by Bonnie Caton
A few months into my English teaching job in Southern France, by the wonderful predictability of the French system, public services went on strike. The students chained up the university in protest of a new law which meant that I couldn’t work and was still being paid. "I love my job!" I yelled when I next saw Cyril, my French boyfriend. We decided that the next free day we had together we’d celebrate by going to the beach in the Basque Country.
It was by far the prettiest of beach trips that year. We chose the town of Saint Jean de Luz which sits on a smooth, glittering bay along the Atlantic coast, 12 kilometers from the border of Spain and, by car, about 2 hours south of Bordeaux. Gently shushing across the shore, the wide turquoise ocean expanded out to an open, cloud less springtime sky. Basque houses clung to lush hillsides in their typical white with red or green trim, while stylish European tourists sauntered by in sandals and big sunglasses.
Unable to resist a calm, shiny sea, I swam for a while and then set out to accomplish my two goals for the day: 1. Do not get sunburned and 2. Eat ice cream. After taking care of these tasks, I retired to my towel to let the warmth of the sand radiate up into my muscles, turning me to a very contented jelly state, which lasted all afternoon. France was spoiling me and I knew it. Before we packed up our things to head back to town, I took a look at the blonde sand, the kids doing flips off the dock, the palm trees lining the street above, and tried to save it as a mental postcard for later.
Go before you go, they say, so when it was time to roll up our towels and hit the road, we stopped at a self-sanitizing public toilet on the way to the car. It was a small, sturdy, oval building with one heavy steel door and a system of red and green lights outside for your sanitary convenience. Cyril went in first and I waited outside, admiring the view.
As the setting sun turned the horizon to marmalade, a group of kids yelled and giggled, still diving off the dock and playing into the evening. Cyril finished in the bathroom and, ever the gentleman, held the door for me. An uneasy feeling came over me as it swung shut with a heavy metallic "clack.”
Surrounded by a damp darkness, I could hear water running somewhere. The metal squat pot started to sanitize itself a few feet away. Turning to leave, I slid my hands up and down the cool wet door, only to find a large panel with no handles or locks. I heaved my weight against it but it wasn’t about to budge. Although only a little bit of sanitizing spray from the toilet was hitting my feet, something wasn’t right.
I decided to wait it out next to the door when a mechanical click echoed in the dark room and from some hidden source, a clean smelling liquid exploded out in every direction, ricocheting off of shiny surfaces up into my face, through my clothes, and soaking my shoes. There was no time to think, so I panicked, banging on the door and trying to yell for help. What was this liquid made of? Would it burn my skin? Did it produce a gas? Please, someone do something!
I wondered what people passing by might have heard as they noticed the toilet running through its cycle with a muffled woman’s voice inside. Heaving my body against the door, I had to laugh when I saw my one hope of exit – a red button above a plaque that read "To exit … " The rest of the words were rubbed off. They say don’t push the red button. Why did the button have to be red?
Weighing the possible consequences of pushing it against the toxicity of the spray and the discomfort of wet, soapy clothes, I placed my finger on it, held my breath, and pushed. My weight still against it, the door swung open as the jets turned off and I found myself stumbling back into the sunny evening air, feet dripping on the sidewalk, boyfriend doubled over with laughter.
With the Basque hills fading into night behind us, we drove inland to once again face our daily lives. As my clothes dried in the wind I thought of the week to come, mentally listing a few things to remember. Don’t tolerate sarcastic students, make time to prepare lesson plans, appreciate the things around you, and never again let anyone hold the door for you in a self-sanitizing toilet. This little bit of advice will come in handy for anyone teaching English or visiting France.
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