Travels with Charlie, Episode 3
Who is Charlie?
Charlie’s a friend we go adventuring with at times, though things have a tendency to go awry a little. Travels with Charlie, Episode 1 takes place in Plainfield. This time we went to see Charlie, who lives near Toulouse, France, and brought along the young W. (for Whippersnapper), son of my sister. Charlie and I were exploring what might happen to people who decide to go their own way with religion (Sneak peak: nothing good. They frequently have to run and hide in strongholds at the tops of mountains. Read more about that in Travels with Charlie, Episode 2: Violent Expulsions.) Charlie writes fauxcanard, which I recommend if you like reading good writing.————
Lock her Up!
Cahors, France. A city with the remains of a Roman amphitheater in the underground parking garage, renowned as a wine-making center before most others. A city reputedly so wicked it’s lumped with Sodom in Dante’s Inferno (this according to Wikipedia). A real place where people other than tourists work and shop and eat. A place that, today, takes into account that people have needs.
“Charlie, Charlie!” I am pounding on the four-inch thick stainless steel-clad door of a stainless steel cell less than 4 feet square, a door that closed with a resolute click after I got in. Stating the obvious, “I can’t get out!,” I am trying valiantly to push down a wave of panic, “CHARLIE!” A muffled voice, southern accent discernible even through all those inches of door, “push the red button on the left.” I push. The door slides open. Laughing hysterically I spill onto a medieval street facing an eleventh-century cathedral. My first adventure in 54 years with a French public toilet did not go well.
I’d violated the “pee every chance you get” rule of travel and it had definitely been time to find a bathroom. Fortunately the French invest in public facilities. I was surprised to see stainless doors right in the outside wall of an old building. “The latest thing in French public-mindedness,” said Charlie as he casually entered the right stall. I took the left. Unlike the southern French public toilet I remember from a road trip when I was five, it was squeaky clean. Nary a smell or a sight of the functions we go to such a place to perform. I closed the door. How to lock it? I started to push the one button I saw, a red button to the left of the door, only to see “in case of emergency” written on a placard near it. Pulled my hand back as if burned. Whoopsie! How could they put an emergency button at shoulder height next to a door?
Now the door clicks shut by itself, setting my hair on end. A steel cell with a lock. I look around. The place is like a shower stall. No fixtures other than a sink built into the wall. Towards the back, footprints on either side of a hole. It’s a squatter. That’s just as I remember the one 54 years ago, when I was more than perturbed at an entirely new way of doing what I’d mastered so recently. Now I’m glad I am nimble enough to squat despite being ancient and American, though it does surprise me that so little has changed. Thinking gendarmes are going to show up with wailing sirens at any moment because I pushed the red emergency button, I resolve to be quick. And that’s when I run into the trouble in opening the door. No handle. Just that red emergency button I will never push again. No other button. My heart starts pounding, I start pounding. And then I push the red button anyway.
[As if propelled by gun powder, American lady of a certain age shoots out of public toilet into the middle of medieval French street. Fortunately it is winter and almost raining.]
Out! As soon as the door closes behind me the whole thing steam cleans itself for three minutes. I’d been so uneasy in the steel cage that I missed all sorts of stuff. Charlie tells me I could have caused a ring to sit on to come out of the wall with another button. Never saw it. And perhaps I read “Emergency” for instructions for “emergence,” too. But then, the French word for exit is ‘sortie,’ and I surely did not see that . . . Americans on vacation. Go figure. Giggling, we walk on down the street to go play on the famous Cahors bridge.
Two days later we are in Albi, location of much heresy and subsequent suppression in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Had it then, have it now. It keeps going, this wish to “correct” those who don’t adhere to the official creed or accepted identity. The French have a saying for that, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same). After a gander at the massive cathedral built by the powers that be to make sure the local folks and their gentry wouldn’t think of considering heresy again, it’s time for lunch. In France, you can get lunch at noon. That’s it. Not at 11:30, and certainly not at 1:30. We find a suitable restaurant and get a table. Charlie and the Hunk (see previous Travels), who has been living in France for half a lifetime, seem slightly relieved to have managed to obey this hard and fast rule.
A waitress arrives and lively conversation in French ensues while I study the menu. “Yes we’re Americans, but we live nearby, in the Tarn (the county), and we’re visiting with these Dutch folks.” Pointing at the young W. and myself. Suddenly the waitress asks us whether we live in France, too. The young whippersnapper doesn’t speak French. I reputedly do, so it falls to me to answer. “Non, non,” I shake my head, frantically trying to articulate, “I am Hollandaise but I live in America.” The waitress looks non-plussed and my friends gasp, including the non-french-speaking Whippersnapper. What did I do wrong? “Je demeure aux Etats-Unis,” I repeat lamely, voice trailing. Charlie comes to the rescue, “She asked ya’ll whether you like it here.” How can I even dig myself out of this one? I simply start shouting, “Oui, Oui, I love being here, I want to be here all the time. France is great. Vive la Republique! Marseillaise! Your public restrooms!”
Okay, that very last bit may or may not be entirely true. What is true, is that Agatha has a milestone birthday coming up. “Just let me know what you want, and I’ll throw you a party,” said the Carpenter. But I am throwing my own party. Drink, eat, dance. Defy time, defy gravity, defy the dominant culture. I am not an American. Dutch people host their own birthday parties and hand out treats at the office on their birthday. Plus ça change …