sur le palier

We are staying on the third (read fourth) floor of an older French house and my son asked me what the little doors were in the curves of the stairwell.  I know well. In the 1980s when I lived in Paris with Arnault in the 15th arrondissement in an apartment that was so cheap the 300 franc bill was quarterly, we did our business sur le palier.  We didn’t know our neighbors, mostly broke middle-aged men working like dogs and trying to save money for their families, their debts, or just stuck in misery. So we all brought our own toilet paper and went out into the common hallway to go to the bathroom.  Which is such a euphemism because really, it was just pooping or peeing. We lived on the ground floor so everyone coming into or leaving the building walked by our bathroom. The door didn’t go all the way to the bottom so it was easy to glance in and see a pair of shoes, or hear, or smell.  I was young and delighted at cheap rent. It was a Turkish toilet, two grooved enameled flat areas for the feet and a dirty hole that never really got flushed clean. In the winter it was bitter cold in the hallway and in the summer it stank. Sinks and showers were in people’s apartments so hands may or may not have been washed.  The worst part for me was needing to go and coming out on the landing, the palier, and seeing a pair of shoes under the door. I did not like to stand and listen to the business being done but I also knew that if I went back inside I was likely to lose my spot. When the person came out I had to say bonjour because we were in France but it’s a terrible bonjour to say to a stranger who has just done their business in your earshot.  

As humans we can adapt to hallway shitting, or to gently breezing very quiet Japanese toilets.  I think we can. I want to believe we can in this time of planetary crisis. Can’t many of us do with much less?  Smaller? Rougher? Shared? We have been in Toulouse almost a month and we have yet to find an actual apartment. But we live in such luxury in well-appointed airbnbs with sophisticated neighbors and shops that we can afford.  

I do not miss the paliers d’antan but I do think about living somewhere smaller, uglier, plainer so that my son can learn that even the most basic safe place to sleep is an utter luxury.  In our US culture a lot of us go camping to remember this. I am currently overwhelmed by the process of actually renting an apartment in France without being part of the French system but then I wonder, what do we really need?

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