When traveling to another country there is above all one question Americans must learn to ask in the native language of the nation they visit.
It has nothing to do with food, directly. It isn't a request for water or directions to an historical site and it has nothing to do with how many dollars are in a euro.
The question is: "Where is the restroom."
Earlier this summer we spent three wonderful weeks in France.
Before we left my wife spent months studying about the country and it's customs and sites.
"You haven't done anything to get ready for this trip," she said. "You really need to get going. You have a lot to learn about France."
I told her I'd read up on the flight over, but instead I watched a movie and slept.
Fortunately, the people in France were very friendly and wonderful. They did everything they could to help us. The food and drink was spectacular.
And the restrooms were, well, let's just say: vive la difference!
People have asked if I missed anything from home during our travels. I have to say I missed our own home bathroom.
In the United States when we look for "facilities" we usually ask for the "restroom," which is a strange term, or maybe the "men's room" if we're male. We never ask for the toilet, which is what we're really after. "Toilet" is a little too direct a world for us. We try to soften if with euphemisms.
In France they are a little more to the point. They call the "rest room" what it actually is, the "toilette," although with a French pronunciation it does sound a bit more delicate and refined and more like place where women go to powder their nose.
One lovely evening near the Seine with Notre Dame Cathedral within view, we stopped at a beautiful café. The waiter arrived, dressed in black pants, a white long-sleeved shirt and tie and a white apron that reached his ankles.
I had an immediate need.
Me: "Bonjour monsieur. Où sont les toilettes?"
Waiter: " Excusez-moi?"
Me: "Toilettes, toilets, you know, the WC, restroom . . ."
Waiter: "Ah, toilettes. I'm sorry. Sometimes we have a little trouble understanding Americans when you speak French."
Me: "You think our French is bad? You should hear the British complain about our English."
I was amazed at how many people in France speak English and how willing they are to convert to our language if you at least try to speak French first. But sometimes they don't even understand our English when the words are the same in both languages.
Me: "Thank you for speaking English. But I'll keep trying my French. Premièrement, deux feux Coca-Cola veuillez."
Waiter: " Excusez-moi?"
Me: "Coke. Coca-Cola light. You know, polar bear ads on TV, Santa Claus."
Waiter: "Ah, yes, Coca-Cola. Why didn't you say so?
Me: "Thank you. And you can direct me to the men's room."
Waiter: "Oui monsieur. The toilette is all the way in the back and down the stairs."
The men's rooms in France are very different from what you find here in Indiana. They are clean and well supplied. They also are filled with women.
There are basically three different types of toilettes in France. One has completely separate facilities for men and women. Another has separate doors leading to men's and women's facilities from a shared sink area for washing up. The third kind puts everyone together with stalls beside stand-ups.
It's a little unusual for a guy from Indiana, But c'est la vie! When in France, do as the French do.
The first time I encountered this I entered what I thought was the men's room and it was full of women. I counted five of them, turned around and left very quickly. Outside, I looked at the signs to make sure I had not made a mistake and gone to the wrong place. I was afraid I would be arrested.
But no. This was a unisex toilette.
I stood outside and counted until all five women were gone and then I re-entered as stealthily as I could.
A group of women followed me inside. It was too late. There was nothing for me to do but face the wall and try not to act like I was from Indiana in the USA.
I was told before we left the United States that it was not only polite, but also proper to always greet people you encounter in France.
Does this include meeting women in the toilette? Was I supposed to turn my head and say, "Bonjour madams?"
I decided against it and got out of there as fast as I could.
At the café with our Coca-Cola Lights ordered I made my way to the very back and down the stairs to the toilettes. I had some experience by this time and knew what to expect. I found a single open door with a sit down stall and went in. It wasn't long before someone was pulling at the door impatient to get it.
I hurried as fast as I could.
When I opened the door a French women was waiting. She was in an extreme hurry and excitedly pointed out another toilette next door that was suitable for men, but not women. I hadn’t seen it. She proceeded to scold me in French for using the wrong room when she was facing an emergency.
When a woman is letting you have it up one side and down the other in French for using her toilette there is only one thing for a guy from Indiana to do and that is skedaddle. As fast as he can.
I rushed out and sat down at the café table beside my wife for protection.
Wife: "What's the matter? What happened?"
Me: "You don't want to know."
But she was definitely right. I did have a lot more to learn about France."