But I was in fashionable Le Touquet, relieving myself in the fashionable unisex loos of a fashionable bar. Suddenly, the door swung open and in came the cleaning lady who started mopping between my feet as I stood, minding my own business, facing the urinal.
The door stayed fully ajar, placing me in full view of everyone in the establishment. But being in France, where toilets and associated bodily functions are not regarded as embarrassing or taboo subjects, none of the bar’s patrons showed any interest whatsoever in my cheek-reddening predicament ... apart, of course, from members of my own family who were howling with laughter and about to reach for their cameras as I made myself decent, regained my composure and, nonchalantly sauntered back to my table, leaving the cleaner to her essential work.
In France, passing water, or anything else for that matter, is regarded as an essential everyday activity, undertaken by every member of the human race, regardless of wealth, position or status. There is no coyness or false modesty, as proved by the number of drivers who stop their vehicles, however busy the road, to relieve themselves on the grass verge. (Is this, perhaps, the reason for the drainage ditches which adorn each side of every highway and byway in France?).
French loos, as every visitor to the country will testify, come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, types and locations - from the traditional, rather daunting, female-unfriendly (so I am assured by various members of the family) holes-in-the-ground, to the super-deluxe model with a revolving, self-cleaning seat which I encountered with much fascination recently in a restaurant in Cherbourg. A small sign, close to the flushing button, warned patrons not to operate the device whilst in the sitting position. The mind boggles.
In a Parisian bar, more or less in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, is one of the aforementioned “holes-in-the-ground”. The specific problem with this one is that it is located in a small, gloomy, windowless room with a push-button timer light-switch on the outside. When the light goes out after approximately 45 seconds, the victim is left in total blackness, not knowing where to put his feet to avoid “the hole”, and unable to locate the door, let alone the lock and the handle.
Regulars have adopted loo-watching as a sport. They watch as first-timers go in and, after hearing the inevitable bad-tempered curses, watch as the door opens just enough for a hand to feel for the light switch and then quickly snap shut again. Several seconds later, they watch the poor, unsuspecting victim as he (or she) appears from the room in a flustered state, quite often with a wet foot.
Pissoirs, the typically French, and, in their own way, elegant monuments which used to grace every street corner in Paris and many other aspiring towns, are sadly becoming a thing of the past and being replaced by the state-of-the-art but characterless coin-in-the-slot, stainless steel superloos.
But the old pissoirs - where the user, with legs and head showing, would cheerfully carry on his conversation whilst performing - will not be forgotten. Like the old-fashioned British red telephone boxes, they are now being bought up from French local authorities and re-sited in the gardens of eccentric traditionalists.
However, the “poor-man’s pissoir” - a basic white ceramic urinal set into the external brick or stone wall of a bar, church or other public building - continues its valiant public service in the majority of villages. Usually in full view of passers-by and open to the elements, these ancient stones are particularly popular with the elders of the community who, after their regulatory daily stint in the village bar, decide to punctuate their stagger home with visits to the conveniences, treating them somewhat like the Stations of the Cross. These facilities also often act as an overflow (so to speak) should there be a queue for the loo in the bar.
Each night we were kept awake by the sound of intermittent trickling water as a stream of patrons of the local bar used the facility shortly after “throwing out time”, presumably after being taken short on their way home. The house was adjacent to the village Mairie, and during the day it was not uncommon to see the mayor and his retinue use the convenience.
But we took our responsibilities seriously, and, with the aid of a high-pressure hosepipe supplied for the job, we had the porcelain gleaming. After all, we didn’t want His worship The Mayor to encounter anything that wasn’t one hundred per cent wholesome and equal to his position in society.
Finally, the most elegant and interesting loo I have encountered was in a small family-owned bar in a village on the coast road between Calais and Boulogne. The bar itself was typically scruffy and nothing out of the ordinary. But on entering the loo, you passed through a time warp, back to the magnificent belle époque era. Miniature palm trees growing out of hand-painted chamber pots adorned the room, together with a display of ornate commodes - for decorative purposes only.
On the flock-covered walls hung collections of comic lavatorial sketches and cartoons from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was an antique collector’s wonderland. Everyone who visited the room was in there for at least ten minutes. A chaise-longue was provided for those patrons who wanted to make a day of it. Some members of my party came out having forgotten what they had initially gone in for, such was the fascination of the room.
On balance, the French probably have the best attitude towards the inevitable human requirement to jettison waste. They do not regarded it as embarrassing, and they certainly take their loos seriously.
Also by Peter:
French dressing and horse play
Peter Clayton is a journalist who has worked on a number of local, regional and national newspapers, and currently writes for several specialist consumer journals on “everything French”. He splits his time between his home in Cheshire and a “maison secondaire” some 20 miles south of Cherbourg.
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Great stuff - more of the same please!
Posted by: Frank O'File | 25 June 2010 at 21:28
Thanks 'Frank' glad you enjoyed it. All the best, Craig
Posted by: Craig McGinty | 29 June 2010 at 09:20