gall and gumption

Monday, June 01, 2009

buckner: A Sardinian Toothache

The day I left for Italy I was preparing my luggage about five hours before the plane was scheduled to depart when I received a phone call from my friend John asking if I’d like to get a quick sandwich for lunch. There seemed to be plenty of time left, why not? He picked me up and off we sped to a small bakery that serves good sandwiches on crusty thick bread. We got our sandwiches and sat down at a small table in front of the big picture window. It was a beautiful day, my bags were for the most part packed, and I finally felt some relief from all the rushing around that always accompanies the final days of preparing for a trip—especially one like I was planning. I was headed for Sardinia for five weeks to work in several schools teaching Book Arts to young children.

I started doing this last year, through the referral of an Italian friend who lives there, and it’s turning into a regular yearly job. We write stories in Italian with some English translation, and then illustrate them with pen and ink drawings, watercolors, and relief prints. Then I teach the kids how to bind these into various book forms: Japanese stab bindings, accordion books, Coptic stitch books, etc. Each year I come I meet new teachers who want to use my services, and the number of workshops I teach grows. It’s partially due to my extensive experience teaching Book Arts for many years to kids at Interlochen Center for the Arts, an international art camp in northern Michigan, and also the novelty of having an American who speaks Italian come to the remote cities of Sassari and Thiesi in northern Sardinia to teach.

So, I was eating my sandwich with John, and suddenly the unthinkable happens—crunch!!—I break a tooth! A big piece of molar cracks off in my mouth and I spit it out in a wad of half-eaten sandwich. Oh no! This has got to be my worst nightmare ever! Four hours before stepping on a plane for the other side of the world, and I’ve got a broken tooth. We rushed home and first I called my dentist—who was out to lunch, of all things! Then I called the airlines to see if I could delay my flight, and discovered they won’t charge the $100 cancellation fee if I have a note from my dentist, but then if I wanted to reschedule for another day I’d have to pay the difference of the current ticket price: an additional $1000! How nice of them! Finally I got through to the dentist and discovered, luck of lucks, someone else had cancelled his appointment at the last minute, and they had an opening if I could get there right away. I crammed the rest of my stuff into the suitcases, threw them into the car, and raced out to the dentist.

As soon as I walked in the door they ushered me into the chair and started taking x-rays. Then the dentist, who is really a great guy, came in to take a look and administer the Novocain. The problem was that I had less than two hours before I needed to be at the airport, and the Novocain usually takes a half hour to start working. He told me to lean my head back and relax to help it take effect, and walked out of the room. So I was sitting there thinking—numb, numb, numb—and also started to wonder if, when he came back to ask me if it was numb yet, if it was not completely numb, I could just say yes and then put up with it. This was not a pleasant thought.

Fortunately the stuff took effect quickly and the dentist got to work. He and his assistant started putting tubes in my mouth, filling it with water and then sucking it away, blowing air, picking, tapping, scratching, and finally drilling (with that awful burning smell). Then he squeakily packed the temporary filling material in. Several times during the operation he asked me if I needed to take a break. No, I said, with several fingers still in my mouth. I’ll take a break when I get on the airplane. He finished the procedure in what must have been record time, and as I passed the front receptionist she thankfully told me to run—that she would send the bill later (I can’t wait to get home for that!) I made it to the airport with about ten minutes to spare.

After arriving in Italy the tooth was fine for a while, but gradually became more sensitive to hot and cold, making it very difficult to eat. There’s my second biggest nightmare: being in Italy and unable to eat! So, last week my friend Antonio took me to a pharmacy to find something to help with the sensitivity. Italian pharmacies are different from American ones. Almost like doctors, the pharmacists consult with you at the counter and tell you what they think you need.  Since it was rather late in the evening, Antonio took me to the one late-night pharmacy located in the center of town. As it was the only place open we arrived to discover a long line snaking out the door.

Standing in line in Italy is always an interesting affair. Lawrence rather exaggeratedly describes it like this:
Some thirty men all at once want to get at a tiny wicket in a blank wall. There are no queue-rails, there is no order: just a hole in a blank wall and thirty fellows mostly military, pressing at it in a mass. But I have done this before. The way is to insert the thin end of oneself, and without any violence, by deadly pressure and pertinacity come at the goal. One hand must be kept fast over the money pocket, and one must be free to clutch the wicket-side when one gets there. And thus one is ground small in those mills of God, Demos struggling for tickets. It isn’t very nice—so close, so incomparably crushed. And never for a second must one be off one’s guard for one’s watch and money and even hanky.
Well, this line wasn’t quite that bad. But always in Italian lines you have to be on your guard or someone will wedge his way in front of you. They don’t have the same social contract of embarrassment that we have. In the US if you cut in line it’s a major sin, and there’s even the chance that someone will speak up and reprimand you. In Italy when someone cuts in front the others frown and shake their heads, but the cutter can easily put his nose in the air and ignore it.

As we slowly made our way toward the front entrance I suddenly became aware that a thin scruffy fellow was anxious to force his way in front of me. Later, Antonio explained to me that this was a drug addict who was there to purchase a syringe and sterilized water. Since this is the only pharmacy open at night all the addicts come to buy paraphernalia. However, I noticed him too late and he wedged in front, and then even more boldly walked into the store, found his way into a corner where he paused for a minute, and then inserted himself in line six people in front of me. Very crafty! People exchanged looks but no one said anything. A few minutes later the guy’s cell phone rang, he flipped it on, spoke some words into it, and then shot out the door. Perhaps it was his dealer. We continued to stand in line. After five minutes the guy suddenly showed up again, weaved his way back to the front of the line as though that was his original place, and continued to wait with a great deal of impatience. He made it to the front, bought his merchandise, and scuttled out the door. We continued waiting.

In the meantime another addict found his way through the line and was standing at the front entrance. This fellow was different. Whereas the first one was thin and fidgety with darting apprehensive eyes, this guy was large, slovenly, and gregarious. He leaned up against the counter with satisfied sang-froid and surveyed the other customers in the room. Suddenly he addressed the woman behind the counter in a loud voice. “So tell me,” he said, “when are you going to retire so we can get someone who works more quickly?” The customer who was being waited on asked, “You want her to retire before you get to the front of the line?” He smirked at this. Then the pharmacist replied, “I’ll retire as soon as you stop coming here!” This caused everyone in the room to burst out laughing. I’ve never seen anything like this before; usually Italians are so serious in these situations. We stepped to the front of the line and purchased our medication from the pharmacist, who was still smiling.


At 12:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sounds easier than DHL's vigil for the goat gristle. Or was it mutton?

At 4:12 AM, Blogger buckner said...

Mutton. They eat a lot of sheep here (and it's delicious!)


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