FEBRUARY 26, 2009
"Here is is, right ahead," said J., after we walked through the slush and ice into the building's overheated foyer. The brightly lit windows of the dental office seemed incongruous in the dark corridor past the elevator bay; a string of twisted silver and red foil hung on the door, still wishing incoming patients a Happy Valentine's Day.
This was a first visit for me, necessary because of a small emergency, and I felt the nervousness in my body as I walked in and stood awkwardly in the unfamiliar space. There was no one at the reception desk. Then a large man in a brown sweater came out of a doorway and greeted me warmly, in French, telling me to put my coat in the closet behind the desk and take a seat. "Who is that?" I whispered to J. after we sat down; he shook his head. He was clearly neither the receptionist nor the dentist; in fact he acted more like a maître d', with a warm, slightly round-shouldered Eastern European manner, as if he had just laid down his violin for a moment to greet me in his own living room, and I'd immediately felt more at ease.
In the waiting room a middle-aged man sat on a maroon couch talking to an older woman, his mother or mother-in-law, I decided. The rest of the seating was made up of mismatched desk chairs, there were few of the usual magazines, and on a little table near me were three heart-shaped baskets full of sugar candy, the long wrapped rolls of little sour pastel disks. "Imagine that!" I whispered again.
"Really!" he said.
There was no television. I took von Doderer out of my bag and tried to settle into the Austro-Hungarian world of 1927, but the receptionist appeared in front of me, proffering a clipboard: "S'il vous plait, Madame." I took it from her and unclipped the top sheet from the pile of health history questionnaires and turned it over, knowing the back side would be in English.
When I finished, someone new had come into the office and taken the seat nearest the door; he was a tall, thin man wearing large glasses and a frown on his long face, and he sat staring morosely straight ahead. The wife of the man on the couch had just come out after her appointment, and was explaining what had happened to her husband and mother, opening her mouth and pointing while they leaned in close and asked serious questions, their hands on her shoulders. A small woman in blue scrubs had come out to the front, her hands full of sterile-wrapped packages, and stood giving some sort of instructions to the receptionist.
Everyone was chattering in a language I didn't understand. "Are they speaking Italian?"
J. shook his head: "I think it's Romanian."
Of course. That's when the light went on; my own dental surgeon, who was Romanian but away in Florida on a golf holiday, had left his patients in the care of another Romanian dentist on the other side of town; why hadn't I realized it immediately? And that was why the thin dark woman leaning on a table, in the painting at the end of the office corridor, looked the way she did, and also why the warmth in the room had felt so palpable the minute we walked in. Even if I was an English-speaking stranger, the assumption was that I must have arrived there because a friend had told me to come, and therefore I was welcome. Or so I felt. Feeling oddly comforted at the pieces falling into place, I went back to my book.
"Madame Adams?" The small blue-clad woman stood in front of me, gesturing for me to follow her. She had a cap of short reddish hair and moved in quick scurrying movements, squirrel-like, as she showed me where to put my bag, found a seat for my husband who, yes, was welcome to come with me for the consultation, prepared the tray of instruments for the dentist. "I'm sorry we're late," she said, adjusting the chair for me and speaking softly before she hurried out again, "we've been having a problem with an extraction."
Her apology surprised me, but more than that, the frank and simple explanation. I thought back to the familiar dental offices I'd frequented in the United States, where each examining room was separate from the next and "patient confidentiality" almost as important as preserving, at all costs, the impression of the doctor's complete competence; no one would ever have admitted a problem with another patient, let alone name it. J. and I cast glances at each other, and looked around at the room we were in, separated from the hallway by a partial partition, open at the top, and connected on the side, behind the chair I was in, to the next room through a wide opening. Through it we could hear the whirr of a drill and the sound of running water, and voices we could have understood if we knew the language.
A computer screen was on my right, above a tiny desk area with a dark blue ceramic pencil-holder in the shape of a tooth. Another tooth with a smiling face on it, feet below, and arms holding brushes, stood on the windowsill - a minor annoyance - and on the walls were two posters of before-and-after close-ups of cosmetic dental reconstructions, the lips pulled back to clearly show the gums and teeth. One of these included two smiling full-face views of an ordinary, plump but happy-looking middle-aged woman, with her former gappy smile and the more perfect one "after."
That was the thing I had observed over and over in this society, I thought to myself: this acknowledgment that people are not perfect, they have problems, that medical care is designed to help people and not add to their burden by subtly criticizing them or making them feel guilty or ashamed, or old and falling-apart. That and the fact that people seemed to have so much less need to paper-over reality and protect themselves behind legal walls like confidentiality and long definitions of privacy. With little money to spend on art and matching upholstery in order to disguise medical establishments as living rooms, everyone is thrown together in waiting areas, people walk down hallways in their hospital gowns without embarrassment, procedures are less veiled from patients. A sort of natural, relaxed, matter-of-factness runs hand-in-hand with genuine friendliness, and since no one is worried about being sued they tend to be much freer about extending themselves as human beings than any of the medical practitioners I'd known before. The woman in the photos on the wall was not especially pretty, either before or after, but she looked happy and self-assured, and perfectly willing to show off her smile to a parade of strangers.
All of this was running through my head as I lay in the chair waiting for the dentist to come in, which she did presently.
She was a woman about my age, with bleached blonde hair and a smile behind the light blue surgical mask that she pulled to the side to talk to me. "So. Tell me!" she began, and I explained the problem as concisely as I could after we agreed upon which language to use. She was competent and thorough, and I relaxed as she carefully examined the area. She stepped back then so she could look at my whole face. "It is localized," she said, "around the surface of the implant post. I think cleaning is difficult, n'est-ce-pas?" I nodded. "So I will give you a small brush and show you what to do for now, and a bottle of antiseptic rinse. I think you should stop the antibiotics, this is what was giving you the severe headache. We can change it - I'll give you another prescription - but don't take it unless you get worse, which I don't think will happen."
J. got up, then, and told me he had to put more money in the meter and would be back soon, "I can see you're in good hands," he said to me, touching my shoulder and smiling at the dentist as he went out the door.
She told the assistant to bring the medication she wanted, and then demonstrated what she wanted me to do. I asked her a few more questions, and thanked her for seeing me on short notice. Then she put both her hands on the sides of my face and pressed warmly: "Don't worry," she said, looking in my eyes. "Go see him when he gets back, for sure, but nothing bad will happen if it's a week or two."
Back in the waiting room, the Romanian family was gathered around the reception desk, the woman who'd been the patient now wearing a long fur coat and leaning familiarly on the counter. (Later, at home, I would realize why I had heard Italian in their voices: the Romanians are the only remaining descendants of the eastern Romans who expanded their empire to the Danube in the first century B.C., their name and language still as closely linked to its Latin origin as French, Italian, and Spanish. How ignorant I am.)
The morose man still stared straight ahead as he sat on the metal chair, pulled well out in front out of the row; now he was massaging his shoulder, holding the joint in his hand and slowly rotating his arm, grimacing. I glanced at him and stood, uncertain what to do next, in front of the reception desk
"Un moment, prenez un place,s'il vous plait," the receptionist said when she saw me, and I went with J., who had just come back in, his cheeks red from the cold, to the now-vacant couch and sat down.
"Ours was the only car left there," J. told me. "It's rush hour and that place in front of the building turns into a no-parking zone."
My eyes widened in alarm: "Did we have a ticket?"
"No, but I got there just in time. I don't know this neighborhood..."
"Did you have to move it far?"
He shook his head. "A little ways. Down one of the side streets. What's going on, why are we sitting down?"
"I'm not sure - waiting for them, I think. Then I think I can pay."
He nodded. When the family had finished whatever they were doing and left, I got up again, excused myself when I passed unavoidably close to the morose man and his unhappy shoulder, and presented myself at the desk.
"C'est dix dollars pour la bouteille d'antibiotique et trente dollars pour la consultation dentaire aujourd'hui," ("It's ten dollars for the bottle of antibiotic and thirty for the dental consultation today") she told me in rapid French, and I handed her my debit card. "Merci." She gave me the receipt and I walked behind her and took my coat out of the closet; the man in the brown sweater reappeared and would have helped me put it on if I'd been any slower. Thanks were exchanged, and then we passed through the door and went out onto the street and a sudden blast of cold air. I felt completely different than when we had come in.
We drove back on Cote-St-Catherine as l'heure de pointe (rush hour) was beginning, past the huge old seminary buildings of grey stone, the mansions on top of the ridge, the Ecole de Musique, the home of the Soeurs de l’Immaculée Conception. It was snowing lightly. We drove down St.-Joseph back into the Plateau. As we entered our building after parking the car, we ran into a neighbor, Mme. P. She was in a fleece jacket and navy-blue tights, putting something away in the basement, and her bright eyes glittered when she spotted us.
"So! M. Obama est à Ottawa aujourd'hui!" (So, Monsieur Obama is in Ottawa today!") She's a very bright women in her seventies, never married, who was one of the first highly skilled Quebec professional women to rise up in the broadcast profession. She knows the U.S. well, and loves talking about American politics with us.
"Yes, sounds like it's been a big deal here," said J.
"Oui, tous les Canadiens sont très excités."
"And Mr. Harper?"
"Well, you know," she grinned, "he is good at rising to the occasion..."
"I saw a photo of him earlier with Michaëlle Jean," I said.
"Ah, yes, the Governor-General!"
"They looked good together! And all the mounties in their red coats..."
The three of us all nodded and smiled.
"But I'm sure the real discussion was about l'economie, l'huile..." (the economy, oil...)
"Bien sur. Of course."
Taking off my coat in the vestibule of our apartment, I thought back on another photo I'd seen, of Air Force One parked on a runway in Ottawa, a carpet leading from the plane's stairs across the tarmac, and the row of red-coated Canadian mounties along it, each person so tiny next to the enormous plane, and the plane itself dwarfed by the vast, flat, frozen landscape. This is how we travel between countries now, I thought. We bring our own world with us -- what need is there to feel vulnerable when we carry our power and comfort and familiarity so convincingly right along with us? I thought of the images of Obama, in his perfectly-fitted dark suit and sky-blue tie, striding confidently down a flag-lined corridor with Stephen Harper. How different from the arrival of these Romanians who had fled the terrible conditions in their country after Ceausescu fell, thirty years ago, but had still managed to make their way in a new country that required additional training, rigorous exams, new medical degrees. How different even from me, an American whose life had been far easier, for sure, but who still felt fear and confusion while finding her way into a new life in a foreign country.
And yet. And yet. I felt the dentist's palms on my cheeks: the same gesture my own surgeon often uses - was it characteristically Romanian? Something about it summed up the instinctive attraction I'd felt all my life for the people and cultures of eastern Europe and Russia: a certain warmth and big-hearted emotionalism that overflowed into their music and poetry toward me, a blond and blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon who ought, by origin and upbringing, to be self-contained, efficient, driven -- and yet had always yearned toward an expressiveness that was not really Latin or Mediterranean, born in sunshine and abundance, but darker and more hidden, like embers surrounded by snow, or a candlelit room full of talk and wine and music into which people tumble out of a dark night, shaking the snow from their coats. This longing was why, as a child, I'd played records of Tchaikovsky symphonies over and over; why I'd later collected and read all those Russian novels, all that Polish poetry; why I had spent hours at a keyboard trying to understand how to play Scriabin's "poems", why in the afternoons I often listened to Radio Bartok out of Budapest, fully expecting someday to magically comprehend the strange strings of words the announcers uttered in-between those I could catch: "Brahms," "Mussorgsky," "Chopin."
Von Doderer, too, was exploring these same forces of attraction and conflict in his novel of intersecting lives in early twentieth-century Vienna: a world hung like an embroidered curtain between east and west, where Hungarian accents mingled with German, Orthodox Christianity shadowed Catholicism and German reformation protestantism, and Judaism flowed like an ever-present undercurrent...
Thinking about the new American president embarking on the first of his foreign travels, I remembered a dialogue I'd read the previous night, two thirds of the ways through the novel's second volume, in which the narrator, Herr von Geyrenhoff, is in a cafe talking to Edouard Altschul, a bank director. The year is 1927. The two men are professional friends, not personal, but they've always instinctively liked each other, and during this conversation they both make a decision to reveal quite a bit, though continually to speak formally. Geyrenhoff, very Viennese, is curious about Altschul's German origins, and asks if he's been back in his "venerable Frankfurt of late." The bank director remarks that he's been living in Vienna for twenty years - his wife is Viennese - and likes it very much. But he says "a light has gradually dawned" on him, and what it revealed only became fully clear the last time he went back to Germany - which, in Vienna, they call "the West."
"Out there, people are simply writhing and thrashing themselves to death," he says. "Not out of diligence, or efficiency, or joy in work, or out of necessity, because they have to. Oh no, that's not it, not at all. On the contrary. It's done out of weakness, out of a kind of neurotic compulsion..." He searches in his breast pocket for a notebook and reads a partial phrase he has copied from a recent book, but which sums up this malaise for him: "The much praised strong modern man, in truth so much infected by his own efficiency that his weakness..."
And then he goes on to say that living in Vienna has taught him this, about other people and about himself: "There in the West I would never have become conscious of this condition...but when you go from illness to health - though only a relative state of health - and then return again, as I often return from Vienna to Frankfurt, you see how things stand."
And that is just it. Travel, of the sort most of us undertake today, is far more like Obama's temporary disembarkation from his airborne American world than it is an immersion in another culture "until the light dawns." We simply aren't in the soup long enough to become stewed ourselves; our flavor never blends with the pot nor the pot with us. Travel changes and enlarges us, for sure, as Sarah Palin demonstrated to the contrary; we come home with a new spice to put in our kitchen, so to speak. But we do not really see "how things stand." Neither do the congressmen who jet off on weekend tours of the Middle East, or the rich college kids on the latest version of the Grand Tour -- though there is a modern compulsion to posture about travel as if it is life itself.
Even now, after four years of life in a French and international society (North American yes, but one that tends to lean out the window rather than keeping its back to it), I'm sure I see only partially, compared for example to these Romanian-Canadians for whom the differences between their former and current societies, and the accompanying adjustments, must have been enormous. Unless someone has actually lived elsewhere long enough to gain sufficient perspective to see his native society through fresh eyes, he will be like von Geyrenhoff, the native of Vienna, who listens to what Altschul is saying, understands intelelctually, but finds himself "looking across a gulf."
But the other side of this is the enormity of what we do find, in travel so slight as to involve a mere step across one's neighborhood into a different one. And that is the astonishment of the universal embedded in what is strange and foreign: the willingness to find a way to communicate, the small unspoken ways of saying "welcome", the palms on my face that say not only, "don't worry", but "I see you, and here I am too." I suppose those hands are what we sometimes feel reaching toward us out of the books and music, art and languages of other cultures, carrying just enough warmth to sustain the hope that creating and connecting are stronger human desires than the other forces we know so well from our fears.