Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Articles about Greece
Greek Dentists

My tooth hurt. An errant filling had succumbed to something sweet and sticky at the end of a meal in a delightful taverna in the Laladika district. Long ago the tooth had been drilled and filled in an English surgery with the rather half-hearted financial assistance that the National Health Service disburses. Dentists were more quick-witted than doctors when faced with a nascent NHS, and managed to retain much of their independence and thus most of their income.

Anyway this was Greece. No NHS here. I needed to ‘go private’. There is a wayward charm about many Greek institutions. During my time in Thessaloniki I have encountered Citizens’ Offices (KEPs), Police Stations, Health Centres, Electricity Offices, Taxation Offices, Aliens Bureaux and a myriad of other wonderful bastions of bureaucracy no doubt dating back to a certain Bavarian sense of order, but in spirit at least perhaps more akin to Byzantian times. I had however failed to experience the intricacies of dental practices in this wonderful country. It was time to change this.

Fortunately I was in possession of a card from a dentist, having met her some months previously when looking for an apartment to rent. I phoned and spoke to her directly, no receptionist. Yes, of course she remembered me, and yes indeed she would be delighted to sort my filling out, would tomorrow be soon enough?

Finding her surgery was not that easy. In England surgeries either occupy a whole building or, at the very least, the ground floor. This is not the case in Greece. At twelve-thirty I found myself at the entrance of a very ordinary apartment block, confronted by an array of doorbells. Next each of these was a nameplate. This should have posed no problem, except the names were all displayed in the Greek alphabet and with the Christian name being reduced to just an initial. They gave no clue as to whether that person was a lawyer, an estate agent, or a private individual. Certainly there was no indication of dentistry.

With the help of Sofi’s business card I found her name, S. Papadimitriou, and pushed the appropriate bell. I was admitted without conversation and took the stone staircase to the first floor. I found the appropriate door, which again opened immediately to my ring. I was in a waiting room. The walls were a pleasing but slightly shabby shade of green. Some pictures of old Thessaloniki added to the slightly down-at-heel appearance of the room. There was no discernable evidence that a receptionist had ever held domain over the place. Through from this waiting area there was the sound of happy chatter that did not seem to be interspersed with dental pauses.

I sat down on a chaise that proved to be so much more comfortable than its appearance suggested. The magazines provided were inclined towards the artistic and the historical, and despite being in Greek provided a welcome change from the facile publications that have bedeviled my past experiences of waiting rooms.

In fact this was not quite my first experience of Greek dentists. On an earlier occasion it had been my friend, Eri, who needed treatment. She had chipped a front tooth. It was too late to phone her downtown dentist that day despite the late working hours of such practices in Greece. She phoned early the next morning to make an appointment.

“One thirty tomorrow would suit me very well.”

The following day we left the apartment just before 11.30. Along the harbour-front traffic was light and we made good time, even finding a parking space without undue difficulty. We had over an hour to kill, but this would be no problem as long as I could keep Eri from thinking about her broken tooth. She must have been looking for a suitable distraction herself.

“Let’s go to the Hondas Centre,” she said.

“ I said, wondering why on earth she wanted to look at Japanese cars. “Are you thinking of getting one?” Eri looked at me oddly. “What on earth are you talking about Gordon?”

“This Honda Centre” I said, with only marginally dented confidence, “presumably they have the very best selection of used cars there?”

She burst out laughing. “You are a clown. It has nothing to do with Honda cars. Hondas Centres are beauty shops.”

Skin-conditioner duly purchased there was still time for a Greek coffee, but moments later Eri jumped decisively to her feet, leaving her cup untouched “We must go.”

Just a few paces and a lift ride later we entered the fourth floor surgery. A bored looking receptionist had her head buried in a celebrity magazine as we entered. She looked puzzled at Eri’s mention of her appointment.

“You can’t have, not today.”

It was Eri’s turn to look nonplussed. “But I phoned yesterday and was told to come at 1.30 today.”

“Well that’s impossible. He is not working in town this Friday.”

“So how was I given a booking at 1.30,” said Eri. “What’s happened?”

With a great show of resentment the receptionist made a couple of phone calls. Apparently Eri had been booked into the dentist’s surgery in Serres, a town about an hour’s drive from Thessaloniki.

One of the many things I like about Greeks is their inability to suppress their emotions. A long and noisy ‘conversation’ ensued between Eri and the receptionist along the lines:

“It is entirely your fault. You never said you wanted the Thessaloniki surgery.”

“Of course I didn’t. He is always here on Fridays, I’m not an idiot!”

“Not this week. He changed his schedule, and it was very stupid not to say exactly what you wanted.”

“Well how was I supposed to know that? You are a complete disaster!”

I intervened with as much aplomb as I would have mustered to achieve a ceasefire between two alley cats. “Come on, Eri, it’s time to go.”

She wheeled upon me and I feared that I would be next to incur her wrath. Instead she grasped my hand and made for the door, all the time muttering things about “Malakas” in the general direction of the receptionist.

“Yeas sas,” intoned the far from subdued receptionist, and for my benefit “Have a Nice Day.” Clearly she had learned her English in The States.

But here I was, sitting in the waiting room of a different surgery where the dentist was quite clearly present. Indeed the conversation in the next room was at this very moment rising to a note of farewell. A middle-aged and happy looking lady came through into the waiting room, wrapped a shawl around herself, and left. Sofi emerged from her sanctum, a sprightly and fit-looking 60-something, and kissed me on both cheeks. It was a decent way to be greeted by one”s dental practitioner.

The surgery, if it could be thus described was wonderful. Yes there was a reclining chair, but it was upholstered in dark leather whilst the ubiquitous drill whose arms hovered above it was a thing from a 1960”s film set. The walls were hung with pictures. Not, you understand, of cavities or dismal dental sets, but family photos of people enjoying themselves at the seaside. Alongside The Chair ran a long red mahogany cabinet that might, or might not contain dental implements. Atop it was a catholic mixture of old fashioned sterilizer, glass jars, flowers, and framed photos.

The large bay window looked out onto the street. There was a slightly threadbare carpet that covered most of the floor, whilst a dark oak desk with a reed-backed chair complemented the comfortable feel of this far from modern surgery.

Sofi was clearly a competent professional, but it was equally obvious that she considered dentistry to be an essentially social affair. We chatted for some time about my stay in Greece, about The Crisis, about my writing, and about a mutual friend, so it was some time before I was bidden to The Chair. To my surprise Sofi sat on a chair between my reclination and the cabinet. I could see that she was within easy reach of the activators for the doorbells and the phone – a real one-man (or rather woman) show. I searched my memory of dental treatments past and concluded that I had never before been treated by a seated dentist.

Whilst my problem tooth hardly warranted it there did not seem to be the option of a pain-killing injection. I could see no evidence of a syringe, and being somewhat fearful of such devices I am pretty sure that I would have seen the signs of such had they existed. Sofi did the usual picking thing, chattering away all the while.

She reached for the drill. “Don’t be afraid,”she said. I cannot remember that being said to me by a dentist, even as a child.

Whilst she wielded her drill Sofi told me that she was no longer practicing.

I frowned and said, “Aghhh?”

“What I mean is that I am trying to retire, but from the time I stopped earning it takes nearly two years before I am paid any pension.”

I tried to look as sympathetic as one can when assailed by mouth cramps “Aghhh,” I said again.

“The deal is that you must stop work, then apply for your pension, then wait. So I am not working – officially – but how can I survive without any income?”

The black economy of Greece owes much of its existence to the ridiculous demands of an outdated bureaucracy. Happily for her I think that Sofi’s pension must have through fairly shortly after that, for her phone was ‘unavailable’ a few months later when I tried to contact her.

Now, once again, it was Dentist Time. I had lost no less than three fillings and my UK dentist had told me that each of these teeth was now finished, and that I would need implants for each at a cost of about £2,500 per tooth. I had told him that this was ridiculous and that I would take a second opinion – in Greece. He in turn had warned me that if I was treated in Greece I should not expect any help from him ‘when it all goes wrong–. And so here I was back in Greece, needing treatment and without Sofi to provide it.

Salvation came in the form of Stavros. His surgery was towards the western side of town, just below Ano Poli. I walked past motorbike repair shops, and scruffy looking places with secondhand electrical goods spilling out onto the pavement. To my right a flashing neon sign spelled out the name ‘Tobacco Hotel’. Even in this country of smokers it seemed a curious name, and one unlikely to elicit many bookings.

Entrance to Stavros’ surgery was not dissimilar to Sofi’s, although his waiting room boasted an enormous fish tank wherein two large and one small fish were circulating. I feared for the longevity of the small one.

Stavros took one look at the remnants of my teeth and declared that my NHS English dentist was totally misguided and that far from requiring implants matters could be sorted out by inserting a few pins and fillings at a cost of no more than €150 per tooth.

He was an interesting man, well travelled and fluent in many languages. He had studied dentistry in France and Romania before returning to Greece and setting up his practice in this neighbourhood of Thessaloniki. He told me that he had instigated a quixotic scheme whereby the local people paid him just €10 euro a month for all the dental treatment they might need. He clearly enjoyed his dentistry, looking upon it almost as an art form, especially when ‘sculpting– a replacement tooth. He could have made his fortune from practicing in a richer area of town with well-to-do clients. Instead he adopted a more philanthropic approach, and not only was clearly a benefactor to the locals, but a much more fulfilled man for so doing.

Like Sofi he treated me from a seated position and during the course of prolonged treatment only used a numbing injection on one occasion. He was dismissive of the extensive use of injections by UK dentists, suggesting that by such use they covered up their own dental clumsiness.

Also like Sofi, Stavros was also a ‘one man band’, having neither receptionist nor dental nurse, and needing neither. Actually that was not quite true. During his expert drilling, shaping and colouring of my new teeth I became aware that there was a third presence in the surgery. Gentle rustling sounds and indistinct mutterings were to be heard. I was curious, very curious.

My treatment having been successfully completed, and monetary transactions having been concluded – in ‘black’ cash of course – I ventured to enquire about the mysterious ‘presence’. With a grin Stavros wheeled out a covered container. I assumed he was going to reveal some form of recording device. Instead he whipped of the blue cloth revealing a gloriously coloured and very large parrot.

“Wow,” I said.

“Meet Iannis,” said Stavros.

“Cawwww,” said Iannis.

I am now the proud possessor of three excellently repaired teeth, and a beautiful parrot feather.


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