Bite Down


I’ve never had a toothache in Italy.

“We could stop and get one on the way back,” my wife says. We’re lying in bed, both of us awake at 3:00 a.m.

She’s thinking about cake.

In particular, about certosino, a dense almond and pine nut and dark chocolate cake that’s covered with candied fruits and slathered over with honey, a seasonal delicacy you find in Bologna around Christmas time. It’s late November. In five days we’re flying back to the U.S., but first we’re going up to Venice for a night, which we will reach by train, with stopovers in Bologna.

“We could get one on the layover,” she says. “Coming home from Venice.”

“Let’s see,” I say, “a layover in Bologna, a cab ride from the train station to Tamburini. It’s tempting.” But…

“Next door to Tamburini,” she says. “That bakery.”

Bologna is a great food destination we’re getting to know. To get to my wife’s hometown, we fly into Bologna twice a year. We arrive around noon, get into a rental car, and, before continuing to San Marino, drive into the city for lunch. Always the same route: Tangenziale north, Via Stalingrado, Via del Pallone, Piazza dell’Otto Agosto. We park and walk down Via dell’Indipendenza into the old city. In truth, it’s not all that easy. New Bologna, the periphery, has traffic. You have to want get into old Bologna. Coming home from Venice, even by train, I’m guessing a certosino stop in Bologna will add three hours to our travel time.

I tell her it seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a candy bar.

Comes a pause in our talk; a long lull. I wonder if she has gone back to sleep. Then: “It’s not candy bar,” she says. “It’s a cake.”

In 2-3 sizes. The small one we’ll buy really is the size of a large candy bar. But, it’s good. Great gods is it good.


While she thinks about cake, I lie on my back and ponder a disturbing dream I just had.

“I dreamed I lost all my teeth,” I say.

“You love certosino just as much as I do,” she says. “Admit it.”

“I didn’t have any teeth in my mouth. I don’t know how I lost them.”

“Daddy loved certosino,” she says. Her father went to school in Bologna. It’s easy to imagine him gorging himself on certosino.

“He had great teeth,” I say.

“He had boulders for teeth.”

Whereas my father lost all his teeth when I was a kid. I remember him coming home from the hospital, toothless; and toothless for a few weeks after that, eating poached eggs for dinner at night, waiting for his dentures to be made.

“If I had to have dentures,” I say, “I wonder if they could make multiple sets for me. Dentures to wear to the opera, dentures especially designed for eating meat. Dentures to wear to hockey games.”

“You hate hockey.”

“Dentures for eating torrone and crocante. Big teeth. Powerful teeth.

“Dentures are gross.”

In a few minutes, her breathing slows. She sleeps while I lie awake imagining a life in which I change my teeth the way I change my clothes.

Next day on the train to Venice, I know I’m going to have a problem.

A thin thread of pain running down my chin. If I lay an index finger on my chin, it hurts. What happened was, a few days after we got to Italy I bought a package of dried figs at the grocery store. They came in a box. Inside the box was a hermetically sealed plastic bag, which I raised to my mouth and tore open with my teeth, forgetting I’m not fourteen years old. Something in my jaw went boink. There was a subtle, but unmistakable popping sensation in that one tooth, a central incisor, bottom row, the tooth with the crown. I knew I did something.

Yesterday I began to feel mild discomfort. Today, I feel it a little more. This is pre-pain. I know what’s coming.

I’ve never had a toothache in Italy.


In the scheme of things, good teeth must a very recent historical development. Not white teeth, not straight teeth, not cavity-free teeth and “engineered smiles” modern American dentistry makes possible. I mean just teeth in your mouth rather than gaps and holes.

Probably one of the most famous mouthfuls of bad teeth and gaps and holes were those of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1597, Andre Hurault-Sieur de Maisse, the French ambassador to Elizabeth’s court, observed: “As for her face, it is and appears to be very aged. It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal, compared with what they were formerly, so they say, and on the left side less than on the right. Many of them are missing so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly.” Supposedly the Queen stuffed rags in her cheeks to maintain a fuller face.

You might think, So that’s why she, and every other subject who sat for a painting, never smiled. Turns out if you thought that, you would probably be wrong.


During the Renaissance, smiling, showing one’s teeth, was thought to be bad manners, a breach of etiquette. In fine art you’ll find peasants flashing their grotesque smiles (one of my favorites being Frans Hal’s “Laughing Boy”), but individuals with social standing–people with the inclination and wherewithal to say to a painter, Hey, will you paint my picture?—they kept their mouths shut. Teeth, writes Toby Ferris in “A Brief History of Teeth in Art,” are reminders of carnality and death. Caravaggio’s “Triumphant Eros” was scandalous in the painter’s day because of the boy’s smile. Says Ferris, “The damned in last judgments, wedded in life to their mortal flesh, have teeth, and they gnash them. So do all manner of animals and devils. So, of course, do skulls, teeth bared in death. And so, not strangely in all these connections, does the dead Christ.”


R. van der Weyden, Hoellensturz - R. van der Weyden, Descent into Hell -


Everyone else kept their mouths shut, in the interest of decorum.

This convention endured for centuries. People in paintings did not smile. Photographic portraiture, the same.

Your smiling self is suspicious, creepy, arguably not your real self. Witness the injunction in passport photography: no smiling.


On my phone, about the time the train is passing through Padova, I decide to Google home remedies for toothache.  I figure it’s worth a try.

Salt water rinse. Something tells me I’m going to need stronger medicine than that.

Ice it. Definitely not going to happen. Unlike Americans, Italians are not an ice-loving people. On any given day, in all of Italy there is perhaps two kilos of ice available.

There are other forms of self-help; some of them seem, well, smelly.

Hold a paper bag soaked in vinegar to the pained surface. This seems like a desperate act.

Peppermint oil. According to Claire of Everyday Roots peppermint oil is “an effective pain blocker.” Claire of Everyday Roots reports, “Menthol is a k-opioid receptor agonist,” which sounds promising, especially the “opioid” part. Menta piperita, in Italian. I tell myself to remember that.

Cloves are supposed to help. A clove in Italian is referred to as a chiodo, which is also the word for nail. That sort of puts me off.

Mirrh is good for toothache. Maybe it was used on the teething baby Jesus. I look up the word in Italian. Mirra.

Alcohol. Of course. Soak a cotton ball in whisky or bourbon. It worked on our babies when they were teething. So that’s a possibility.

Five more days in Italy. The idea of having to find a dentist is worrisome–making an appointment, the translation issues, the payment and follow up.

I test the tooth with my tongue. It definitely feels busted.


I could take comfort in the fact that one of the ground-breaking books on teeth was written by an Italian. One Bartolomeo Eustachi, a Renaissance physician and scientist who was avid about dissections and autopsies, published Libellus de Dentibus in Venice in 1563. The Journal of the History of Dentistry celebrates its “descriptions of the dental pulp, the periodontal membrane, the development of both sets of teeth from dental follicles, the trigimenal nerve, and other oral structures.” Between that time and the advent of pain-free and sedation dentistry in the 20th century, however, the horrors of toothache, and violent relief from it, are colorfully documented, testifying to the arts and entrepreneurialism and humanity of barbers, wig-makers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and veternarians. In Carson McCullers’s novel Clock Without Hands, one of her characters reports, ‘When Doc Tatum died I had a terrible toothache, so I went to Doc’s brother who was the best mule doctor in the county.”

We check into our hotel and walk up the riva to the gardens. We’re here for the last days of the Bienialle. It’s a damp, foggy day. We walk through twenty or so pavilions, each dedicated to one artist chosen to represent his or her country. Some of the exhibits call to my mind T. S. Eliot’s “heap of broken images,” challenging art, art that really makes you stretch.


Among the memorable exhibits, these: In the Norway pavilion, rooms of stacked windows and panes and shattered glass; in the Swiss pavilion, a pool of thick, bubbling pink chemical soup; in the Romanian pavilion, conventional framed pieces, some of them representational, which I appreciate, among them a few portraits that capture the way I am beginning to feel.



Walking back toward to hotel, I hold an aspirin next to the tooth and gum area, letting it dissolve. I’m wondering if there’s a liquor store where I can buy some bourbon, or a mirra and menta piperita store in the vicinity.

That night we have a mix of fish and shellfish for dinner, also a lot of Prosecco. The chewing is easy. It occurs to me that there would be no need for seafood dentures, unless, of course, we order oysters.

Wine helps with the pain, sort of.


Next day, late afternoon, I get my dentist on the phone. She’s thrilled I’m calling her from Italy. Says in 40 years of dentistry, this is a first for her.

“We’re just leaving Venice,” I say.

“You’re calling from a train?” she says. “Really?” I can hear her telling her assistant, Sara, that my wife and I are calling her from a train in Italy.

I explain the purpose of our trip. Art and food. And Venice at night is great. Finally I can come to the reason for the call–my tooth, the crown, the pain.

I ask her if I should go to a dentist.

“First of all,” she says, “stop putting aspirin on that tooth. That’s very bad. You’re going to burn the gum tissue.”

“How about mirrh for pain?” I ask. “Or peppermint oil?”


I decide not to mention the bag-soaked-in-vinegar cure. Or the Prosecco.

“By the sound of it,” she says, “you need to get going on a course of antibiotics. That’s what I would do. That should get you through the next few days.”

“Pharmacy,” I say to my wife. We’re passing Padova.

“Bologna,” she says. “Certosino.”

“I don’t have a prescription.”

In another 30 minutes we de-train and grab a cab down Via dell’Indipendenza. A couple blocks from Tamburini we tumble out of the cab and into a pharmacy. I get my dentist on the phone again and translate her prescription to the pharmacist, who says, sure, I can get antibiotics over the counter. No prescription necessary. We haggle briefly about dosage (my dentist likes two 500 mg a day, the pharmacist has only 1000 mg bunker busters).

So I go with the hard stuff.

“While were here,” my wife says.

We rush to the bakery, each of us feeling our sense of elation, and buy two cakes, one for that evening in San Marino, the other for when we get back to the U.S.

The layover takes a couple hours. While we wait for the local train to Rimini, I feel around with my tongue, willing myself to feel better.

“You’re going to be okay,” my wife says. More question than assertion.

“Should be,” I say. For the time being. I do my best to muster an uncertain smile.


One thought on “Bite Down

  1. katcunning

    There’s a great ongoing dental-pain-in-a-country-not-your-own plot-point in Peter DeVries’ “Reuben, Reuben,” which was made into wonderful film with Tom Conti & Kelly McGillis. I am glad yours ended more happily than the Scottish poet’s in the book/film.



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