Americans Abroad: Hygiene Is Relative - Elisabeth Ladenson, New York Times
Elisabeth Ladenson teaches French and comparative literature at Columbia. She is the author of "Dirt for Art's Sake: Books on Trial From Madame Bovary to Lolita," among others.
When I went to Paris as a student I ended up living in an eighth-floor walk-up maid’s room. The toilet off the hallway was à la turque, essentially a hole in the floor with a flush mechanism, and my room featured a sink with cold water only. I discovered what those towel-mitt washcloths are for, and also spent a lot of time cadging showers from better-lodged friends.
It began to occur to me that hygiene was a relative matter — not just cleanliness, but how it is both defined and achieved. Since then I’ve spent a number of summers teaching on a program for American students in Avignon, and witnessed enough conflicts between students and the families they live with to know that cleanliness is an endless source of cultural misunderstanding. Our students feel that one can’t shower enough and that clothing should never be worn more than once, whereas their French lodgers worry about water bills and can’t understand why anyone would want to shower every day. The French also find American students to be extremely messy, leaving their stuff lying around and failing to clean up after themselves.
One cause of consternation for Americans abroad is the layout of bathroom facilities. “Bathroom” has become a euphemism for “toilet” in our country because the commode is almost always in the same room as the bathtub. (“Toilet” itself is also a euphemism, of course, though a much older one — "faire sa toilette" means to primp before going out). In France, however, the toilet and bathroom are generally kept separate, and the latter used to feature that reliable source of cultural misunderstanding, the bidet. Many an American student has felt perplexed by what appears to be an indoor birdbath, evidently meant for hygiene of the most personal sort. In addition to their venerable association with post-coital contraception, bidets used to ensure cleanliness between weekly baths. The gant de toilette (washcloth mitt) was for the upper half, while the bidet took care of the rest.
In recent years the bidet has disappeared from French bathrooms, its function replaced by the telephone-style showers with which visiting Americans merrily spray water all over the room.
Every experience abroad is an exercise in comparative anthropology. Image from, with caption: DEGAS Edgar, (Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas), 1834-1917 (France) Title: LE BIDET Date: ca 1880 Category: Prints
Medium: monotype htd with pencil