Water Closet Trouble in France

When one travels to Europe for the first time, one learns many new traveling tips including the most important of all. “Where is the restroom?” For those new to Eupropa, restroom facilities in general are known as “Water Closets” Once understood, suddenly, the ubiquitous “WC” sign seems to appear everywhere. Restrooms are important and knowing how to find one is paramount for a first-time traveler across the pond.

In 2012 & 2016, my wife and I traveled to France. The first trip was a fabulous wine-boat tour on the River Seine from Paris to Normandy Beach. Paris, ah… Paris is amazing. I think Carrie and I fell in love all over again in St-Germain-des-Prés, sipping on wine and watching the world go by us. We bought a couple extra days on our trip to explore the “City of Light” and hit all of the attractions including the celebrated Eiffel Tower. Paris, if you haven’t and ever get a chance to, do it.

Day three, we boarded a three-level touring boat to begin our 10 day river tour. The 200 foot barge-like boat could support 200 guests and staff. We were entertained every morning after breakfast in the main seating area by our onboard representative sommelier (a trained and knowledgeable wine professional who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing) who would explore the best bottles of the current region we were sailing through and then serve those selections at the dinner seating that evening. It was a very exciting vacation for Carrie and I.

As we sailed closer to Normandy Beach, we docked for a day excursion in one of our four ports of call selected for our trip. Honfleur, the second stop, is a city in the department of Calvados, in northern France’s Normandy region. It’s on the estuary where the Seine river meets the English Channel. The Vieux-Bassin (old harbor), lined with 16th- to 18th-century townhouses, has been a subject for artists including Claude Monet and native son Eugène Boudin. Nearby is 15th-century St. Catherine’s Church, a vaulted timber structure erected by shipbuilders. This was a must for Carrie and I and my camera was falling in love with France.

Honfleur, France

We took a guided tour all around the port area, to St. Catherine’s and galleries, and cosmopolitan shopping boutiques. We sipped little cups of coffee and ate finger treats, took more pictures, and wandered the streets. France is love. I don’t know how else to say it.

With only one hour left before our ship disembarked, Carrie turned to me and said, “I need to find a Water Closet”. Right, no worries, we will find you one. Although we took a semester of French at a local community college before we left, we both admitted that our French was, well a bit, “pauvre et bâclé”. Don’t think for a second, you can just wait until we pass the next McDonald’s or Shell gasoline station. My dear, we are not in Kansas anymore.

With Carrie’s concentration moving more away from me and lovely Honfleur and towards the inner workings of her personal plumbing, I knew I had to do something quick. And there it was, a little bistro on the corner that looked inviting. I’d order up a couple of little coffees and she could powder her nose while they prepared the java. Some time passed and then the coffees arrived. More time passed and I began to worry about my wife. I decided to investigate. As I rounded the corner thanks to my handy “WC” sign, I spotted the closet right off. It was very small. There were tables nearby but all empty. I approached the door cautiously and called for my wife by name. “Where have you been? I’m stuck in here! The door won’t open!” She was at her wit’s end. I know this is no fun, but I did register her tone thinking it’s a little over the top. We can fix this. Except for the fact that our semester of French, never once, ever, included phrases like “I need help, my wife is locked in a bathroom, I’m sorry, water closet” Nope, not once.

I told Carrie I was going to find help and would be right back. She said, “Please hurry, I don’t like it here.” Okay, okay. Now is the time to put my French to test. Without the aid of a modern day phone complete with a language-translator app, I was left with only a small, tiny translation handbook. I found a staff member who found me utterly incomprehensible, so on to another staff member who understood my charade-like mannerisms enough to know we needed the manager who had a water closet key. Yes! Success! Five minutes later, the door was opened and Carrie was freed. I will never forget the look on her face. She looked like she was the lone survivor in a horror movie and I did not know why until…

When I settled her down and stepped past her and into the little, very little, water closet I froze. There was only one light in the tiny room equipped with nothing but toilet & sink. The light was a strobe light flashing alternating colors of red, blue, green, & yellow. “Do you want to use the WC?” A slightly shaken Carrie asked me. I thought, “Not on my life!” We wandered back to our ship and packed that WC moment away. We would not return to another similar crisis for four years.

Ese, France

Èze is a small seaside commune in the Alpes-Maritimes department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in Southeastern France. It is located on the French Riviera. It inhabits a couple of thousand residents. It has an ancient mountain that you can climb to the top to find a very small, quaint village, nowadays mostly tourist shops that are the quintessential French experience straight out of your high school history book.

Carrie and I stumbled upon this little seaside gem on our Mediterranean Sea cruise in 2016. It was our first stop after Barcelona, Spain, on to Nice, France where we would find the town of Ese. We had a fascinating tour guide named Colette. She grew up in Ese and had been giving tours for years now. The fact that she confided in us that she had fallen two years before off the side of the mountain and spent the first year in bed and the second in a wheelchair dumbfounded me. I could barely walk these ancient streets and cannot imagine how one could roll around chair-ridden. As we wandered higher up into this medieval hamlet, Carrie caught her eye on Collette’s earrings and complimented her. “I got them in town. There’s a jeweler there that sells them. You will find it easily because there are two bronze piggies resting on their backs on her front steps.” What the heck, we’re on vacation, let’s go get some earrings.

Carrie’s Earrings from the Piggies Jewelry Store

We moved through this mountain village, shop by shop. I began to feel the weight of my two beers at lunch time and wondered when I might find a WC sign for myself. Just then Carrie spotted the two piggies and lit up. It was earring-shopping time! As much as she was excited about this opportunity, I was quite the opposite. No WC’s in sight. We stepped into the shop past the piggies and Carrie asked where we might find a bathroom in her best French. I was impressed. Turns out, not far from here. A walk down the narrow street and a sharp right would get me there. I excused myself expecting to be back before the purchase was complete.

I stepped outside again and moved in the direction of the lavatory. I turned right where I was instructed and found the sign I was looking for. There was a quaint little garden path leading to a waiting queue below a large WC sign. One man was standing there. Next to him was a sign on a stand that stated 5 (euros) were needed to use the facility. My right hand went into my pant pocket and confirmed I was getting in. As I approached him ready to greet, but he turned and moved forward. Someone was exiting and he had his turn. I stepped up to the front of an empty queue and surveyed the situation. Three standalone portable units. They were huge. All occupé.

Now time for the uncomfortable game with your body while you try to convince yourself that your mind is stronger than the will (or limits) of your body. Good luck! Ah, at last! The middle unit was freeing up. I snatched the euro coin out of my pocket as a gentleman opened and paused. He looked at me with a warm smile. I could tell he didn’t know English but his gesture told me that I should put the coin away. This one was on him. Nice. I never pass up an easy moment to be frugal. “Merci!” I cheered as I hurried past him and into my abode of salvation.

As I turned and faced the room, I felt an oddly unfamiliar setting. I had never seen a bathroom like this. It was sort of a cross between a campsite and a carwash. That’s the last thing I remember when the closed the door and the entire room went dark.

I had no time to consider the loss of light, I had a serious mission to complete. I will apologize now in advance if I come across vulgar in the rest of this story, but I started it and now I’m too far in to stop, just an apology. I have relieved myself in the dark before and I knew how to do it. In my mind’s eye I knew exactly where the toilet was and approached it. To my happy surprise I found my target. But then something of epic proportions began to swirl all around me and carry my mind into a state of fear. Water. Water was spraying everywhere. I could feel it on my back shoulders and overwhelming my shoes, drenching my feet. Then without warning, light broke into the room. It took a moment before my eyes adjusted but to my complete surprise, the toilet (the toilet!), the toilet was moving out through the back wall. I watched as it was getting a drenching bath in full daylight. I was only half way through my task at hand (pun?) and so like a good gardener, I watered the lawn where the toilet had once been. But now, there’s more! The toilet was returning to its proper place. Not bragging here so much, but I was a bit impressed that I still had a little in me to use the fixture a second time. But oh no, now it’s pitch black again. Then unexpectedly, I was cast into the center of a tornado as wild winds blew me hither and yon. And then…

Everything was quiet. I stood there for a moment. I belted up and turned to where the door might be. My shoes squeaked as I walked. Then it hit me. I got a free bath because I left 5 in my pocket. This sophisticated piece of human disposal functionality has a built-in automated cleaning system. It wasn’t worth the coin in my pocket. I had to return to society, dripping wet. As I opened the door a small boy was holding the waiting line, solo. I have many thoughts. I have an active mind. However, I have learned to curb the bad ones. I passed him and thank myself for not returning the same favor the gentleman that preceded had for me. He would have most likely been scarred for life.

I took my time walking back to the jewelry store, hoping for some miracle to dry off. As I reached the piggie’s entrance, I turned and looked back along a long, curvy, ancient stone walkway. I could see my wet steps follow me right up to where I stood. I guess everyone else could too. Carrie walked out of the store wearing her new earrings. “What happened to you?”

All I could think of was an old C.S. Lewis’s line, “Five pence, none the richer?” I softly uttered.

Water Closets. They can be your friend. They can be your enemy. Take heed from an old soul who has grown wise.

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2 responses to “Water Closet Trouble in France”


    Pray tell, why isn’t this enforcement policy taught us in first grade in America?

    1. mikehemphill Avatar

      Indeed! It would be well worth it! Thanks for reading.

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