miraculous recovery and one week later I had my stitches taken out, care-free as a cactus.

A month later it was time for my final extraction: the lower left wisdom tooth. I wasn’t nervous in the build-up to the appointment, mostly due to the fact that I forgot all about it. It was only late on Sunday evening just passed that Jeanne reminded me I was due in the next morning. I felt a little shudder of fear, and I did a little bit of pacing, but I remembered the ease of the last time—plus my darling Valium—and I got a good night’s sleep.

At 10am I was dosed up on Frankie (Valli… as in Valium… this is what I’ve decided to call it now), sprawled contentedly on the big green plastic chair. I got lowered back as usual (during which I’m never sure what to do; do you lie back with the chair and allow yourself to be gracelessly winched down, or do you sit bolt upright and let the chair descend without you, then recline in your own time afterwards?) and the dentist injected my gums with local anaesthetic.

Usually this injection is the most painful part. A girthy needle piercing your tender pink gums is, quite objectively, not brilliant. My dentist however—a girl in her early thirties with friendly eyes—is very gentle in this part of the procedure, and she apologised breathily as she stabbed me.

“Sorry, sorry, I am sorry, I know, it’s painful, I know,” she whispered in a French accent.

“Ith otay,” I replied, my eyes glazed over with the cocktail of drugs I’d chomped.

Then she left me alone in the room for five minutes, giving time for the anaesthetic to take hold and turn the left side of my face numb. Which it did… a bit. But not as much as I remembered it doing the last time; nowhere near, in fact. I was quietly pondering this, prodding my face and feeling surprised to find I could still feel it, when the dentist re-entered the room.

“Alright then, is the anaesthetic working?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, for some fucking reason.

I put in my headphones and opened my mouth as she began to poke around in my mouth with a long silver thing. I was relieved to find I couldn’t feel whatever she was doing. The assistant joined us, with that little hose that sucks up your saliva, and together they began to excavate the buried tooth.

After five minutes however, I found my body jolting with pain at regular intervals; small zaps at first, then bigger ones. It seemed certain areas had not been affected by the anaesthetic at all. Eventually, when the shrill little buzzsaw got to work, I let out an involuntary whine.

“Wait,” said the dentist. “You can feel that?!”

“Oh, yeth,” I replied, chuckling a little so as not to appear cowardly.

“Can you feel this?” she asked, prodding my lip and cheek.

“Yeth,” I replied, as the little hose sucked at my tongue.

“Oh dear.”

Then I was injected once more with anaesthetic—

“I’m sorry, I know it hurts, I’m sorry, oh I know, I know,”

—and it was back to the operation. We’d made it not four more minutes when I squawked in agony once again.

“You can still feel it?”

“Yeth. I’m thorry.”

Mon dieu.

Another injection, and despite the Frankie V I was beginning to not really enjoy myself. My thoughts kept drifting to that scene in Castaway with the ice skate, envying Tom Hanks for the swiftness of his procedure.

The dentist gave one last series of immense shoves into my face, with such force that both the dentists and I began to emit increasingly loud involuntary grunts, like gorillas squabbling over mangos.

Finally, in a moment of orgasmic relief, the tooth was freed and the three of us fell back, panting. After I was stitched up and she’d removed her knee from my chest, I asked the dentist in my best French:

“C’ethais plus diffithile que le dernier fois?”

Which translates roughly as:

It wath harder than the lasth thime?

And then of course the dentist answered in a flurry of complex, mouth-related French, the only discernible word of which was ‘oui’.

“You had a lot of pain?” she asked me in English, after.

“Bah,” I replied, with a noble flourish of my hand, “c’etais pas trop mal.”

It wasn’t too bad.

When I told Jeanne this later, she was flummoxed.

“Why didn’t you tell them how much it hurt?”

“I… I didn’t want them to feel guilty,” I replied.

Jeanne stared at me a moment aghast, then shook her head. “English people.”

*****

And so here we find ourselves today, two days later, and my face is enormous and I look like Quasimodo’s uncle. The memory of the operation lingers in my mind making me wince, and my diet consists of scrambled eggs and mashed potato and soup and codeine. It hurts to walk or bend over or talk or smile or laugh or eat.

Still, it’s not all bad. The national French mask mandate means I can conceal my gigantic egg-face when I go outdoors; I don my surgical mask and nobody is any the wiser. Granted, a global pandemic dictating that we all wear masks, thereby ensuring nobody sees my amorphous mush isn’t a huge silver lining.

But hey – you’ve gotta take your wins where you can get ‘em.

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