Oo-la-la! A New Look in French Toilets?

02/17/2014 10:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2014

MENERBES, France -- We have seen the future promise of the French toilet, and it lives in this gracious hillside village.

Beside the tourist office. Two doors from the bakery. Next to a park, le Jardin Jean Moulin. Across from a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside. And behind a bright red door with a slightly ominous warning that no one under 10 years old should enter unaccompanied.

No question. This toilet is a feat of modern engineering in a land that, in the realm of flushability, needs to bend a bit more toward the contemporary. Put another way, French toilets haven't quite caught up with the 21st century. ... Perhaps you are aware that this is a land of many medieval ruins?

But first, some context. Last Wednesday, cruising the slow lanes at last, we stopped at Bar des Amis, a quite lovely little place in the square of brotherhood (Place de Fraternité) in the alluring Luberon mountain village of Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt. We had coffee and a sandwich in the noon sun, and an hour drifted by.

Kathy left, entered the bar and returned with this assessment.

"Signs of progress," she said. "The light operates by motion sensor."

You know, in the bathroom. This is good; it shows environmental awareness. Unfortunately, there was no toilet seat, no toilet paper, no soap and no hand towels. The town's environmental consciousness, I should note, extended from timer lights to dogs. A cartoon of a dog and owner across from the bar showed the dog's thoughts: "My master is kind," read the cartoon bubble. "He picks up my poop."

But even if some French villages are now encouraging owners by dispensing doggie bags in public, French public bathrooms in 2014 remain a strictly "carry-your-own" culture, though we have not yet stooped to carrying around our own toilet seat. That would be a bit gauche, don't you think?

Now, however, Ménerbes offers hope. We arrived there on Thursday. It's a rather posh mountain town made famous by author Peter Mayle when he wrote about his adventures fixing up a house nearby in his charming book A Year in Provence.

Ménerbes has more than its share of renaissance-era walls renovated on the inside, I suspect, into rather sumptuous contemporary castles. It has a mayor's office with a full array of flags in front. It has narrow, cobblestone streets and an ornate clock tower. All tasteful and appropriately old.

Then we arrived at the public bathroom. In English and French, it explained that one must go inside and lock the door. Once inside the space-age toilet-capsule, one does one's business. Then the sink, with assembly-line efficiency, squirts soap onto outstretched hands, then water, then warm air for drying. And after visitors leave their toilet cocoon? Why, then the "occupied" light flashes red again and the unit groans into a frenzy of self-cleaning.

Worried about a malfunction? Don't bother. Every 15 minutes, the door opens automatically.

I mean, progress really is an understatement here.

"You can't knock their toilets anymore," Kathy chided me. "It disinfects and everything."

It does disinfect. Except something was not right: The village of Ménerbes, perhaps by mayoral decree, had removed the toilet seat inside.