My Mother’s Toilet

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I’m FINALLY back to my slum-liike digs (with a great view of the Eiffel Tower, some 7 miles away) after a stay ihn the Burgundian countryside, specifically, at my mother’s. You’ll note that I didn’t use such descriptors as ‘beautiful’ ‘awe-inspiring’ ‘inspirational’ or other such superlative adjectives. That’s because I didn’t really see a lot of the countryside. A bit of background:

Mother's ToiletThe humble toilet, in the form we know and love, was patented, not by Thomas Crapper, the British plumber who is largely credited with its invention, but by another Brit, Alex Cunningham, and has remained largely unchanged to this day. Particularly in my mother’s house, where, I may have mentioned, little has changed in the 350 years since the house was converted from a barn. Hence, my latest task: replacing my mother’s toilet. A truly special way to spend a weekend in the Burgundian countryside.

The Saturday started like so many there: a meeting of the Hamlet in my mother’s parlour, consuming vast quantities of her coffee while filtering out stale air through constant quantities of Gauloises being inhaled. All this to discuss the best solution for my mother’s poor antique toilet, which is about to be consigned to that great china bowl in the sky, if there is such a place, and to some gully in the nearby countryside if not.

Monsieur Chadouteaud, one of the denizens of the little settlement, was, at one time in his checkered past, a plumber’s assistant, which automatically conferred an air of authority upon him as he shared his less-than-vast knowledge on the subject in between drags on his Gauloise and sips of my mother’s coffee. “Zee closet (meaning tank, as in wall-mounted tank, common in France) must be of China (porcelain, actually) and specifically not wood” M. Chadouteaud stated with an air of authority that could be challenged by no one in the room. Never mind the fact that wooden water closets ceased being manufactured in the 1930’s, as wood became increasingly scarce in France due to centuries of battles having destroyed many forests.

After consumption of the usual 10 litres of mom’s coffee, and several cartons, I’m sure, of Gauloises, Monsieur Chadouteaud took it upon himself to drive me to the local hardware depot in Toucy, a commercial center for the region, about eight miles and four cigarettes away.

We arrived at Monsieur Bricollage (roughly: Mr. Handyman) after a typically hair-raising drive in M. Chadeouteaud’s ancient Citroen van, and began to look over the meager selection of toilets on hand.

After even more discussion with a couple of locals that had obviously shared more than a glass or two of wine at that late morning hour, we purchased the mid-priced model, after being assurred by the salesperson that it was ‘the standard’ that all the local plumbers used when replacing toilets, an act that, judging from the amount of dust on the box, didn’t occur very often in this region of l’Hexagon.

After several more cigarettes and an even more hair-raising return to my mother’s tiny hamlet, I was left with the toilet and my toolkit to do the day’s work. Right off the bat: problem. The only instructions included in the box were in Portuguese. Portuguese. That’s right. Who on earth, except someone residing in Portugal, has ever even heard of instructions written in Portuguese? The box labels were in French. The promotional material extolling the toilet’s virtues were in French. The warranty card, complete with French address, was in French. Just the instructions were in Portuguese. I thought these things came in five languages, to avoid such a situation.

A phone call to M. Bricollage: fifteen minutes of being on hold to some inane promotional messages about shingles or something, numerous transfers, and I finally get the original salesperson on the line. “The toilet is beautiful, but the instructions are all in Portuguese” I declare. “Portuguese? But that is not possible…it is a French toilet. The instructions must be only in French” my salesman states. “No,” I insist “they are in Portuguese. No doubt about it”.

Back on hold, where the promotional message has now changed to one extolling the use of dried manure on one’s flowers. Five minutes later, a supervisor comes on the line, and we go through the exchange again. On hold again, this time still learning about the merits of dried manure.

Finally, after another five minutes, the salesman returns to the phone to deliver the news: “We have spoken to the distributor and ordered a new set of instructions. They should be in around five to six weeks” he declares. “Can’t you simply open another box and see if you can’t find instructions in French for me? You can’t sell a lot of these” I declare. “That is not possible” the salesman sniffed “It could inconvenience the next purchaser”.

Next purchaser? What about me? We went round and round on this very subject for the next 15 minutes, with my being put on hold to enjoy the manure ad another three times in the process.

In the end, it was decided that I must bring the entire toilet and packaging back, and that they would exchange the toilet for another with French directions. “Couldn’t we just swap the instruction booklet” I ask, dreading a smoke laden return trip at the speed of light in M. Chadouteaud’s ancient van. “Not possible” the salesman insists “we must have the orginal toilet.

In the end, I found myself spending the afternoon in a local wine bar with M. Chadouteaud, his local friends, and various other regulars, with the new toilet, complete with a set of instructions in impeccable French, in the rear of the van, parked just outside the cafe. Sundays would never be the same….

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