Savvy sociologists say that they can tell you a lot about a culture by studying their toilet habits. But that's probably just a line they use on babes at parties. Sociology is one of those sciences that has no "right" and "wrong" answers -- which is convenient on a college exam, but it doesn't mean we should pay any attention to anything sociologists say. On the other hand, the French do have some odd toilet habits.
First of all, you'll almost never find a sink in the same room as the toilet (it will be located just outside). If you ask a Frenchman about it, he'll look at you strange -- why the heck are you asking him about bathroom sinks? (Unless he's a sociologist in which case he will start taking notes for new pickup lines). But the explanation that you'll get is that a sink is for getting clean and a toilet is for ... er, not getting clean. Why would you put them in the same room? Which kind of makes sense right up to the moment you need to touch the bathroom doorknob.
(I used to know a guy in America that was fastidious about not touching the handle to a public restroom. He'd take a piece of paper towel with him and use it to open the door. You could always tell if he'd been in the restroom before you if there was a paper towel on the floor near the door. If he ever came to France I think he'd need one of those arm-length rubber gloves that farmers use when they artificially inseminate cows.)
The second thing you'll find is that there is a toilet brush proudly displayed next to every toilet in France and you're expected to use it. Personally, I think this is a great idea and one that I'm going to adopt when I return to America. But I'm not going to stop at a toilet brush. I'm going to leave out a bottle of Windex and some paper towels near each window and set the vacuum cleaner smack dab in the middle of the carpet. I'm guessing that not many people will pick up the tools and start cleaning, but even if one person does, that's still less housework for me.
French toilets also have two flush modes which work by pushing a button, not by pulling a lever like American commodes. There is a small button for a partial-tank flush and a big button for the full flush. Sometimes the buttons are conveniently labeled "1" and "2" -- in case you needed some help figuring out when to use the right one. Apparently the two-flush toilet was developed in Australia in 1980 and the French adopted it to conserve water.
(There are rumors of experimental Australian toilets with a third button the size of a dinner plate. It's for extreme flushing circumstances -- like disposing of a hairy, two inch long, highly toxic Sydney funnel spider. Trust me, that's one critter you don't want dragging itself back out of the pipe -- wet and angry -- while you're sitting down and enjoying the Life & Style section of the Sydney Morning Herald.)
Conserving water is a good idea for Americans, too, so acting with their usually alacrity, Congress jumped on the bandwagon a good twelve years after the two-flush toilet had been invented. Of course, they knew they couldn't trust the common folk to use a toilet with two settings correctly. So using their vast knowledge and wisdom, Congress solved the problem by passing a law instead of allowing us to buy any of those new-fangled "two-flush" Aussie toilets. Thus, in 1992, the old 3.5 gallon toilets were outlawed and the new 1.6 gallon models became the standard of the land. It's true that new toilets don't work terribly well, but on the other hand, by reducing each flush by nearly two gallons Congress did save the average American a whooping $15 a year on their water bill. (Thanks for the effort, Congress!)
In hindsight, maybe we should adopt the French system -- and put a big toilet brush just outside the Capital Building. After each use, we could give the House of Representatives a good swabbing down. It's long overdue.
Dan writes a weekly humor column called Tomfoolery & Codswallop. You can visit Dan's website where he welcomes your comments and suggestions for future columns.
Article © Dan H. Woods. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-07-13