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Caught short: Peter Sherwood finds himself inconvenienced in La Belle France

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Incommoded once too often on his annual summer hiking trip, and not a little miffed about last month’s World Cup win, Peter Sherwood exposes a charmless charm of La Belle France.

My first article for this column three years ago was about toilets at the Central ferry pier. At the risk of being sentimentally obsessive, and to coin a lavatorial phrase, here I go again. I spend a lot of time in La Belle France and love it, but the place is lost in translation when it comes to public facilities. Bound tightly by tradition, mixed in with a peculiar brand of pedantry and the avant-garde, it is impossible to comprehend how the land of Didier Deschamps, the Eiffel Tower and the éclair could get it so wrong.

How could it all become so senseless in the country of Baudelaire, Brie and Bardot? What is it about the inventors of lingerie, the lightning labour strike and 35-hour week that could create such catastrophes de toilettes publiques?

Faire ses besoins is a nightmare. This from a people who gifted to the English language ‘arrogance’ and ‘adultery,’ the nation of Napoleon and awful Neufchatel cheese. Surely the home of Zola, Zinedine Zidane and Sarkozy’s cute wife can do better.

No loot, no loo

France may be a byword for sophistication and romance – it has to take responsibility for all that annoying accordion music – but facilities for a basic human necessity are an afterthought, like buying a car with a steering wheel as an optional extra. It’s as if les Français say, ‘We are too elegant even to think of such appalling foreign bodily functions, but if you nagging tourists are truly incommoded – another lavatorial gem – we will reluctantly accommodate you.’ Visitors end up with inconvenient conveniences, particularly Americans who insist on shouting for the salle d’eau and are shocked to be directed to a real powder room.

First, try to get into one. In this nation of grandeur, you can easily find yourself confronted by a perfectly coiffured creature in Chanel or Saint Laurent collecting coins at the door. No loot, no loo. It’s either that or a coin in a door that seldom works and, if it does, you won’t have the right change. Or it could mean a trip to a restaurant where a Gestapo of waiters makes sure you order an overpriced café allongé. I usually request a ‘café Angelina Jolie’ before even thinking about approaching their highly prized porcelain. It seems to work.

It was worse once at a train station on the Swiss border where some publicly licenced extortionist demanded two Euros. Not likely. I hopped on a waiting train where it’s free, only for the thing to partir très vite, landing me at a village station 50-kilometres away. But when you’re hiking, what does it matter? The tried-and-tested approach to being lost in the mountains works every time – if you don’t know where you are, change where you want to be.

I had to get the hell out of Switzerland and back to France before I was more broke than the Ten Commandments. If I ever quit walking and take a car, it will be towing a portaloo.

Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 19 years. The former head of an international public relations firm, Peter is the author of 15 books and has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post.

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