Tuesday, June 19, 2012

This will only hurt for a minute. Or six years.

Photo by massdistraction on Flickr

At some point in everyone’s life there comes a moment when the doctor tells you to “go ahead and climb on up on the table so we can have a look.” And, after one or two (not more than two, I hope, both for your sake and your doctor’s) rookie misunderstandings about what will happen immediately afterward, most of us learn that this is code for “take your pants off.”

Of course no doctor ever says “take your pants off,” because that would be, well, a bit forward, really.

In Canada (well, in my Canada; I’m not going to pretend that a town with a liquor store but no gas station is representative of the whole country) this is typically what happens next:

  1. The doctor swiftly walks away as if they have decided not to examine or treat us at all, usually pulling a curtain with them as they go. Now you are separated from the peering eyes of your physician. This makes no sense whatsoever, of course, since I’m fairly sure that being in a situation where your doctor can’t see you is pretty much the opposite of what you had in mind when you decided to drop in. 
  2. The doctor will then talk to you through the curtain as if you are high school best friends in adjacent stalls at a school dance. Except instead of telling you that she hopes Rebecca Vickers chokes on her retainer she will inform you that there is a paper blanket next to the examination table. The doctor will never tell you what to do with this “paper blanket,” i.e. large-ish blue serviette, so you had better have some good powers of deduction going on at this stage in your life lest you tuck it into your collar and ask for cutlery. 
  3. Neither you nor the doctor will ever say the words “pants,” “underwear,” or “off” but somehow you will both understand. It’s like magic, but without any rabbits or up-close sleight of hand (and yes, for all you annoying spelling police out there, it is spelled “sleight.” “Slight of hand,” I can only imagine, refers to someone who has lost several fingers in a tragic hedge-trimming incident).
  4. Next you will “climb on up” and do your best to arrange the napkin around your body, which is hopeless of course because it is no bigger than a single sheet of Bounty and will therefore only cover the top part of your legs, thus leaving your flanks exposed and subject to draft. Then, while you are sitting there with a giant Kleenex on your knees wondering why you didn’t think to wear a dress -- or chaps -- the doctor will tell you to “let her know when you’re ready,” as if pretending not to have heard you as you clumsily manoeuvred onto the table with all the grace of a hunted wildebeest.
  5. The curtain will re-open, the doctor will reappear, and both of you will act like this is totally normal.
In fact, as any North American woman over the age of 13 will tell you, before, and even after you have “climbed up on the table” your doctor will behave as though you have just bumped into her in the all-lard and soft drinks aisle at Sobeys or in line for tickets to a Garth Brooks concert, because even though you’re the one who is naked from the waist down except for your socks in a room that isn’t your own bedroom or bathroom with a stranger staring directly at your naked parts, she will suddenly get embarrassed and begin making chit-chat with you, asking you all kinds of boring questions she doesn’t give a crap about like how your school/university/work is going or if you've seen The Hunger Games yet, all to deflect attention from the fact that she is under your napkin. What is more, even though this conversation is more painfully boring and inane than any you may actually have had in the all-evil-foods aisle or in line for Garth Brooks tickets, you pursue it with gusto because there is nowhere to run.

"The Hunger Games, you say? No! I haven’t! Have you! Was it good? Really? Really?! Oh you thought it was about anorexia! Hahahaahahahaha."

Like that. It’s pathetic.

Now, this all seems rather embarrassing and it is of course, but there is comfort in protocol and once you know the real meaning of the secret sentence, and The Rules ([1] always fold your underwear and place them under your other garments on the chair next to the table which is designed specifically for this purpose and which you suppose (and hope) they therefore regularly disinfect between visits of this nature; AND [2] don’t take your socks or your watch off because then it just looks like you’re settling in for the night) you can relax, because you know The Rules and as long as you follow them none of this will be more awkward than it has to be for anyone and you can go home and drown the whole experience in a reasonably-priced Chablis.

This works, that is, until you move to A Foreign Country. You see, in A Foreign Country all manner of bad, unexpected things can happen at the doctor’s office. For instance, in A Foreign Country all the other sick people will say hello to you as they enter as well as leave the waiting room, and they will do the same as you enter and leave. If you fail to play along you will be reported to the doctor’s assistant who will make sure the implements are extra cold when it’s your turn.

Also, you may not know that in A Foreign Country it is customary for the doctor, upon seeing you for your appointment, to extend her hand to you in a welcome gesture of greeting. What should be your cue to extend your hand back and engage in what some cultures refer to as a “handshake,” becomes, in your uncivilized, barbarian mind an invitation to give your handbag to the doctor, who now has to act like a hesitant, overpaid maid and carry your purse to her consultation area where she will place it awkwardly on the chair next to you. You, meanwhile, will turn deep crimson at realizing the terribly un-take-backable gaffe you have just made and wonder if your parents would be proud of you now.

But the only thing worse than giving your handbag to your doctor like she is some kind of shop assistant is the realization that “climb on up on the table” in A Foreign Country does not mean “I will now go through steps 1-5 above” but instead means “take your pants off, right now, while I stand here waiting and more or less watching you undress.”

“There must be some mistake,” you think first, but then suddenly you notice all the tell-tale signs of an outright and blatant dismissal of The Rules – to wit, not a curtain in sight and no paper blanket or even an oversized cotton ball with which to protect your modesty. (By the way, it’s not a good idea at this point to simply ask the doctor flat out “should I take my pants off?” You won’t come out looking like the clever one in the exchange. Trust me on this.)

Now, I could complain and moan about how in A Foreign Country (okay, who are we fooling, in The Netherlands for crying out loud!) the doctors are bad-mannered voyeurs with no innate sense of social appropriateness, but it occurred to me, finally, after six years of these kinds of appointments, that their way makes more sense than the one I knew back home. I mean, the doctor is, if she is doing her job at any rate, eventually going to see what’s under your napkin. So why are we killing forests full of trees that could be used to make really useful non-euphemistic not-fooling-anyone paper products, like genuine normal-sized serviettes, or huge posters which translate “climb on up on to the table so we can have a look” for the uninitiated? The North American way – hiding behind curtains and cowering under tissues – pretends that you are not half-naked and it pretends that the doctor doesn’t know that you are half-naked. It makes sense only in a world where everything means its exact opposite. And it is environmentally unfriendly.

So, in conclusion, I say long live straight-talkin' Dutch doctors who don't give a rat's bum if you've seen The Hunger Games or not. While it’s true they don’t sugar coat their directives or make the greatest chit-chatters, I have found that they are always there for you with an arm extended when you need someone to hold your purse.


The WSD's Top Ten Signs You are Becoming Dutch
  1. This just reminds me of the first time I had a smear here in Holland. I went though all of the above following the guidance of the 'doctors assistant'. As she came at me with the dreaded (warmed under the hot tap) metal gadget I thought 'do I just let this, in my mind, 'administrative help' give me an internal or do I say something? Being me of course it was the latter. so in my (then) very bad Dutch I said "could I ask you a question, are you qualified to do this?" at which point she looked up from between my legs and laughing said "yes, I'm a qualified Doctors assistant, qualified do assist him on such occasions"...Ok that's alright then pleased we cleared that one up...red faced NOT!!

    1. Ah yes, the old "say nothing" apprach to solving cultural differences. I know it well. It has, indeed, prompted many of the (traumatic) memories that end up on this blog.

      Thanks for dropping by.

  2. Oh, this is delightful! I'm so glad to have stumbled across your humorous and enjoyable read through (perhaps a mutual acquaintance?) Miriam M. Cheers

    1. Hi there Sherry. Thanks for the comment, and for drawing my attention to your blog. And your books. Anyone who has written a book called "Death by Chopstick" is totally welcome in my life.

      Another writer, writing in English, in Zeeland? Sacre bleu!

      Do we really have a mysterious mutual acquaintance?

  3. HA! Oh lord this made me laugh so hard... took me back to all sorts of fun memories, in and out of classes!

    I can say that the reverse culture shock, in this case, is almost equally weird. What IS the point of that "napkin"? I just feel stupid sitting half on, half under it, waiting for the doctor to come back.

    So glad you have a blog!

    1. Hi Grace. I know. Whenever I go back to the other side of the pond I experience the culture shock all over again. It's weird how easily we adapt to new surroundings.

      I'm so glad you're so glad I have a blog. :)