The summer after college I went to France. It was first time I’d ever encountered a bidet — that low, oblong basin poised beside every toilet. You never saw one without the other. Together, they were the C-3PO and R2D2 of French bathroom fixtures. At first, I mistook the bidet for a foot sink. What else could it be for? You settle in on the john, hoist your feet into the bidet and give them a wash while taking a pee. Brilliant time-saver, I thought. I was very young then, and didn’t realize the French weren’t as obsessed with time-saving devices as Americans.
You don’t see a lot of bidets in contemporary French bathrooms these days. They seem to have gone the way of the pissoir, the public urinal (at one time there were as many as 1,230 in Paris, but by 2006 there was only one, on Boulevard Arago.) Instead, the modern French prefer to clean up using a hand-held shower head, which performs the same function as the bidet, and is much easier on the knees.
The new de rigueur bathroom fixture is the towel dryer, or sèche-serviette. From what we’ve gathered during half-dozen spirited discussions with Pascal and Antoine, no civilized human being who enjoys the luxury of indoor plumbing can be without one. It is simply required.
The smallest, and trickiest space to design in the Ugly House was the petite salle de bain, the guest bath. Antoine, frustrated by the size restrictions, wondered why we didn’t simply build a single large bathroom between the master and guest bedrooms, to be shared. After all, how often would we be having guests? (His reasoning makes a certain amount of sense, since at the moment the answer is never.)
However, the mere suggestion that we would build a bathroom with one door leading to our bedroom and one leading to the guest room gives palpitations, triggering many unpleasant recollections. For reasons that remain a mystery, the locks never seemed to work on those shared-bath doors. I have a traumatic memory of spending the weekend at a sorority sister’s house in college, and walking in on her dad sitting on the pot, pants to his ankles, reading, of all things, a copy of Elle. When I found him there, he was sniffing a perfume insert.
Fortunately, Pascal has lived in the States, and understands the American need for private bathrooms. What he did not understand was our uninterest in making sure the guest bath had enough room for a proper towel dryer.
The sèche-serviette is the new bidet. It is a tall, flat, ladder-like structure affixed to the wall of every respectable salle de bain in the nation. I’ve been told by separate experts that the sèche-serviette is either a towel warmer or a towel dryer. In any case, the French apparently have no problem sharing bathrooms, as long as their towels are warm and dry.
I was not a complete stranger to the sèche-serviette. There was a large one in the single bathroom in the exquisite and exquisitely small apartment in the centre ville, but I could never quite figure it out. The positioning of the rungs did not seem conducive to warming the towel in a consistent fashion. The section of the towel directly in contact with a rung would feel hot enough to burst into flames, while the rest would be no warmer than if you’d just plucked it from the linen closet.
And this aside from the reality that we live in the deep south of France, where most of the year one longs for a cool towel. Indeed, most of the year, you can rinse off and by the time you climb back into your clothes, you’re already dry. The need for a warm towel isn’t the same as it might be in, say, Iceland. That said, one day last December the temperature dipped into the 50s. I felt a bit chilled when I stepped from the shower, and rather than mess with warming the towel, I simply rolled back and forth across the towel warmer and after a few minutes felt delightfully toasty.
Masked up, hands in pockets, we all stood in the new little bathroom-to-be while Antoine and Pascal tried to figure out how to wedge in a sèche-serviette. After we’d found space for the toilet, sink, and shower, there simply wasn’t a lot of room for a sèche-serviette. The usual hour-long conversation commenced.
“On n’a vraiment pas besoin d’un sèche-serviette,” I said to anyone who would listen. We don’t really need a towel dryer.
They ignored me, which I took to mean my French was incomprehensible and didn’t deserve a response. Ten minutes passed – more talk, more leaping around, more pencil marks on the wall. A tape measure was produced. Measuring commenced. More talking, leaping, marking. Impatient, I finally said to Pascal, in English, “Pascal, we don’t need one.”
“You don’t need what?” he said
“A towel dryer.”
“You need a towel warmer in the guest bath.”
“We can just put a few hooks next to the shower,” I said.
Antoine stopped measuring. I noted a few drops of perspiration sliding down the side of his face. Pascal relayed our conversation. Antoine threw up his hands. More rapid French ensued.
“He says you must have one,” said Pascal. “It is very important.”
“Really, we don’t need one,” I said.
“Perhaps a small one and put it next to the sink,” said Pascal.
“Tell him we’ll put one in the master bath,” I said.
“Well, that is expected,” said Pascal.
“Look, Pascal, our guests will just be happy to be in France. And you know, most of them will be Americans, and Americans are barbarians. They don’t know from towel warmers.”
Once again, Antoine cocked his head. Pascal translated, ending with a phrase I understood with no problem. “Les Américains sont des sauvages.”
“Ah!” said Antoine, throwing back his head and laughing. He stuck his pencil behind his ear, pocketed the tape measure and we spoke no more about it.
If you come to visit, do not expect a towel warmer in your bathroom. We are, however, installing a small sèche-serviette in the master bathroom. We may be savages, but we keep our word.