Monday, February 28, 2011

Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why...

Tennyson wasn't talking about French bureaucracy, but he might as well have been. Why war, why me, why are we all here on this earth? It's all so absurd. And when it comes to absurd, why the hell are there so many useless rules in France for which no one can explain the logic.

Spend much time in France, as I have, and you quickly learn not to make reply or reason why you have to do this, or can't do that. But I keep doing it anyway. It's my damn anglo mind. A case in point:

During our second week here, we decided to spend the afternoon in Antibes, which is just a few train stops away from Nice. Emily would nap at home in the morning while Chloe and I would hang out at the local park. We would all meet up at the train station at around eleven.

Well, Chloe and I arrive at the train station a little bit early, as I desperately need to go to the bathroom. If you've never been to France, there's a whole make-work project here that rivals toll booths. In France, most public washrooms are minded by a gate keeper - a man or a woman who takes your 50 centimes to let you use the facilities. Now don't get me wrong; although I think the money collector could easily be replaced by a simple coin slot, I don't mind at all paying to use the washroom. Anyone who's ever tried to use a free washroom in Europe will understand why. And to be fair, the gate keeper is often the person who keeps the facilities in a clean condition.

The problem with the washroom gate keepers (besides that they can be touchy  at parties when asked what they do for a living - o.k., low blow, but they're not on my good side right now) is that they wield so much power, albeit within very confined parameters. You can't go to the washroom until Saint Peter has let you past the gate. End of story. And on this fateful day, Saint Peter wasn't letting me or my Peter by. And why?

Well, Chloe and I arrive at the washroom with my 50 centimes ready to hand to Lav man and Miss Tinkle (yes, there were actually two guards at this washroom) when we're told that Chloe will have to remain outside of the washroom. "Non non Monsieur. You cannot bring your child into the washroom with you. She is female....." (appreciate my pause here).

Me: But she's two years old. I can't leave her outside of the washroom by herself.
Miss Tinkle: Oh, don't worry sir. We are professionals. We'll watch her.
Me: Ah... I don't feel comfortable leaving my toddler with anyone she doesn't know.
Chloe: Daddy, don't leave me here (clutching my wrist).
Lav man: It's fine. Your girl will be fine here.
Me: Look, she's only two. Can't I bring her with me.
Miss Tinkle: Absolutely not. A girl cannot be allowed into the men's washroom.

At this point I'm right ticked off (I know, I should be thinking of Tennyson's quote). I march right up to the customer service desk at the train station and tell the gentleman behind the desk what's been going on. He gives me the strangest look (as if to say, are you kidding me) and starts making calls on his walkie. Finally, I think, someone's taking me off this crazy train.

Well, before long, Chloe and I are being escorted by an SNCF (train company) official back to the washroom. Great, I think. Let's let the loo duo have it. So the train guy goes up to the guards, removes his hat (like he's entering a church) and asks very nicely why Chloe and I can't go in. The bathroom guards give the same answer, naturally, and the SNCF official turns to me and says, "well sir, that's apparently the rule. But leave your child here with me and I'll look after her."

Me: Pardon me? I just want to take her in with me.
SNCF: Well that's just not possible. I haven't got all day, so you had better make up your mind what you're doing.
Chloe: Daddy, don't go (crying)
Me: Well I guess I'm not going to the washroom.
SNCF: You're very stubborn sir.
Me: Stubborn! My little girl is going to cry her eyes out.
SNCF: Then let her cry. A little crying won't hurt her.
Me: I will not let her cry for no good reason. This is absurd (getting on my high anglo horse). There's no good reason in the world for not letting her in. You're the ones being stubborn. It's a ridiculous rule.
SNCF: You're just stubborn sir (quite mad).

The crazy part is, in French culture, nobody ever wants to leave a person without a solution. It's a duty to find you an answer and fix the problem. But at the same time, roles and responsibilities, turf so to speak, are clearly defined, and SNCF didn't want to trample all over the the loo duo's domain. So the SNCF official was left just as frustrated as I. In the end, it was really quite funny, although I didn't find it so at the time.

One last funny note to this story. I went back to the customer service desk to vent my frustration. By then, the gentleman who had seemed to be on my side at first had already been radioed about my stubbornness. He said, "I'm sorry sir, there's nothing more we can do. Apparently it's a state law in France. You'll have to speak to the police if you have a problem with it."

As you can imagine, there's no state law (this is a country where people pee freely everywhere). But since it's impossible to explain some of the sillier rules in France (Chloe goes with me into every other washroom in the country), the French will often simply try to give the rules more authority, e.g., telling me that lave lady's bathroom rule is a state law.

The moral of the story: Break the rules, ignore the rules, try to get around the rules. The French do all of these things daily. I found out during this fiasco that had I simply said that Chloe needed the washroom, we could have used the private kids washroom (this would be a family washroom at home). But once I said it was for me, I was told that I couldn't use that one. It's only for kids.

But never ask why a rule exists. It's as existential a question as, why am I here?


  1. I have been reading your blog since you arrived (I love it by the way!)and this one I laughed out loud, good on ya Sean! I'm sure all us parents on this side of the pond would have done the same thing and had the same reaction too I might add!

  2. Thanks Tanya. I had a feeling I wasn't the only parent who found leaving their child with strangers a little... well strange. But it's all part of the experience - one that doesn't frustrate us very often, to be honest. Usually we're commenting on how lovely both the people and the city are.

  3. Ah, good lesson learned: "it's for the child" then you get in without being labelled stubborn :) Keep having fun!

  4. You are a patient, patient man. I tip my hat to you, sir... Funny how they merely called you stubborn, when in fact they actually suspected you of being some sort of pedophile.

  5. Ha... I thought of that at first, but then I realized that if I had been bringing a little boy, apparently it would have been fine. No, I think it's just that they weren't making any exceptions for crossing the male/female bathroom divide. In France, little rules are little rules and, unlike in North America, people just aren't accustomed to reassessing them or accommodating changes. Just try leaving a grocery store through the entrance - a whole security force will come down on you.