samedi, janvier 28, 2006

Reflections On A Water Cave

This is Part One of a series where the author recalls memorable events from his first few months living in Paris.

I've referred to the "Water Cave" a few times in these pages--but I never did post a proper entry explaining it. We were living in the apartment on Rue St. Sulpice (I am now inclined to believe any anteceding "rue" should be capitalized), the one owned by the French lady named Dominique. We had reserved the place over the Internet months before, while we were still in the ‘States, and therefore were deprived of any on-site inspection. Our first time through the door came after depositing a few thousand dollars with the rental agency.

Of course, our first worry was the condition of the one bathroom we’d be using for the next 70 days. Would it be clean, functional? You can’t really imagine a bad bathroom until you begin imagining a bad foreign bathroom, and even though France would presumably, on a per capita, strictly statistical incidence, provide much better facilities than a Bulgaria, say, or Khazikstan, or Somalia, it still represents the mildewed tip of that waddling middle-earth called Europe, where small people live in old buildings that were designed long before the arrival of indoor plumbing, never mind the arrival of Bed, Bath and Beyond. It’s not that the bathrooms are disgusting, though they can be that, too; they’re just off-putting, all with greater or lesser degrees of fecal force. People say you are really getting in tune with a culture when you begin to dream in the language. I say it’s when you stop feeling uneasy in their lavatories. And yet, we willingly signed on to the Water Cave.

Dominique showed us what looked like it had been a closet, or a footman's nook or something, and called it the bathroom. She wedged into the little room, the one with the toilet, and explained how everything functioned while Dear Wife and I listened and looked in from beyond the door. Then she sidled out, and we sidled in, one at a time, and took a look.

You can see the airplane-sized sink. I liked the slim-line look of it, but it was impossible to brush your teeth or wash your face over the basin without pressing the side of your face against the mirror. Otherwise all foaming and spillage went onto you or the floor.

But the real problem was the shower. It was just an elevated basin, with a low rim keeping the water from cascading across the floor into the foyer area (where the aged rafia rugging was already decomposed in an ominous semicircle beyond the bathroom door). No shower door or curtain. Just a small tile arch between the shower nook and the toilet cranny. We asked Dominique about this lack of any device to contain the inevitable water spray, but she explained that the water nozzle was hand held, and therefore easily controlled. I made a show of stepping into the shower and attempting to imagine the mechanics of a good cleaning. There was no attachment for mounting or fixing the shower-head in one operational position, so it would either be balanced on the water knobs, held in your hand, or flopped on the shower floor. Presumably while on. It sounded OK the way she was describing it, but wold obviously demand a little extra care. I didn’t want to seem too pampered, too American, as if I was expecting a full length marble tub and jacuzzi jets, so I didn’t make a fuss. Everything was clean, and looked recently installed (recent in a relative way, like when your building was built in the 18th Century); so we agreed we’d just have to control our stream. A good bathroom policy, n’est pas?

Well, it was totally unworkable.

Ah, we predictably concluded, this is why French people have such a reputation for rarely bathing: their showers suck. Of course the water went everywhere--all over the mirror, the tile floor below the mirror, the floor in the toilet cranny, and the rafia rug in the foyer. A strong waft of mildew was stirred everytime water dampened that rug, and in its disintegration, the plywood floor beneath was becoming more and more prominent. All this creeped us out, as if our shower water, dousing the rest of the room, was somehow mingling with the residue of hidden human waste, and cross-infecting the whole place. I feared these activated pockets of urine (and dirt and mildew) were becoming atomized and spread throughout the greater apartment, well beyond the visible arc of dampness. Very disturbing image, all of our bathroom detrius becoming a “weaponized” aerosol used against us. And all because of poor domestic engineering.

We couldn’t install a shower curtain because of the space and because all of the walls were impractically angled. Instead we learned to control our stream. We would turn on the water, splash up a particular body part, turn off the water, rebalance the showerhead on the knob/tap structure, then soap up the body part we’d dampened, grab the showerhead and turn the water back on for a rinse, and repeat steps for next body part needing a scrub. Once finished, find the sponge wedged between the wall and the pipe under the micro sink, mop up the tile floor outside the shower basin, lay down a small handtowel we'd designated a bathmat, step onto that and take second sponge out from beneath sink (also wedged between pipe and wall), lean down and mop up rest of bathroom floor. Rinse sponges thoroughly in micro-sink, wring out, wedge back into respective under-sink perches.

This routine had two advantages--well, three, really, because it #1 kept my showers short, #2 kept the bathroom very clean, and #3 became a ritual of zen-like exactitude. By the end of our time there, I had become very comfortable with this imposed rhythm, and I was actually sad to leave it. The Rue Bonaparte apartment, or Bonapartment, as we call it, our next home, came endowed with a nice big tub with a competently installed showerhead. Bittersweet....

Drawbacks to the Water Cave, however, (beyond the obvious), were potent. #1 it could be damn chilly, standing there with no water on to warm you, draughty winds through the flat snatching at yer naked, shivering, scrubbing figure--and the heat wouldn’t be turned on until our last two weeks. #2 though we learned to control the water flow so it didn’t contact the rafia and plywood disaster beyond the door threshold, stepping out into the shambolic foyer was always unnerving. #3 the drain soon became obstinately clogged, despite our scant shower-time, and the water backed up until it was threatening to spill over the modest lip of the shower base. This sucked. We searched the shelves of first Le Champion, then the Monoprix for an effective French Draino, with very marginal results. We made the pilgrimage to the BHV department store, which is a bit like Sears was when years ago it was simultaneously functioning as a Home Depot, a Best Buy and an upscale(ish) department store; we searched their basement for a suitably strong chemical clog-buster. What we found was a controlled substance, with a dummy model on the shelf, to be brought to a counter where some expert took the placebo into the “back room” and returned with the real thing. This stuff worked, which is probably why they make it so difficult to buy--a populace unencumbered with drain troubles might get restive... Within three weeks we were riding the Metro back to the BHV for another dose. The thing got clogged that quickly. And who likes to bathe with their feet submerged in standing run-off?

Bad thing #4 was that we were not always in the proper frame of mind for the demanding zen bathing ritual, or Water Cave Passage. Sometimes we just weren’t up to it, man, and dammit if we didn’t skip a day or two of showering. Some days it was just too harrowing, esp. in that first month--well, in the second, too--when we were trying to raise our consciousness to the level of Water Cave acceptance.

Sometimes we failed.


At mardi, janvier 31, 2006, Blogger rickart said...

Splendid! That was a really great post! Very entertaining and as Skribl says, it takes me right back there.

At mardi, janvier 31, 2006, Blogger Tsahkratis said...

Wow, thanks for that post. I've been dying to know the secrets of the Water Cave. I'll never again complain when I have to take a shower in a small space with a door and fixed shower head.

At lundi, février 06, 2006, Anonymous Big Steve Hockey Man said...

I can only imagine what a full-sized American would go through for a little personal hygene. Cool blog - I'll visit again soon.

At vendredi, février 17, 2006, Blogger Mr Goodson said...

Hey Marty, Fun read. The pictures help a lot. Great descriptive detail. Chandleresque.
I also enjoyed the one about the gym you found. Get pictures of that Gym. I want tosee it.

Take ite easy.


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