The toilets in the Foyer du Bon Conseil did not have seats.
After nearly twenty-four hours by plane, multiple trains, and one little automobile, I had arrived at my new home, a French foyer de jeune travailleur. Through the iron gate, I could see the four-story building, white stone draped in ivy. The entrance was surrounded by pink and white roses. Inside, the staff spoke little English, and I was too freaked out to communicate well. The realization that I lived here now was just beginning to sink in. Money was exchanged, and the director of the foyer gave me a tour of the sixty-room dormitory and the community kitchens with a gesture toward the bathrooms. He showed me to my room where I threw my bags next to the metal-framed twin bed. When I returned post-tour to the bathroom, a communal room with three toilet stalls, three shower stalls, and an industrial-sized sink, I found the first toilet to be without a seat. I checked the next two stalls. No seats. Jet-lagged and unrelieved, I wiped the rim of the toilet bowl and squatted.
Bathrooms are in the realm of the familiar. Our lives are certainly not centered around bathrooms as they are, say, kitchens. They are not community gathering places, but a whole hell of a lot happens there. Humans absolutely must expel waste, and we’ve got a place for that, whether the floor is marble or dirt. American culture and its obsession with cleanliness have made bathrooms even more central. We scrub, rinse, pluck, shave, dry, and apply every day. Bathrooms are essential to our routine and thus, especially in travel, bathrooms can become the figurehead of all that is unfamiliar. Toiletries are shrunk into, let’s be honest, unusable portions, and bowel movements are disrupted.
In bathrooms, we experience many rites of passage. Parents bathe us until we can be trusted to wash behind our ears. Unfathomable piles of books deal with the subject of potty training. In middle school, bathrooms were often a place to cry. Yet, I also clearly remember taking turns kissing the mirror with freshly applied lip-gloss. A first shave over the bathroom sink is a symbolic event for many young men. It is where girls must manage their first period. It is where one can, obviously, discover the joys of shower masturbation. Some women give birth in bathtubs. Though it may not seem likely, a bathroom can be a place of comfort.
Every year the French education system hires around a thousand men and women under thirty to work as assistants de langue in the public schools. As a primary school assistant without a main English teacher to assist, I was rendered a somewhat glorified babysitter given free reign over six classes of five to ten-year-olds. Mostly, I yelled English words at the kids, which they repeated back to me. Sometimes we would sing and color. Experiences in this program vary, though most would agree that any opportunity to be paid to live in France is an opportunity one should take.
As such experiences usually go, I learned more from my life outside the classroom than the work I was doing inside. And even at the schools, my takeaway had more to do with the social than the pedagogical. The toilets in the foyer were just one little inconvenience in a year of more formidable and exacting adjustments: missing my family and boyfriend, communicating in another language, learning to be a non-student.
When I was nine and my sister was seven, my parents had the genius idea to visit my aunt, uncle, and new cousin in Rome. Barring the eight-hour flight, the terrifying traffic, and the food I generally refused to eat, it was a nice trip that I remember enjoying. Ever the conscientious child, I was dutifully impressed with the vastness of the Coliseum and the gore of the Last Judgment. However, as much as I embraced the scenic value of our visit, I was an ordinary child. And like any ordinary child, I had a limit on new experiences.
On a day trip to Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, my sister and I reached the brink. Upon arrival, my sister immediately had to pee. While the adults and the baby watched the swans in the Canopus pool, my mother trekked across the gardens with us in tow. We found the squat little concrete WC, and I refused to enter on the grounds of smell alone. Dried piss, mildew, and rust were more than I could take. My sister reported back: toilets, there were not. Instead there was a little hole. That was all. My sister took one look at it and said, “I don’t have to go anymore.” My mother sent her out and squatted.
That hole in the ground was our limit. We had adjusted to jetlag. We had tried cheeses too ripe for our sharp, young palates. And we had smelled the dirty, century-crusted grime of Rome. I think, though, this early experience taught me something about adaptability. Sure, it’s only the toilet, and sure, plenty of people use much more rudimentary systems everyday, but for a nine-year-old middle class kid with a theretofore black and white perception of the world, that hole set a precedent for acceptance somewhere in my heart.
I never asked about the lack of toilet seats. I probably should have, but by the time I had gained confidence in speaking French and had expanded my vocabulary enough to clearly ask such a thing, I had stopped caring. The bathrooms were clean. There was hot water. I got to wake up every morning in France.
After seven months in Angers, my parents came to visit. We spent a week and a half scooting around, looking at the sculptures of David d’Angers, eating moules frites, and drinking plenty of rosé. We parted in Paris, and I left for my dear foyer of good advice. Exhausted, a little sad, and ready to climb into my lumpy, creaking bed, I stopped off in the bathroom. There was a seat on the toilet. I sat, and it felt strange.