Frehel Diaries: The Beautiful Hippo and Fear of a French Toilet

We don't rise that early. There is, despite my period, significant love making, although it is a bit more delicate, for he admits that the blood scared him a bit. Eventually we rise and shower, him getting in behind me I suppose to make sure that my breasts were properly clean.

We quickly load the car, and I notice he has a bag of assorted snacks that he puts in the back, which put me at ease that I won't starve to death on this unknown drive across France. As we begin our trip to Brittany, the Sauvage asks me if I know a word in English saying it slowly, "Hip-o-pot-a-mus." At the time, it didn't occur to me to ask where he would hear such a word.** I repeat the word quickly with my American accent. "What?" he asks. So I repeat it again quickly. "That's really pretty in English. Say it again." So I say it again and giggle. Out of all the words he has heard me say, he thinks the word hippopotamus is pretty. Then again I like the word for umbrella in french "parapluie." (Audience participation time: what word in another language do you like just for it's sound? Even if you don't know the meaning?) Still for all the musicality of the French language, I think there is a beauty to English; it hurts me, just a bit, that this language that I so excel in doesn't appeal to him. That he can't hear the beauty in my words the way I hear the beauty in his.

But there is much to see, out the window, the French countryside with French sheep and French cows on French farms. While those who haven't grown up in the country might think that farms look like farms, there is actually a distinct look to farms dependent on location. And, of course, there are even different types of cows-whether it be the shaggy Highland Kine or the fawn colored Guernsey. I take pictures, which the Sauvage doesn't comment upon. I've never explained that I come from a small farm town (which Bakerina has dubbed, with great authority, the Most Depressing Town Ever), and so, despite living in a thriving metropolis, I do love farms. And the farms here are still rustic, still looking like they haven't changed in the last 150 years. They aren't ugly like most of the farms I see when I visit my mother, with a variety of tractors in different stages of rust carefully scattered around the grounds. I try and stay awake to contemplate these farms and the life that must go on inside them, but unfortunately because the car has no AC I keep falling asleep from the heat.

After a few hours, we stop at a roadside picnic table and W.C. The lot is filled with cars, not just the French, but families from the Ukraine, Switzerland, Germany, are here, some in large campers, others piled into small cars. In Europe, renting or owning a camper and driving to another country or even far distances across the continent is still popular and doesn't carry the social stigma it does here in the states. Furthermore, the art of picnicking, not eating in the car, but spreading out a blanket and having a full on meal, is still alive and well in France, even at roadside stops. The amount of food and the kind that people brought with them was dazzling, fresh breads, salads, roasted chickens, bright colored fruits that you know hadn't been engineered in NJ, and stinky cheeses. These foods hadn't been bought, they had made. But was really overwhelming was that to the French, this was just lunch. Looking out at all these families, sitting in sun, brightly chatting in a variety of different languages, children playing, dogs snuffling in the brush, open dishes being passed, at first struck me as a little Grapes of Wrath. But there is really no America equivalent, for we have lost this spirit. A communal love of Nature. Even in Central Park, people are more content to speed walk and listen to their ipods. The picnics are purchased from Eli's or Citarella, and there is nothing spontaneous about it.

I discovered upon waking that I was absolutely starving. We found a small uninhabited patch of grass, which was no easy trick for almost all of the grass all the way back to the entrance to the "highway" was taken up with families and food, and the Sauvage took out an assortment of food. He cut pieces of fresh melon, opened a tomato salad he made the night before, cut hunks of baguette, opened two store bought containers of celeriac and potato salad, and finished the meal with a few cheeses. I ate my fill, being sure to taste everything, and finished off a bottle of water before finding my way to ladies room.

The most adventurous thing a woman can do in France is go to the toilet. In the July chapter of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, he takes time to write about French toilets and specifically a toilet "a la turque", which is essentially a hole. In 1989, the year of the book's publication, Peter assured his readers that "turque" style lavatories were still manufactured and purchased. I, fortunately, had only come into contact with this "style" of bathroom once before at Polidor, the restaurant where Rimbaud and Verlaine used to hang out. Apparently the "toilet", which I'm sure is the same one Verlaine used, is all part of the homage to these writers, and it certainly keeps one from getting swept away with some romanticized ideal of the Paris of the past. But getting back to my point, my general experience with French plumbing had been pretty good, and they certainly had better water pressure than the English.

But not for long.

I was waiting on a very long line as there were only five stalls to serve an entire parking lot filled with women eating lunch. I noticed while I was on line that there were two stalls that some of the women avoided, even if it meant waiting five minutes for another stall to open up. It should have been a warning sign, for if the French fear a toilet it must be something to be feared indeed. But when one of the "mystery" stalls opened up, I was too tired and out of it to question. I went inside.

I'm one of those crazy motherfuckers that once I commit to something, it doesn't matter what it is, I am not going to back down. I may take a long time to deliberate, but once the decision has been made, that's it. No matter the cost, to myself or others. So when I discovered that I was facing a toilet a la turque, I was not going to admit my mistake and go back out. After all this was an adventure, this was about pushing my limits, even in a nonglamourous way. Furthermore, my mother has always taken great delight in proclaiming that "Bunni's idea of roughing it is a hotel without room service." So I thought I could finally silence her as I carefully crouched.

And that is when the lights went out.

Certain toilets in France have a timer that starts when the door closes. This is to prevent "lingering" in the toilet. (For example, the toilets on the grounds of Versailles have such timers.) Whoever sets these timers has a pretty low threshold for "lingering" and most likely doesn't understand how much arranging of clothing has to go on before a woman can relieve herself. I mean, the last thing I wanted to do was hang out in toilet a la turque, which was from my way of thinking a step down from an outhouse.

However, being a hyperaware person, I was able to relieve myself, locate the toilet paper, and get myself all sorted out in the dark. I was my hands and applied lip balm fairly proud to have vanquished the toilet a la turque.

Still, there was no way I was ever going to use one of those things again if I had the choice.

I rejoined the Sauvage and hopped in the car, and we quickly got back on our way to our next stop Mont St. Michel.

**On my most recent trip to Paris, I discovered the cause of his question. There is a chain restaurant in Paris that serves French food called Hippopotamus. I have no idea why they chose this name, but then I still don't understand the Las Vegas Strip Club Chain named Spearmint Rhinoceros.


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