Monday, June 28, 2010

Potty Talk

When Culture Shock and Toilets Go Hand-in-Hand...

When I was a little girl, I cried if I had to go number two in a public restroom.  My mother would say, "Everybody has to 'go'; it's perfectly natural.  Even the pope poops."  I never found that comforting.  I'd end up holding it, preferring the comfort and privacy of home, a sentiment that stayed with me until I became a world traveler.  Since we all have to "go" (even the pope) every day, my earliest culture shock was faced in foreign bathrooms.

By the time I experienced French toilets, I'd been baptized by fire in Central Africa.  Nothing shocked me anymore about bathroom amenities.  I'd learned to do my business wherever I was directed, in whatever deplorable conditions I found when I got there.  You see for two years, I lived in a mud brick house with no running water.  And I used a pit latrine:

This is not my latrine -- in fact, this one is nicer than mine was!  Thank you to Peace Corps/Gambia volunteer Ian Haight for this picture.

Basically, you uncover the hole cut out of the cement floor, straddle it and squat, hoping everything lands in the three-meter (nine-feet) deep pit below.

Suffice it to say, I developed strong thigh muscles in the course of two years.  Unfortunately, my physical strength was superior to my language skills, and when I did arrive in France,  the first thing I learned was an important lesson in French vocabulary.

When you use your handy English/French dictionary to translate "Where is the bathroom?" literally into French, it becomes, "Où est la salle de bain?"  If you ask this in a French person's home, she will look perplexed but point the way.  You will find yourself in a small tiled room with a bathtub, possibly a shower, and a sink.  But no potty.

The correct way to ask for the bathroom in French is, "Où sont les toilettes?"  Or, "Où est le W.C.?"  The French think it's dirty to have a toilet in the same room where they bathe.  Makes sense...I guess.

Most modern French homes have what we'd consider "normal" toilets, as in the sort you sit upon and flush with the pull of a lever.  However, public toilets are another story.

Many restaurants, museums, and tourist sites, specifically in older buildings (which covers well over half the buildings in modern France), have Turkish toilets.  The first time an American lays eyes on one of these toilets, they generally loose the urge to "go."  After pit latrines in Africa, however, they seemed like modern conveniences to me:

Photo Source

The most important thing to remember about these toilets is to step back when you flush.  The mechanism is not visible in this photo, but connected to the pipe at the back of the toilet is an overhead tank.  You pull the cord to flush, sending water down the pipe and out the plastic flap at its base.  Often, the water pressure is surprisingly high, as is the risk of your legs and feet being splashed with diluted pee-pee.

Many large cities such as Paris and Marseilles have public toilets on their sidewalks.  Unlike American Port-a-Potties or Johnny-on-the-Spots, these free-standing stalls are self-contained bathrooms, complete with flush toilet and sink.

Photo Source
Photo Source

The cost to enter these public toilets is minimum, although I don't know exactly how much.  Four years ago, payment was under one euro.

The nice thing about these toilets is once you exit and the door clicks shut, it automatically self-sanitizes the interior.  The process takes a minute or two, so there is a wait if you're next in line.  But the inside will be clean-smelling and sanitized, albeit a bit wet.

Unfortunately, public restrooms are not plentiful on a grand scale.  When outside the big cities or driving the highways, the only way to get some relief is usually hauling up your skirt behind a bush on the side of the road.  Don't worry, it's a normal occurrence in France.  Even the pope does it when he's there...

Je vous souhaite une bonne journée! 

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