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Before I moved to France, I came every winter to baby-sit my friends’ eight cats in their feudal chateau in Provence. Invariably, my last day in New York would be spent in the dentist’s chair, hoping to wrap up whatever ongoing dental disaster was presenting itself at the time. One year, the day after I’d landed in Paris, I was on my way to the Musée d’Orsay when I felt a rush of pebbles, hard little rocks, in my mouth. A large piece of my latest denture had crumbled and, 5,000 miles from home at the beginning of a three-month stay, I was to be a toothless old hag. My New York dentist had given me the name of an implant specialist in Paris. I phoned Dr. S.’s office. He had gone to Israel for a week. I was leaving Paris for Provence in 2 days.
Numerous soufflés later, I arrived at the chateau here in Nyons to baby-sit the cats and deal with the denture. On his return, Dr. S. recommended a specialist in Avignon, about an hour away. The specialist was leaving that afternoon for a ski holiday. I set up an appointment for his return.
As a precaution against infection, he prescribed antibiotics, which I picked up at the local Pharmacie des Plantes. When I asked how they should be taken, the handsome young pharmacist in his white doctor’s coat gave me an odd look. I rephrased my question, always concerned about the correctness of my French. Should one take them before or after eating, I inquired. He looked perplexed and I thought I detected a tickle of a smile creeping into the corners of his lips. He replied with what sounded like “suppose it were.” Puzzled as to how to answer and in what language, I repeated my question. He then elevated and wiggled his derriere, repeatedly pointing at it.
I took a quick look at the back of my coat, thinking one of the cats had done something dreadful. Seeing my alarm, he got another pharmacist and the two of them did the strange little pantomime dance, shaking and pointing at their fesses. Ooooohhhh, the antibiotics are in suppository form. I laughed, pointing at the pillbox and at my own posterior. Yes, yes, they laughed. Haha.
By the end of the week, I’d developed a yeast infection. I knew the pharmacie was well stocked with over-the-counter remedies. But how to say “yeast infection” in French? The dictionary was not helpful. I phoned a woman friend; she wasn’t home. Her husband, always the expert, said, yeast infection? Oh, that’s simple, just say “infection de levure". Feeling confident, I trotted down to the pharmacie in the 14th century Place des Arcades. A pretty young woman in a white coat assisted me. I quietly told her I needed something for “un infection de levure dans ma vagine.”
Horrified, she asked me to repeat myself. She became even more distressed, so I repeated each word slowly and in a louder voice, praying no one could hear. A look of total despair came over her face, she disappeared into the back and returned in an agitated state with a jar of enormous yeast pills. No, I said, “dans ma vagine, yeast in my vagina!” Several elderly customers turned around, mouths agape, eyes wide in shock. The girl looked as if she were about to cry and ran to get an older pharmacist who apparently knew some English. "Oh," she sighed, "you have champignons, mushrooms, in your vagina!"
The following week, the mushroom situation under control, I set out for Avignon in my friends’ ancient Peugeot. Driving up and down steep sides of mountains (ironically named the Dentelles) on narrow winding roads with a stick shift is not my concept of pleasure. Especially not with French drivers mistaking the route for the track at LeMans. After an hour and a half’s drive, I arrived, shaking, in Avignon two hours early, 45 minutes of which was spent trying to park the car inside the walled city. Next to locate the office of Dr. R. Number 1 Portail du Magnanen. Not far on the map from the Rue de la Republique, the main drag and one street in Avignon I knew.
I arrived 15 minutes early for my appointment. Number 1 Portail du Magnanen was an abandoned building. I checked my datebook. Not #1 Portail du Magnanen but #1 Portail du Matheron. Feverishly, I pulled out the map. Oy! The other side of town! Through crooked winding streets, cobble-stoned alleys I ran.
I had been filled with curiosity—and apprehension—over what a French dentist’s office would be like. Dr R’s was state-of-the-art with a divine chaise-lounge for a chair. Dr. R was young and charming and we went through the obligatory round of French hellos, which took around five minutes. Then he had a look. Not good. It would take several visits, including at least one where I would have to leave my teeth, so to speak, in Avignon overnight. He could see me at the end of the week. Please, I begged, could he temporarily glue the offending denture back together until then. He obliged, but warned the job was fragile at best.
Bolstered by my more stable mouth situation, I decided to explore Avignon. His office was in the lively old Carreterie quarter, which was full of friperies, something I can’t resist. I bought a Souleiado print blouse for 10 francs and some whimsically embroidered receiving blankets for 12 francs apiece. I visited the old synagogue and tempted fate by taking solid refreshment at a Chinese restaurant next door. The food was inedible and I had to satisfy myself with the packaged crab chips that came on the side. My denture did not let me down. I explored the Palais des Papes and surrounding park.
At the end of the week, I made the trip in only an hour and found a hidden dirt lot for parking just outside the walls. I was set. When I took out my denture, Dr. R was aghast. Where was the o-ring? I didn’t know; it must have fallen out. Without the o-ring, he exclaimed, he could do nothing. A new one would have to be ordered from the north of France; it would take a week. Devastated, I drove home and drowned my sorrows in some good Gigondas. The next week the drive to Avignon took only 50 minutes. I left my teeth in the city of the Popes, swathed a Kenzo knockoff wool scarf I’d bought from an Arab street vendor in Paris around my neck and lower face, and was home in forty-five minutes. I don’t remember the rest of that day. The next morning I made it back to Avignon in forty minutes. The denture didn’t fit; it wouldn’t snap into the implants in my mouth. It would have to go back to the lab outside the walls.
To save time, I took it myself, got on a bus that seemed to go halfway back to Carpentras and got out in a deserted, seedy section on the outskirts of town. I was greeted at the door by the lab owner’s mammoth but docile German Shepherd. The technician who’d done the repair took a look. He shook his head. He wished he could help. He explained the difficulties (by then my dental French had become impressively expert). I begged. He got the owner of the lab, who after the five-minute-hello business, took a look. Could he speak to my dentist in New York? Yes, but we would have to first call Dr. S in Paris and make a conference call, so Dr. S, who is bilingual, could translate.
The call was placed to New York and the temporary receptionist put us on hold and forgot. We called again. After about ten minutes (five of which were taken up with the hello-goodbye-thank-you business) the lab owner got off the phone. Would I like some coffee? No thank you. He shook his head, got out a blackboard, some diagrams and charts and proceeded to explain in minute detail I don’t know what about implants, bone grafts, tea in China? I nodded and smiled and threw in a "bien sur" every now and then. Finally, he said he would try to fix the denture, but it was against the law to do so without an order from Dr. R. No amount of pleading worked.
There was no bus, so I walked back to the walled city. Dr. R wrote the order and this time I got the car and drove to the lab. The teeth would have to spend another night with the Popes. Me? Don’t ask. I was back in Avignon the next morning at “my” parking space in under forty minutes. The teeth fit. As I drove home through the Dentelles, I prayed that was the last I’d see of Avignon for a very long time.
The denture fit, but it hurt. I phoned Dr. J, my dentist in New York. He was going to be in France the following week and would be vacationing for several days with his family in Lourmarin, three hours south of Nyons. He could borrow a local dentist’s office, bring the proper tools and meet me at his hotel.
The Peugeot had died in the middle of the main thoroughfare in Avignon the week before, another story in itself. Friends who are in the honey and jam business offered the use of their old beat-up truck. I arrived spurting and spewing with a lurch at the front door of my dentist’s sedate 3-star. Dr. J surreptitiously dusted off the passenger seat and hopped in. With another lurch we were off to the dentist’s office. In a half-hour he was done, the denture would be fine till I returned to the States when he would make a new one.
I took a leisurely drive back, exploring hilltop villages in the Luberon. I stopped in Roussillon, anxious not so much to see the ochre and the site of Lawrence Wylie’s book, as to see the town that gave Samuel Beckett a nervous breakdown. It would be several years before I could bring myself to return to Avignon.
Now that I live in France year-round, I have a lovely dentist here in Nyons. Two of my titanium implants have broken inside the grafted bone on my upper jaw, a supposedly impossible feat. Dr. R of Avignon has refused to treat me, as has Dr S of Paris. The type of implant I have was never used in France. It requires the use of an instrument of torture known as a trephine drill. Dr. J could treat me in New York, but the thought of returning fills me with horror. Plus, I now have five cats and a dog of my own. He has promised he’ll come up with a solution. There’s a chance I could meet him and said trephine next month somewhere in Spain or possibly later up north, in Nancy. There is also a trephine technician of sorts in Baden-Baden, who might be able to help me. Meanwhile, I sit here, my mouth in a shambles, and wait. While I’m waiting, I wonder, Which town will be “my” next Roussillon?
Among many other achievements, Patricia Fieldsteel has had an award-winning column in THE VILLAGER newspaper since 1997 and has also published in THE NEW YORK TIMES. She is an animal-lover par excellance and is divinely happy in Provence, though from time to time she misses the opera, ethnic food and Law & Order reruns. This is her story.