Down and Dirty: A Not-very-close Look at French Toilets
- Category: C'est Ironique!
- Created on Monday, 26 September 2011 23:00
- Published on Monday, 26 September 2011 23:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Hard to install, hard to use, hard to clean. And they have the nerve to call it “the facilities.”
Sometimes people from my old home state in the Midwest ask me why I want to live in France. Sometimes it’s a real question and sometimes it isn’t. There are two possibilities:
1. If the speaker is merely trying to express displeasure with a society and/or government that he doesn’t actually know much about, I usually answer, “That’s funny — no one in Paris ever asks me why I left the Midwest.”
2. If it’s a genuine question that merits an honest answer, I usually say, “Because the quality of daily life in France in general, and Paris in particular, is about 100 times better than anyplace else I have ever been to or heard of.”
But there’s always room for improvement. Today I would like to address a grave problem that has been downgrading the quality of life in France for many, many years. It is a major cause of dismay to every foreign visitor, and most French travelers as well. It is a hopeless throwback to a barbaric era, an anachronism whose prevalence and perpetuation defy all logic. It is a blight upon the otherwise unmitigated pleasure of enjoying drinks or dinner in a Parisian café or bistro. I refer, of course, to the squat toilet.
For the benefit of readers fortunate enough to have never had to deal with this tragic miscarriage of plumbing design, a squat toilet is not so much a toilet as a target. It consists of a thick, contoured ceramic slab, usually about 2.5 feet square, installed flush (ho-ho-ho) with the floor, incorporating a drain hole in the back and two raised platforms where you’re supposed to put your feet. It was obviously invented by someone who didn’t know a bathroom fixture from a hole in the ground.
Squat toilets are a common sight, if you can stand to look, in Asia, the Middle East and parts of South America, as well as a few of the less civilized pockets of Europe. It seems that no one wants to take credit for the thing. (Public Service Announcement: The first three clauses of the next sentence are actually true.) The British call it the “French toilet,” the French call it the “Turkish toilet,” the Turks call it the “Iranian toilet,” the Iranians call it the “Uzbek toilet,” the Uzbeks call it the “Mongolian toilet,” the Mongols call it the “North Korean toilet,” and the North Koreans call it the “hwa jang shil,” which translates as, “Damn, I wish we had a free-market economy so we could afford one of those high-tech Japanese lavatories.”
When I first moved to France in the early 1980s, the squatter was by far the most common commode in public restrooms of all kinds. Once I even stayed briefly in an apartment equipped with one, a bombsight for the bowels that served double duty as the floor of the shower stall. Its presence in the apartment had a lot to do with my presence in the apartment being “brief.” Over the past few decades the squat‘n’squirt has been phased out somewhat, especially in women’s restrooms (ahh, er, so I have heard), but there are still way too many of them.
And here’s the thing that really baffles me: builders and interior designers persist in putting these primitive privies in new and remodeled cafés and restaurants. Why? What could the advantage possibly be? Let’s consider the attributes of a stooper pooper versus a real toilet with a seat:
Is it easier to install?
The Wikipedia article on this misbegotten monstrosity says yes, but I don’t believe it for a second. A squat pot has to be inset into the floor, cement-sealed all around its ten-foot perimeter and hooked to a drain going down many inches below floor level, rather than just bolted into place and linked to the nearest in and out pipes. Plus it needs one of those old-fashioned high-mounted pull chain tanks with a long downpipe to flush it. Getting all of that in place has to be substantially more laborious and time-consuming.
Is it easier to clean?
Again, Wikipedia says yes, and again I seriously doubt it. I suppose you could slosh some bleach around with a long-handled mop, but to get it really clean you’d have to get down on your hands and knees and brush down the whole huge basin, plus every square centimeter of floor and wall around it, because squatters tend to spatter water (etc.) all over the place when they flush. And judging from the condition of most of the low loos in France, it’s just plain impossible to clean the drain, which invariably looks like a porthole to the deepest circle of hell.
Is it more sanitary?
The drain sure as hell isn’t. Wikipedia mentions the hygienic advantage that the user never needs to bring his or her delicate keisterial region into contact with a potentially insalubrious surface. True enough. On the other hand, because of the above-mentioned spatter phenomenon, the user has to stand in what amounts to a shallow pool of diluted urine and carefully hold up any garments that have been temporarily displaced to avoid them coming into contact with an indisputably, transcendently insalubrious surface. Essentially, instead of resting your butt over the bowl, you plant your feet right in it. In terms of the GAG (Global Abhorrent Grossness) factor, give me a proper toilet any day.
Is it easier to use?
Don’t make me laugh. Especially when I’m trying to use a squat toilet. Once again, the Wikipedia article comes in on the other side of the question, raising a number of points about how it’s biologically easier and maybe even healthier for humans to hunker while eliminating, because it seals off intestinal valve A and loosens up muscle B, etc., etc. However, if this is true, we could get all of those benefits by leaning forward while sitting on a regular throne. And with no strain on the knees.
This leaves only one possibility:
Is it cheaper?
Wikipedia and I disagree right on down the line. Crouch crappers might be cheaper in other countries, but I did a little research on the Web among French plumbing suppliers, and get this: repellent and user-hostile as they are, floor-flushers actually cost about twice as much as normal toilets. There is a very wide range of prices for toilet fixtures of all kinds, but generally a low-end new sit-down model runs about €180, while the cheapest new squat jobs I could find cost more than €350. There isn’t even any math to do.
So what, pray tell, is the reason that this scourge has not been expunged from the face of, if not the entire Earth, at least the French bits? I hereby call upon my readers to join me in a campaign to protest the continued use of these loathsome latrines. I’m not advocating actual vandalism, but every time you encounter a squat toilet, please defile it. With whatever unsavory substance happens to be available.
Follow C’est Ironique on Facebook
Reader Drake Mabry writes: "Another howler by David Jaggard. So funny and so true. A not-distant-enough relative of mine took a look at the picture and said 'Oh, I know that – it's to help you practice your headstands.' I didn't let her read the rest of the article. Looking forward to David's next one."
Reader Alain Viguerie writes: "Thanks for this article, even though I disagree (I'm French). I like it when I find them in cafés and restaurants, because I'm sure my ass will stay clean (so many toilets in cafés are dirty here). And in these toilets 'à la turque' you have to sit – how do you say it in English – 'à la turque,' which is very good for your digestion and your back. We rarely do it since our childhood."
Reader Daniel Kane writes: "Once again, David, you have given us a real 'look' at life in France....ugh..."
Click here for more C’est Ironique! columns.
© 2011 Paris Update