Aux toilettes

‘Here fall in ruin the wonders of your cooking.’

Following an emotional week here in France (see note below) and in the spirit of keeping my mind from more noble pursuits, I am going to give you the down and dirty on toilets and bathrooms in France. By special request and dedicated to Kiki!

I have posted before about the mysteries of French grammar when it comes to les toilettes, such as why they are invariably referred to in the plural when most often available only in the singular?

When it comes to the plumbing in people’s homes, however, the plot thickens further. There is essentially one rule that guides such installations: the separation of the clean from the dirty.

A toilet is a dirty place; a bathroom a clean one. So you have the explanation, as far as I can gather, as to why the French insist on separating the WC from the salle de bains.

When we bought a new house a few years back, the builder provided plans which we were able to modify to a degree. For the upstairs, I suggested one room with everything: toilet, sink, bath and shower. The builder looked at me, perplexed by this request: Why would we do that when we had enough room to keep them separate? I was lost for words to explain why it seems only natural and fitting to be able to perform all of one’s ablutions at the same time and in the same space.

Seeing my hesitation, he drove the knife home: “C’est plus propre.” Cleaner sounded like a better option so I nodded dumbly as he kept the upstairs toilet separate from the bath. Downstairs, however, where space was at a premium, I had my way: next to the sink and opposite the shower went our main floor toilet. Not only did we save the cost of an extra door, our guests can wash their hands without having to navigate from one room to the next.

Toilets, much like bathrooms, half-baths, powder rooms and other plumbed spaces dedicated to personal hygiene, are not quite as readily available in France as they are in North America. Our first house had one toilet and a separate bathroom. The times they are a-changing, though, and the proliferation of the water closet with them. Now, you will often find small sinks in main floor toilets, elevating them to the status of the powder room or half-bath. Master bedrooms with ensuites are starting to proliferate in French homes, although most often these adjoining bathrooms do not include a toilet.

The insanity of this still leaves me gape-mouthed as I watch the property shows on TV in which potential buyers rave about the luxury of an ensuite bathroom without a word for the missing WC. Do their nocturnal wanderings happily take them downstairs to pee, I wonder? Or do they use the bidet? Perhaps this explains why I have so often heard the older generation see a bidet and exclaim: “C’est pratique, ça.”

The bidet deserves a post of its own. The mysteries of this plumbing fixture, so oddly reminiscent of the toilet yet with a tap instead of a flush, have long perplexed the English visitor to France. (“We use it to cool the wine!” a fellow Canadian once confided. Another friend raves: “Great for washing your feet!”) Formerly prized by the French as a way of ensuring intimate hygiene when showers and baths were scarce, the bidet has lost popularity since the 1970s and these days is rarely found in new houses. It is, however, rumoured to be making a bit of a comeback.

So, what are the various bathroom equivalents in French and English?

Les toilettes, also known in French slang as les chiottes, are most frequently found in a dedicated room called le WC. Alternatively, le cabinet de toilette.

(“WC? Like Water closet?” I asked in stupefaction when I discovered that toilets in France are identified by this entirely English yet unpronounceable expression. Because the ‘w’ is so unwieldy in French they pronounce it ‘vay say’.)

When it comes to homes and hotel rooms, there are a few terms to keep in mind.

  • WC séparé means a separate toilet. What to call this room in English presents a problem for North American translators. Water closet is literally what it is, i.e. a closet-sized room in which water runs. But that sounds odd. Toilet room? Still strange. Sometimes these toilet rooms have a small sink or ‘lavabo’, what some call a half-bath but for which I can find no specific expression in French.
  • Salle de bains is a bathroom that includes an actual bathtub.
  • Salle d’eau is a bathroom with a shower but no bath.
  • Salle de bains avec WC (or salle d’eau avec WC) is a bathroom that includes a toilet.
  • WC avec lave mains intégré is a new concept that I have just discovered. An actual toilet with a small sink built-in. Have I been leading a sheltered life or is this now a thing?

So there you have it. The scoop on the poop. Hope this helps you navigate the wonderful world of French plumbing.

Oh, and don’t forget to ‘tirer la chasse’ – flush — on your way out!

P.S. I can think of no more fitting way to honour the memory of a man who has become a national hero than to scoot over to FranceTaste’s excellent blog and read her post about Carcassonne in the aftermath of the Trèbes attack.

Beware the Sanisette

Beware the Sanisette

La SanisetteMy mother always told me to beware of public toilets. I was never quite sure what I was supposed to be wary of – bad smells, germs, lurking perverts?

Still, her warnings left me with a vague sense of discomfort that continued to haunt me as an adult every time I used a public washroom (‘washroom’ being the preferred euphemism of Canadians for toilets – aka loo, bathroom, lavatory, WC, etc).

Until I moved to France and discovered la Sanisette. When that vague discomfort was transformed into an outright fear of public toilets.

The Sanisette was originally designed to replace the public ‘pissoirs’ or urinals in the streets of Paris. They’re the French answer to clean, modern and readily available sanitation in public places. Its success has been limited, as anyone who has ever taken the Paris metro can attest – pretty well every nook and cranny still smells like a pissoir.

Sad to say, access to such facilities is often restricted so as to discourage the homeless from setting up housekeeping. Although they decided to make the Sanisettes free of charge (they used to cost 1 French franc or 40 euro cents), they have a 15-minute limit so as to prevent illicit activity like drug deals, prostitution and overnight stays.

These self-contained, self-cleaning structures are situated on busy street corners and city squares, so your private moment still feels a little public. They’re also unisex – not unusual in the old world where a single ‘cabinet des toilettes’ (water closet) often serves as both the men’s and ladies’.

The real problem I have with the Sanisette is the fact that you are forced to rely upon technology to keep your private business private. It is a nightmare for the excessively modest, the claustrophobic and the phobic in general (in my case, all three).

Here is how it’s supposed to work. You press the button and the doors open. You enter and the doors automatically shut. You do your business, wash your hands and press on the button to open the doors. You exit, the doors close and the unit begins a self-cleaning cycle, during which it is temporarily ‘hors service’ until clean and ready for the next user.

At least in theory. My fears are:

  1. The doors will randomly open at an inopportune moment, revealing me in extremis to a crowd of bystanders
  2. The doors will not open when they’re supposed to, and I will go through the complete wash and rinse cycle (possibly drowning amidst my own filth)
  3. The doors will not open at all, and I will be forever fossilized in a Sanisette

Think I’m paranoid? Shit happens.

Check this out:

To be fair, there are over 400 Sanisettes in Paris and most of them work just fine. I’m sure the tourists are grateful to find a functioning toilet when lining up to see the Eiffel Tower. There’s even an app for that.

But you won’t catch me in one.

Gender benders

shutterstock_98661947I have spent many hours since coming to this wondrous land pondering existential questions around points of grammar.  For example, why is a toilet feminine? And more importantly, why do the French only refer to toilets in the plural (‘les toilettes’), when they are so often to be found only in the singular?

In a language where he and she are not just people and animals but objects and places, the concept of gender goes way beyond our traditional idea of male and female.

Learning to speak proper French, with its complex rules of grammar, is challenging for anyone. It’s especially so for we English speakers for whom the concept of gender assignment to nouns is utterly foreign.

Why should a shoe (une chaussure) be feminine? Men wear them too (although most own fewer pairs). While we’re at it, why should the most defining parts of the female anatomy be masculine? (le sein, le vagin…)

Rule number one is that there is no rule. Don’t waste time and energy looking for logical associations that help explain why it’s la chaise and le fauteil. There aren’t any. Or they’re too deeply buried in the etymology and history of the language to be helpful.

There’s only way to master gender in language. Forget it.

The day I decided to stop worrying about gender and concentrate on other aspects of the language – vocabulary, syntax, not to mention non-verbal communications –  I took my first step towards fluency.

Sure you make mistakes. They are unavoidable. As soon as you say ‘le chose’ you are instantly and forever branded as a non-native speaker. It’s a dead giveaway. It’s also no big deal. Unless you’re a CIA agent trying to pass as French-born.

Fortunately there are only two genders in French – unlike German, which also has the neutral form. So you have a 50/50 chance of getting it right. But even if you get the article right, you may get stuck on the respective masculine, feminine or plural version of the adjective.

There are just so many traps laying in wait. So just sail on, and damn the mistakes.

By the way, if you’re looking for les toilettes, which are always feminine and plural, you can also ask for les WC (pronounced: vay-say). Bonne chance!