I shall never be reconciled to some French icons. I knew there was a horrible inevitability about my covering the issue of French plumbing at some point, specifically, that abomination known as the ‘à la Turque’ lavatory. So those of you with a sensitive disposition had better not read on. You’ll be relieved to know that there are no photos to accompany this post: I wouldn’t inflict that on you.
A week ago, we went to see another item on my list of things to do in 2011 – the beret museum at Nay, near Pau (more of that another time). As it was going to be a long drive, we decided to stop at the péage at Montauban on the way.
State of the art – in the 19th century, anyway
That section of the A20 motorway was completed around 10 years ago. It therefore has a state of the art lavatory block. It even has separate loos for men and women, which is still not standard in France. In fact, women often have to go past the urinals in a public lavatory to attain the cubicles. Tant pis if there are several males in full flow. I know, I shouldn’t be so British. The Statistics Freak, who did military service in Sweden, can never understand what the fuss is all about.
Imagine my horror, then, when the first three cubicle doors I opened revealed that atrocity, the hole in the ground, aka the à la Turque. It consists of a porcelain tray, not unlike a shower tray, but with two footrests on either side of the hole, ribbed to prevent the user slipping (very considerate, that). Woe betide you if anything falls out of your pocket during the procedure, though.
You would think that the country that produced Molière and Monet, Chopin (OK, he was Polish but never mind) and Chanel, and Saint Emilion and Sancerre, could do better when it comes to sanitary arrangements. However, when you hear about how courtiers at Versailles under Louis XIV relieved themselves, I suppose it’s not so contradictory.
A particularly French form of torture
I have always hated those holes in the ground. For women, they are extremely difficult to use; even more so if you are wearing trousers, which I mostly do. I shan’t go into further detail – you can imagine it for yourself. Many years ago when touring in Corrèze, I spent agonising hours crossing my legs since every café we stopped at was equipped only with these hellholes and I refused point blank to use them.
Not only are they tricky to use, but also they are frequently not supplied with lavatory paper. You find that out only when it’s too late. In addition, French lavatories are fitted with that other testament to French ingenuity, the minuterie, or light on a timer. The switch is located by the door, out of arm’s reach, and the light is conceived to go out just at the critical moment. So you are left struggling in the dark, insult added to injury.
The flushing mechanism is designed to wet your feet, since it’s located at the back of the installation. Unless you have very long arms, you are unlikely to get out of the way in time.
What astonishes me is that they are obviously still made. My limited researches have not yet identified the manufacturer(s). I find it hard to imagine that upmarket sanitary ware producers like Jacob Delafon could be responsible, but you never know. French people defend them by saying that, because there is no seat, you can’t catch anything. At least they have one upside, then.
Clochemerle and la vespasienne
All this reminds me of Clochemerle, an excellent satirical TV series screened in the UK in the early 1970s and based on a 1934 book of that name by Gabriel Chevallier. The small town of Clochemerle is riven by the municipal decision to install a public urinal in the town square. In Clochemerle feelings run high, as they generally do in French local politics, and the opposing faction eventually dynamites the offending facility.
A digression: the Clochemerle urinal was an example of a vespasienne, which could once commonly be seen around Paris. I think there’s only one left there. Their distinctive round structure, crowned with a hat-like roof, is a waning French icon. The name originates from the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who imposed a tax on the urine used in the tanning industry. Actually, Nero taxed it first, but Vespasian revived the levy and took the historical credit.
The reason the à la Turque reminds me of Clochemerle is that, every time I see one, I am seized with the desire to blow it up. Thankfully, they are becoming rarer, otherwise I would have my work cut out.
You’ll be pleased to know that this story has a happy ending. The fourth cubicle at Montauban was designated for disabled people and had the proper version. Quel soulagement!
Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved