23 March 2008

Où sont les toilettes?

Elaine Sciolino, Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, today offered her readers a few hard-won lessons she’s learned during her years here. One point of etiquette she has shared with us before. Namely, she says that when one is dining in a private home, one must never ask to use the toilet. In her experience, the word is considered vulgar by Parisian hostesses and must be avoided. How to do this? Today, Sciolino recommends that one not use the toilet, neither the plumbing nor the word, at all; previously, she has recommended that one ask instead to wash one’s hands.

Though I appreciate the need for discretion in any encounter of any sort in France, Sciolino’s advice has me baffled. In most of the French homes I’ve visited, the toilet and the wash basin, or lavabo, are not in the same room. Often they are at opposite ends of the house. (The lavabo is most often in the bathroom — which is situated near the bedrooms and contains the bathtub, but not the toilet.) Ask for directions to one, when you really need the other, and you’ll wind up in trouble.

What kind of chic dinner parties has Sciolino been attending, anyway?

According to today’s article, Sciolino is wrapping up her tour of duty here in Paris. Maybe she’s just tired of holding it in.

I’ve never quite understood, par ailleurs, why the French do keep the wash basin so far from the toilet. They are fond of telling me that they invented hygiene, or anyway Pasteur discovered germs; and also that they invented soap, or anyway the only soap worth using. One would think the French, of all people, would be the first to make it easier to wash one’s hands.

Or maybe, after all this time, I have finally discovered what a bidet is really used for.