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.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Pulitzer Prize coming up...

Toilet paperImage via Wikipedia
I didn't have much time in France when I was last in Europe....just a flying visit to stay with good friends and see that the house had not been

over run by squatters

looted to within an inch of its life

pulled down as an obstacle

or a permutation of any of the above.

It hadn't, so I returned to England to continue sorting out Mother's care programme with a clear mind.

But you don't have to be there to get the gossip.....friends keep me well in touch with local activities and I'm still close enough in time to know and be interested in the characters and the shenanigans involved.

Thus Gerard, with a snippet from the local rag covering the town close to my first house in France.

Nothing much happens in rural France in July and August...the big chiefs mess off to the coast or to the mountains and the underlings are left in charge, which accounts for the startling piece of investigative journalism in the local paper.
The cat being away and all that....
Now, investigative journalism is not something French journalists tend to go in can bring about all too obviously foreseeable risks to the career as a the person responsible for this article is either foreign - unlikely in that neck of the woods where the Front National prowl the rural areas seeking out the circumcised - or totally reckless.

What has he or she done?

Written a short article about the town's public loos.

Yes, in rural France, this can indeed be classed as investigative journalism, for not only has the journalist named them...he or she has also shamed them.
But not, in my view, sufficiently.

I remember those loos from some  twenty years ago and it would appear that nothing very much has changed except that one of them is now providing paper...actual loo paper!

My first encounter with them was when moving to France and coming to sign the acte de vente.
When house hunting in the area, I had stayed at a hotel near the station and had relied on doing so again.
It was typical of French rural station paid, had your passport confiscated and then carried out the French national sport which should by now have achieved Olympic recognition.
Charging up a flight of stairs with suitcase in hand before the time switch on the light cut off, leaving you to find your room number in something resembling a wartime blackout.
This experience alone explains the theory of farce.
Having found the room, clean, but sporting a bedside table upon which every travelling arsonist had put in a training session with matches, you then had to find the bathroom.


It would be somewhere in the corridor, so you had to open your bedroom door while holding your keys and washbag and in the light from your own room identify the light switch.
Then, leaving the light on in your room, sprint up and down the corridor looking for the unnumbered door which would, with luck, be the bathroom.
It wasn't guaranteed to be.
Someone's granny could get a terrible shock as the visitor burst in looking for a loo.
'Allo, Allo' had nothing on it.

And don't think about a bath...if one existed at all it would be one of those tiny tubs with a seat upon which you sat while soaping yourself.
Let no one say that the French lack innovative talent.
They'd invented the shower stool before inventing the shower.
Bit like minitel and the internet, really.

No, you usually had the loo, an occasional bidet and the wash basin. The hook on the back of the door served as towel rail and place to park your garments.
You'd forgotten your towel?
Another sprint along the corridor. And get some soap while you're at it.
However there was usually a loo roll.

So, arriving the the chill dusk of a late February evening, I headed for the hotel.
It was closed.
I asked at the station ticket office for directions to another one.
There isn't another one. Not nearby, anyway.
How close is not nearby?
Oh, on the outskirts of town, a couple of kilometres. But it's closed too. It's February.
The ticket clerk denied all knowledge of the existence of any other hotels in the area. Later experience proved him right.

Well, I'd slept in the car before and so I headed for the big parking area in the town centre, reckoning that it would be a reasonably safe place to park, with streetlights and whatnot.
All this was fine. I pulled out the car rug ready for use and went in search of a meal.
The town was closed and shuttered....not only was there no room at the inn but there was nowhere to eat. Not after seven o'clock..
I tried the main streets first and then, with growing dismay, tried some of the unlit back was like walking the streets of medieval Paris and I wouldn't have been in the least surprised to have seen Quasimodo descending from the church tower croaking

Then a more urgent need than hunger came upon me.
I needed to go to the loo.
I had seen none in my travels through the town, but reckoned that there must at least be a public loo up by the market halls where I had parked, so retraced my steps treading more and more delicately after the fashion of Agag the Amalekite as the innards made their position all too clear.

Action this day!

Yes, there certainly was a loo at 'les Halles'.
I could smell it before I could see it, but needs must when the Devil drives, so it was into the car for a loo roll - I had travelled in France before - and off to answer the call of nature which was by this time more like a bellow.

There was no bolt on the door, and no light bulb either.
In the dim light from the streetlamps I could make out a hole in the ground only a shade darker than the surrounds.
The cistern had no chain.
Still, with the British phlegm and sangfroid for which we are renowned in France - well, we were before they met any of us - I rolled up my trouser legs and took the plunge.
I nearly did, too, slipping on whatever it was that was coating the surrounds, but regained my balance and restored myself to normal functioning.

There was, or course, nowhere to wash my hands and on exiting I found out why there was a nice grassy plot alongside.
It was to wipe your shoes.
Still by prowling around I found a stand pipe behind the building so was able to wash not only my hands but the soles of my shoes as well...essential if the interior of the car was to be bearable for the night....and settled down to pass the night.

I might have slept if the town police hadn't driven up and circled my car like Indians round the wagon train, only to drive off when I emerged to upbraid them...but that's another matter.
As was trying to get a breakfast in the morning.

Further acquaintance with the town convinced me that I had met the worst of the public loos....but not by much - the one where the attendant charged to use the soap will stick long in the mind.for example - and the intrepid journalist has rashly given ratings for cleanliness and sanitary supplies, which is where the investigative nature of the article becomes apparent.

For the only one to offer loo paper - soap is off - is run by the parks department, whereas the others  - hosed out night and morning -are the responsibility of the street cleaning department and in the current climate of belt tightening and economy drives the street cleaning department now have ammunition - loo rolls, provision of - with which to attack the parks department for waste.

Why would two departments of the same council attack each other?
Because they are run by different deputy mayors. That's why.

And that is why the enterprising journalist will be lucky if he escapes with a transfer from Chiottes la Gare to Benitierville, where news in something under the ban of the church, when his boss gets back from the coast, because his boss does not want to be caught in the firing line of two ambitious men angling for the post of mayor next time round.

So, if anyone would like to join in the whip round for the entry fee, I'd like to nominate this brave soul for next year's Pulitzer Prize.
Woodward and your heart out.
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  1. You know me... I am intimately acquainted with all things toilet so merely felt that perhaps France might be a good place for me to move to and not feel homesick in the slightest.

  2. Steve, just don't get caught in the loo roll crossfire....

  3. What a wonderful post!

    YOU should get the Pulitzer.

  4. Hello:
    This is indeed a very sorry state of affairs. It seems to us that nowadays public lavatories, which should be a convenience, are anything but. Either they are so badly maintained that eventually they have to be closed or, instead of a token price, excessive sums are charged for their use. And, it is not always the case that the more one is required to pay the nicer/cleaner/more hygienic the lavatory is. The situation you describe here really is absurd and is not in any way taking into account the needs of the public which, in our view, councils should be under an obligation to serve.

  5. Lo, you want the underbelly of's all here!
    Now if I could just scrape up the entry fee from the darker recesses of the sofa...

    Lance and Jane Hattatt, I agree completely.
    Having to buy a coffee you don't want in order to use a loo is dreadful and only arises because local councils spend money on stupidities and not on proper, clean, attended loos.
    And cafe loos are no guarantee of cleanliness either. I still remember mother emerging from one in Bergerac at the speed of an Exocet announcing that it was medieval Tangiers in the time of plague.
    Quite agree on price not being a determinate of quality too.

  6. What great craic you do have. I almost feel robbed when I reach the end of every post. I want them to continue on forever.

  7. Jimmy, if only there were the drink to go with it...banana wine, though fine in its way, does not cut the mustard in that respect.

  8. Ouch, do ribs cracked when laughing heal faster? Marvellous post, Fly and I cackled reminiscently over your hotel experiences. Reminds me of the one DH and I stayed in near the Place de la Republique in Paris in 1985. How we didn't break our necks on those stairs I'll never know...

  9. I only use public conveniences when I absolutely have to and I suspect that most French rarely use their local public conveniences which probably accounts for the state that they are in. The philosophy still exists that nice people don't go.

  10. My boys tell me that the loos in schools are no better. Seeing as the French invented that automatic public loo you'd think they'd have the pride to install such sanitation everywhere. Alas no.

  11. Perpetua, and did your room of 1985 have wallpaper all over the ceiling as well as the walls - and the door?

    Cheshire Wife,as a student in London the public loos were a delight...polished pipework and an attendant in a little room with lace curtains to control the place.
    Luckily, childhood training in control of the eliminatory functions paid off when moving to France....

    Sarah, the public loos at the hospital which used to treat Mr. Fly were indescribable.
    The loos for the patients were a lot better...but this was probably accounted for the the reluctance of the staff to let the patients use them.

  12. Did you turn up looking slightly dishevelled for the acte de vente?
    Mind you if some of the unwashed in our local supermarkets are anything to go by the Notaires must be used to a certain amount of unpleasant odour!!

  13. Roz, I managed to spruce myself up as I'd put by a change of clothes in readiness but all in all it was a night to remember...or try to forget!

  14. It may have done, Fly, but the lighting in the room itself was so dim that all I can remember is a brownish blur.

  15. Perpetua, I always wondered why the lights were so dim...

  16. “…where the Front National prowl the rural areas seeking out the circumcised - or totally reckless.” Ha ha, what a lovely line Fly.

    At least we know you’re not pulling all our chains with this latest episode in your long running ‘Pissoirs’ saga. Fair play to the defiant & durable Scot in you, for stretching out inside your car on a cold and frosty Februaries night. Except the prospect of actually stretching, was probably just the stuff of short and restless dreams.

    My numerous dark memories of my own odorous escapades to those black holes of despair and last resort, are still all too vivid for comfort.

    Another fine ‘ode de toilette’ postette Mme Fly.

  17. Bish Bosh Bash, you're right...stretching was out.
    More like curled up in a ball shifting occasionally to give a different extremity a turn with the car rug.

    Perhaps I should call the book which is shambling to be born 'Taking the Pissoir'...but I'm sure some self righteous know it all would tell me that no one now uses the term 'pissoir'.....and that as a foreigner I should be grateful to have had the chance of living in France and should be ashamed of myself for even thinking of taking one of their whatever the new word for 'pissoirs' is away...

  18. “By George I think she’s got it!!” – ‘Taking The Pissoirs’ is THE undisputed perfect title for your absolutely ‘must do’ … a-book, E-book, i-book, o-book, u-book, about life in the dark lane, en Francais – as is the entirely correct and authentic sounding spelling of ‘Pissoirs’ – and to hell with ‘those’ detractors.

    I’ve got to say you really do make me laugh when you morph into ‘rant mode’ at that particular frogette commenter we both encountered earlier in a galaxy not so far away. I’m so, so glad I’m on your team, and not hers …strewth all mighty! Poor little froggy woggy wouldn’t even get a chance to get off her stool in the corner at the sound of the first bell. She’d just glance up from her make up mirror and ‘bosh’…it would all go suddenly dark.

    Now go assemble something of that 'denonciateur' book synopsis project of yours, sell the remaining house as soon as, and…unleash all hell, with ‘Taking The Pissoirs’. Love it a lot very much please thank you.

  19. Only you could write a post about loos that is so much fun to read!

  20. Paso a dejarte mis gracias de una forma más personal, por tu atento comentario y muestras de apoyo en la incómoda situación que transcurriera en mi blog. Ya con muy buena parte solucionado y siendo más precavido en adelante.
    Agradezco tu solidaridad, al tiempo que retomo mi trabajo, Saludos.

  21. Bish Bosh Bash, if it had been someone French telling you that pissoir was not the correct term - though they wouldn't have, would they - that would have been one thing...but some other foreigner coming the raw prawn was too much!

    e, faced with an old fashioned French loo laughter is the only option...I always have a vision of the smartly dressed Frenchwomen we are supposed to admire actually using these dark satanic holes.

    Capriciornio,muy alegra que sus lectores eran capaces de persuadir usted a seguir .... me voy a la feria para comprar carambola.

    John Gray, who's been stealing your blog, then?

  22. Fly: "Coming the raw prawn.." Laugh. Le chic in question, was a French Australian! Prawn...perfect! Ha ha.

  23. Bish Bosh Bash, the singing crystal bowls from the exploitative hippies up the road must have been telling me something...

  24. The French and their toilets - potential subject for a whole book I expect. Though to be fair, there is worse in Asia, and I suspect CA too.

  25. Mark, yes, it's probably unfair to pick on them for their loos when there's so much else.....

  26. New York City doesn't have public bathrooms. Which probably explains a lot. Some highways have rest stops, with actual attendants. But I think the attendants generally resent the visitors. There are often extra wings of toilets that are blocked off so the visitors won't mess them up. The heavy usage of the ones you're allowed to use, tends to make them fall apart sooner.

  27. Mary Anne Gruen, whatever do visiting French male tourists do with no public bathrooms in NYC!

  28. One of my friends, of Irish descent, took his father to visit the auld sod. Called it the Pub and Toilet Tour.
    I remember some of the French horrors.

  29. Zuleme, I wonder if the Irish Tourist Board could use that as a slogan....

  30. Helen, only you could make a trip to the loo such an entertaining saga. I have more admiration for you and your pioneer spirit with every post I read!

  31. Melody, but worse was to follow! Starving, having consumed the last cheese sandwich in the evening, I went looking for breakfast the next morning before meeting the agent....only to meet with something very unlike the image of the French cafe...

  32. Thank you, Fly! You really do say what no one else will - we're still trying to extricate ourselves from France and still celebrating every time we find a toilet with a) a light bulb b) a toilet seat c) handwashing facilities INCLUDING hot water, soap and handdryer and the grand prize goes to any place that doesn't reek of drains and sewage. Any time I start getting sentimental about the place, I know exactly where to come - your blog!

  33. Amy, your comment emerged from the maw of Blogger...and my reply to it simultaneously disappeared...the French must have taken it over.

    You can count on this blog to disperse any whiff of sentimentality...