Five years ago, when my wife Kathy and I visited the chapel that Pablo Picasso painted in the hillside town of Vallauris, overlooking the sparkling French Riviera, the guard in the adjoining museum wore beautiful, hand-tooled leather boots.
She exemplified what seemed to be the elegance of this clean, well-lighted place, Le Musee National Picasso -- until nature called and we discovered the toilets in the museum's bathrooms had no seats.
Please forgive me for talking toilets, or, more precisely, their design in the public places of France. But in the next millennium, when anthropologists look back at globalization in the 21st century, the study of French toilets and bathrooms likely will make for fascinating discussion about the evolution of a culture.
Certainly contemporary France, which we visited again this July, has come a long way from the post-World War II pissoirs I remember as a nine-year-old boy on my first visit to Paris. The year was 1958, and for a boy who had to relieve himself, little fascinated more than these stand-up, banged-up metal hideouts in the middle of major streets, where men only could aim at a trough that ran off somewhere into the gutters. (For those waiting outside, the view was of a row of legs from the mid-calf down.)
Today, the remaining pissoirs are more discreet and don't run off into the street. But full-fledged toilets in France still comes in three varieties, and, depending on the time of day, choosing the right one can be, shall we say, a significant decision.
Let me pause to assure that many public French toilets are spiffy and modern, equipped, in some cases, with double flushers that leave the visitor feeling environmentally virtuous. (We found that Chamonix, high in the alps, had the best public toilets of just about any city we've visited in the States or abroad.) But then there are those unfortunate moments of surprise: the elegant restaurant or bar with toilet seats pried off and discarded. Or, worst of all, what I will call "le squateur," a hole in the porcelain floor with two metal steps, one on each side. (I'll leave the rest to the imagination, thank you.) Such toilets are found most frequently at toll road picnic stops, but the unsuspecting tourist can still stumble upon them in some bars and cafes, particularly in the countryside.
And even when the toilets themselves come up aces, the amenities don't always follow suit. Inside Paris' prefecture of police compound, which tourists must enter to tour Sainte Chapelle, the 13th-century chapel with its remarkable stained-glass windows and summer evening concerts, the bathrooms had seats, but no soap, no towels and no toilet paper, despite the chapel's $10 per person entry fee.
Other remnants of France's not-always-so-glorious bathroom décor can be found in older hotels around the country. At the otherwise lovely Hotel du Parc, a "hotel of charm" in the city of Montpelier, our room came equipped with one of the once-widespread "wash the whole room" showers. The shower head, stuck on the wall, slicked the entire expanse of the bathroom floor before draining through a hole in the middle. We managed to build a towel dike around the wettest area, keeping most of the room navigable without rain boots.
No visitor to France can escape the familiar snake, that shower nozzle attached to a flexible, hand-held hose that one uses to wash while taking a bath. The snake can work surprisingly well, though the odds of a stray spray of, say, the ceiling or walls can be soberingly high. Alas, the tubs themselves in some older places are so narrow that wedging my not so slim hips into them made all other movement difficult (and washing underarms nearly impossible).
But then, it is the idiosyncratic nature of France, its people and its places that makes the adventure of coming here fulfilling. Probably the most elegant and beautiful place we stayed on our month-long journey was the chambre d'hote, or bed & breakfast, La Vallombreuse. Perched above the town of Menthon-Saint-Bernard on Lake Annecy, its lawns look out over the lake and up, directly behind, to an enchanting, privately-owned castle. Our room had a wide-beamed, wood floor; a vaulted ceiling, and original artwork on the walls. Breakfast was sumptuous. And our bathtub seemed big enough to float the entire Spanish Armada.
However, in this B&B, where the maid volunteered to wash our laundry free of charge, the bathroom came equipped with no bar of soap. We mentioned this to our hostess, assuming it simply to be an oversight. Her solution was to give us two tiny additional packets of shampoo/body gel.
This was not a problem. The toilet had a seat.