Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why don't the French go pippi as often as we do?

OK, this is yet again a rather odd subject. But one of the more remarkable chapters of Polly Platt's book, French or Foe, which has become a reference for Anglo-saxons visiting and working in France, covers toilet usage in a French house. She puts forth that it is considered rude to need to use a bathroom when you visit your French hosts. And that, in many cases, this is the last room of the house to be cleaned (I've found this true in but one instance, and my poor friend was overwhelmed with two small children and all that entails). In general, the French do not use the toilet when visiting. Hmmm.

More than one American friend has informally tested this hypothesis. Truly, if you invite French friends to a meal, will they use or not the house toilet? In most cases (particularly a first visit), no. They can come at noon, eat, drink and converse till 5 in the afternoon and go home without ever needing to climb the stairs or search out that tiny room in the back. How do they do it?

As the wife of a Frenchman for over ten years, I did notice that Erick had a tendency to stop by the side of the road, commune with a tree, and then get back into the car, oftentimes just ten minutes before we arrived at our destination. So, he seemed to take care of his bodily needs elsewhere than at the host's home. Aha..

Certainly, one of the points Polly Platt wanted to make is that it is considered rude to walk into your host's home and ask immediately for the washing up room. T'is true, this is just not done -- or at the very least you excuse yourself as you request directions to this most private of rooms.

In my years of touring mostly Americans (with a sprinkle of many other cultures mixed in), I did have to scout out wc possibilities at each and every destination. In the early years, before we really had our act together, we made the mistake of stopping at a village bar (yikes! it's a hole in the floor!!). Or, God forbid, we even offered toilet paper and motioned to a tree... (this latter I must stress was only during hikes).

There is a basic physiological fact that if you consume three to four large cups of coffee, a glass of orange juice, and a copious breakfast, you will need to evacuate some of that an hour or so later. The French (and Italians) drink one small cup of espresso, no more. They do not touch milk (considered a poison when mixed with coffee), and only occasionally fruit juice at breakfast. And, they're generally content with a small piece of bread and jam.

Hence, clear and obvious reasons for my needing to have a toilet at the ready when my group arrived at its destination. And yes, this did startle my French partners. Before we could start wine-tasting, or looking at pottery, or hiking, half the group disappeared. Once, when setting out for our sea-side hike, the restaurant we patronize had yet to open, and I was driven to seek out a local fisherman who then asked his mother-in-law if she would open her house to us. Five persons then trooped one by one through her bathroom. It was a most interesting meeting of cultures...

Is there a moral to this story? Not particularly. Now that I live here and the majority of my friends are French, I don't notice things one way or another, and certainly we all have our days when the digestive system is a bit awry. However, I would say, when you're first invited to a Frenchman's house, for a party, tea, dinner, coffee, what-have-you, if you can manage to not need the facilities during your visit, or at the very least not till the end of your visit, you're better off. You can always see it as a slight skip in the act of being received. The host has been waiting for you, you arrive, and she/he is ready to take charge and entertain, but then you disappear into the wc. What is the host to do but wait? It is a rather awkward moment. You're there, but you're not...

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