All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Three old ladies...well, one young one...

Das alte Rathaus (Hotel de Ville) von Marseill...Image via Wikipedia

Returning from the hospital to have supper with friends, it was great to find the whole house awash with laughter. The assembled horde were chortling over the fate of an unwary British tourist who had found herself locked up overnight in a town hall somewhere in Alsace, having nipped into the loo at the very moment that the staff were leaving. When she emerged, there was no one about and she was locked in the building. She apparently tried turning all the lights on and off, but no one noticed - they probably did but goings on at the town hall are best left well alone in popular view - and she stuck a note to the window, but no one saw that either.

What had convulsed the them was that the young lady had mistaken the town hall for a hotel, as the building proudly proclaimed
'Hotel de Ville'
on its' facade, and finding no one on reception she had gone to check out the loos before asking for a room. It appeared from the content of her note that her French was pretty rudimentary and there was much comment on how only the English could get themselves into a mess like this, with their ignorance of the language and culture of France.
'What about Australians?' I asked.
'No, not the same thing. They would have found that there wasn't a bar in two seconds and if they'd been locked in they would have broken the door down to get out.
'But they still might have thought it was a hotel.'
'Well, they're Anglo Saxons too.'
Tell that to the current population of Australia. The French do not move with the times, and neither does their language. In English there can be no confusion between the town hall and the local hotel so when the English speakers come to France, anything called a hotel is considered likely to be a place to spend the night. It's not that rare, either. Friends with a B and B business told me that they had the occasional recommendation from the secretary at the local town hall when faced with tourists seeking a bed for the night. And they're weren't all English. There are a couple of other Hotels that come to the case of the Hotel de Police, at least she would have had a bed in the cells, while in the case of a Hotel des Ventes, the auction house, she might have been sold with the bed as a job lot if she risked sleeping late.

Over drinks, discussion turned to why she had decided to check out the loo. Only the British. Obsessed with the plumbing. It didn't seem to occur to anyone that she just needed to use it...they are as few and far between in France as in the U.K. and are for the most part deeply unappealing. Mark you, the company was predominantly male and French males have their own solutions to these problems.

On the streets of major towns there are things that look like grey versions of Dr. Who's enter, wondering if you will ever see blue sky again or whether you will be sucked away by the undertow when it flushes itself. The first one I met was at Bergerac, years ago, near the main church, where an elderly lady in black was shepherding a line of more elderly ladies in black in and out of its' portals. Eventually the company formed up, mission accomplished and the whole lot set off for the church just as the hearse arrived to start the funeral service.
The supervisor peered kindly at our party, among whom was my mother, the person responsible for having to hunt for a loo in the streets of Bergerac as she had refused that on offer in the cafe, entering, only to leap out like an exocet declaiming
and refusing to drink the rest of her coffee as she now viewed the sanitation rating of the whole place as being on a level with old Tangiers in the grip of the plague.
'You shouldn't let the elderly lady go in there without supervision.' said the supervisor. 'She might have a heart attack.'
Mother might not have understood much French, but her well honed sense of self preservation alerted her to possible danger. Someone else would have to go first. Quickly. She designated the victim who announced
'I may be some little time...' and was swallowed up by the edifice. After a while, our jokes about Captain Oates and the Antarctic began to sound inappropriate. People couldn't really have heart attacks in there, could they? Mother began to wriggle, just slightly, but wriggle all the same. As the doors opened again after the sounds of rushing water and turbulence she plunged in. We eyed the victim.
'Confess, you deliberately sat in there to annoy her, didn't you? You hadn't finished your coffee when she got us all to move on.'
'Well, no, not really. I couldn't work out what to press.'
Mother had had no such problems. Beaming, she emerged. The behemoth had enchanted her.
'It must be designed specially for the French. You wouldn't need so much water to make sure that it is properly clean in England. And they know the French never pull the chain so there isn't one.'
I hate the things, but there isn't always much alternative.
What are called turkish loos...the hole in the ground with stands for your feet either side thereof... are bad enough, but coupled with the light bulb programmed to go out while you are using the thing and the automatic flush that takes your handbag out under the door if you haven't hung it round your neck, and it is all too acrobatic for me. So I sincerely sympathise with the young English tourist who made a bolt for the loo when she reached what she thought was her hotel for the night.

There is only one thing that puzzles me, but I didn't think of it while I was there so I couldn't ask. All this took place in Alsace. I haven't been there for years but I think I remember that everything in the line of public signage is in both French and German, including public buildings.
So, assuming her German was as rudimentary as her French, why wasn't she put off by the German version of 'Hotel de Ville'.
Or perhaps that was on another facade.

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  1. Am most amused by this one. The worst loo experience I ever had was on a station platform in Cuenca in Spain. The ladies' loos were at the very top of the platform (loos on Spanish trains aren't great places).

    I decided to risk the faraway loos. As soon as I was inside a cubicle I noticed a hole in the door and just as I was contemplating covering it up with a Kleenex an eye appeared. (Scream.)

    Public loos are a nightmare just about everywhere.

    Last year I went to quite a posh restaurant in Italy and it still had "Turkish" loos. There are times when I really do wish I was a bloke.

  2. Hadriana's Treasures.
    'The eye at the door'! It sounds like Edgar Allen Poe! You're right, men have it so easy. Mark you they can take it to extremes in France. We had stopped in a huge layby for a break and picnic while en rout for Belgium and had the place to ourselves until another car appeared and, given the vast empty spaces available, did the French thing and pulled in right ahead of us.
    The driver got out, moved to the back of his car....we are sitting in the front of ours, just behind him...and peed.