I shall never be reconciled to some French icons. I knew there was a horrible inevitability about my covering the issue of French plumbing at some point, specifically, that abomination known as the ‘à la Turque’ lavatory. So those of you with a sensitive disposition had better not read on. You’ll be relieved to know that there are no photos to accompany this post: I wouldn’t inflict that on you.
A week ago, we went to see another item on my list of things to do in 2011 – the beret museum at Nay, near Pau (more of that another time). As it was going to be a long drive, we decided to stop at the péage at Montauban on the way.
State of the art – in the 19th century, anyway
That section of the A20 motorway was completed around 10 years ago. It therefore has a state of the art lavatory block. It even has separate loos for men and women, which is still not standard in France. In fact, women often have to go past the urinals in a public lavatory to attain the cubicles. Tant pis if there are several males in full flow. I know, I shouldn’t be so British. The Statistics Freak, who did military service in Sweden, can never understand what the fuss is all about.
Imagine my horror, then, when the first three cubicle doors I opened revealed that atrocity, the hole in the ground, aka the à la Turque. It consists of a porcelain tray, not unlike a shower tray, but with two footrests on either side of the hole, ribbed to prevent the user slipping (very considerate, that). Woe betide you if anything falls out of your pocket during the procedure, though.
You would think that the country that produced Molière and Monet, Chopin (OK, he was Polish but never mind) and Chanel, and Saint Emilion and Sancerre, could do better when it comes to sanitary arrangements. However, when you hear about how courtiers at Versailles under Louis XIV relieved themselves, I suppose it’s not so contradictory.
A particularly French form of torture
I have always hated those holes in the ground. For women, they are extremely difficult to use; even more so if you are wearing trousers, which I mostly do. I shan’t go into further detail – you can imagine it for yourself. Many years ago when touring in Corrèze, I spent agonising hours crossing my legs since every café we stopped at was equipped only with these hellholes and I refused point blank to use them.
Not only are they tricky to use, but also they are frequently not supplied with lavatory paper. You find that out only when it’s too late. In addition, French lavatories are fitted with that other testament to French ingenuity, the minuterie, or light on a timer. The switch is located by the door, out of arm’s reach, and the light is conceived to go out just at the critical moment. So you are left struggling in the dark, insult added to injury.
The flushing mechanism is designed to wet your feet, since it’s located at the back of the installation. Unless you have very long arms, you are unlikely to get out of the way in time.
What astonishes me is that they are obviously still made. My limited researches have not yet identified the manufacturer(s). I find it hard to imagine that upmarket sanitary ware producers like Jacob Delafon could be responsible, but you never know. French people defend them by saying that, because there is no seat, you can’t catch anything. At least they have one upside, then.
Clochemerle and la vespasienne
All this reminds me of Clochemerle, an excellent satirical TV series screened in the UK in the early 1970s and based on a 1934 book of that name by Gabriel Chevallier. The small town of Clochemerle is riven by the municipal decision to install a public urinal in the town square. In Clochemerle feelings run high, as they generally do in French local politics, and the opposing faction eventually dynamites the offending facility.
A digression: the Clochemerle urinal was an example of a vespasienne, which could once commonly be seen around Paris. I think there’s only one left there. Their distinctive round structure, crowned with a hat-like roof, is a waning French icon. The name originates from the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who imposed a tax on the urine used in the tanning industry. Actually, Nero taxed it first, but Vespasian revived the levy and took the historical credit.
The reason the à la Turque reminds me of Clochemerle is that, every time I see one, I am seized with the desire to blow it up. Thankfully, they are becoming rarer, otherwise I would have my work cut out.
You’ll be pleased to know that this story has a happy ending. The fourth cubicle at Montauban was designated for disabled people and had the proper version. Quel soulagement!
Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved
The problem as I see it is using the squat Johns as you get older. I had no problem when I was younger but assuming that position now can result in poor accuracy. I also agree with the comments regarding cleanliness and better anatomical position.
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I can see the arguments about cleanliness and anatomical position, but I was forced to use one the other day and it was in a disgusting state. They may perhaps help to preserve personal cleanliness, but not public cleanliness.
Are any of you aware that the turque provides the normal human function position for defecation and therefore is an assistance in proper elimination which so many people cannot achieve from?
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I’m sure you’re right, but I’m afraid the turque still doesn’t do it for me. The disadvantages outweigh the advantages as far as I’m concerned.
Hi Nessa – pleased to find your blog : ) I have a vivid memory of saying, ‘Just going to the loo, won’t be long,’ to my boyfriend in french cafe only to discover what I like to call the ‘Thruster’ due to the position women have to take up on them. ‘Won’t be long’ was the understatement of the holiday – I was wearing an all-in-one ski suit, Ugg boots and thermals…
I live here now (Antibes) and am pleased to report no sightings of any ‘Thrusters’, so far.
Hi Lynne, Nice to ‘meet’ you. I’ve been there too, wearing full skiing gear. The full operation takes about half an hour in those circumstances.
Thruster – that’s a good name for them! Glad to hear you haven’t encountered any in Antibes. Long may it continue…
Personally I find nothing wrong with these toilets. I live in the south of France and things for the most part seem to be quite modern. Over the years we’ve visited bars and restaurants throughout the country where the facilities are disgustingly dirty. At least with the a la Turque setup you can avoid having to touch anything. There’s nothing worse than trying to straddle a filthy dirty toilet. In the years past though, I find that bathrooms in France are generally pretty clean, and I personally have never experienced a la Turques on the autoroute. I find the autoroute toilets to be spotless for the most part. We did have quite a laugh when I took my 87 year old mother to a shopping mall and they had these toilets. We were laughing so hard, I’m surprised that she didn’t fall into the hole.
Yes, I also find the autoroute facilities to be very clean in contrast to some of the facilities to be found elsewhere, which you have also clearly experienced. I was simply surprised that such new facilities on the A20 were still equipped with à la Turques. Perhaps they make cleaning easier? But I have had some pretty grim experiences with à la Turques, where, not to put too fine a point on it, people’s aim has been less than accurate, which is why I now hate using them. As I see it, their ONLY advantage is that you don’t have to touch anything.
I sympathise with your mother’s predicament, but at last she saw the funny side.
My daughter refuses point blank to use a Turkish loo! I usually bow to the inevitable but it’s not one of life’s pleasant experiences.
And don’t worry, if I hear about any mysterious explosions at service stations, I’m saying nothing!
I don’t blame your daughter: a girl after my own heart, obviously. Yes, just keep mum if you hear about service station loos being blown up.
Amicalement in fellow-suffering,
I can add nothing…(sigh) And on the new autoroutes, as well.
Astonishing, isn’t it, that they continue to install these nightmares. Just another of those paradoxes français, I suppose.