My first trip to the dentist after moving to France was kind of a rude awakening. To protect the dentist's identity, for this column let's just call her "Dr. Dominatrix."
As soon as I arrived in her office, Dr. Dominatrix immediately noticed that I was pregnant (at the time -- not now, thank heavens!) and started telling me all about how she was serving on a committee to give pregnancy-nutrition recommendations. Then, without the slightest encouragement, she launched into a whole elaborate lecture about how pregnant women should not drink skim milk. Her reasoning was essentially that skim milk tastes yucky, so either you won't drink enough or you'll compensate with unhealthy things.
I was listening and nodding with a blank smile on my face, but my tiny brain was saying "Um, I came here to see a dentist. Are you a dentist or what?"
And since I really wasn't in the mood to explain and debate my own equal-and-opposite wacky theory about how pregnant women should drink at least one full liter of skim milk per day, that was strike one in my mind against Dr. Dominatrix.
Then she determined that it was necessary to install some sort of crown-like thing on one of my teeth. Unfortunately, she put it on in such a way that the new piece (and/or the cement to attach it) extended past the relevant tooth and was actually touching the adjacent tooth.
During the follow-up visit, I pointed this problem out and mentioned that I could no longer pass dental floss between the two teeth. Dr. Dominatrix responded with shock and horror:
"Who told you to floss your teeth?!" she asked (in French). She then explained that you should never floss your teeth because flossing can hurt your gums.
She was probably right that it is possible to hurt your gums by flossing if you do it very badly. But it's not like it's rocket science. I like to imagine that if I haven't mastered the basics of flossing safety yet, I could theoretically be trained to do it.
That was strike two against Dr. Dominatrix.
Strike three was more of a general complaint about her bedside manner. I'm not going to say that she seemed indifferent to the possibility that some procedures she performed might cause pain. I think it would be more accurate to say she seemed annoyed by her patient's pain reaction.
The odd thing was that she was a real Americophile, if such a word exists. It should exist, because it's surprisingly common among the French -- contrary to the popular stereotype of French people snootily looking down their noses at Americans. During every single visit she would tell me stories of all of the conferences she'd attended in the U.S. and the latest dental technology she'd learned there. It just kind of amazed me that in all of these conferences she'd never picked up on this exciting American innovation involving the use of dental floss.
After a few years of being treated by Dr. Dominatrix, I finally broke down and decided that I was just going to go to a different dentist. In France you can just do that with no restrictions. Crazy, huh?
I suggested it to my husband as well, but oddly he opted to continue with Dr. Dominatrix. If this means there's something he's not telling me, I'm not sure I really want to know.
For myself I picked a new dentist using the same scientific criterion as I had used to pick my first one, namely proximity to where I live. Since I had moved since choosing my earlier dentist, this algorithm yielded a different result this time.
I am happy to report that I didn't have any problems with my new dentist, whom -- again to protect his identity -- I will call "Dr. Kindly-Gent." I made sure to ask him up front whether he was for or against flossing, and I was relieved to hear that he was in favor of it.
I don't want to give the misimpression here that I'm some sort of flossing fanatic or something. It's just that it was so weird. It would be like if I went to a cardiologist who recommended that I take up smoking and eat more potato chips or something -- I would get this vague sense that there's something not quite right here.
Also, I don't think the typical American necessarily flosses regularly. It's just that if you go six months without flossing between checkups, an American dentist will at least have the decency to lay a major guilt trip on you about it.
Actually it surprised me when I discovered that various French boyfriends seemed unacquainted with the practice of flossing, and even Dr. Kindly-Gent seemed kind of indifferent toward it. It made me wonder why it caught on in the U.S. and not so much in (parts of?) Europe.
I figure it's probably just one of those things, like the fact that it somehow became popular to routinely circumcise all baby boys in the U.S., which I've found they don't do outside of a religious context in Europe. That conclusion didn't stop me from coming up with a theory about it though. Like most of my theories, this one is pure armchair speculation, totally unadulterated by any sort of facts or evidence.
My theory is that flossing first became popular in the U.S. because of the practice of eating corn-on-the-cob. It's tasty stuff, and if you believe that necessity is the mother of invention, you'll agree that it's not too far-fetched to see corn-on-the-cob as naturally spawning the idea of dental floss.
Then -- still according to my entirely made-up theory -- I imagined some clever health professional saying "Hey, this has some health and hygiene benefits."
And who knows? Maybe one day it will catch on in France too.
Published in the Utah Valley Monitor January 12, 2006.