The case of the permutating toilet

A reader describes an eye-opening encounter with a permutating toilet in Normandy, France.

By "Au Chateau"

Published March 13, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

On a recent trip to Normandy, my husband and I purposefully chose an old brasserie for our lunch, avoiding the nearby McDonald's. I was so taken by the atmosphere that I ordered a dish I had heard of called tripes ` la mode de Caen. I knew that it involved some sort of organ meat, but the French have a way with innards, and I thought I would enjoy it.

As it turned out, not even the strongest wine could fortify me enough to eat this dish, which was a gray honeycomb of cow stomach lining in broth. While I was pondering this culinary curiosity, my husband, Joey, was having an even more surreal experience in the toilet.

Keep in mind that this building probably dated to the 18th century, with most fixtures conforming to that era. It was no surprise that the toilet cost 1 franc to enter -- we figured the French have been charging people for a place to relieve themselves since the 18th century.

But as Joey discovered, this toilet was state of the art.

The commode was tall and had a contraption on it that looked like a drawbridge. Special instructions were written in French and English on the side. Next to the instructions was a dramatic blue button.

The English instructions read:

"1. Flush by pressing on the blue square.
2. Leave the toilet.
3. The cabinet's door opens: the seats permutate" (in French it read, "s'interchangent").

Joey didn't bother to read the instructions, or if he did, found them obtuse anyway -- so while he was in the middle of peeing, he pushed the blue button, as it was irresistible. Of course, all hell broke loose. The seat (drawbridge) came down and closed, water swooshed around, gears whirred, Joey was peeing on top of something, and then a whole new toilet seat emerged!

After cleaning up, he told me about his harrowing brush with the WC, and I had to go down to see it. It was better behaved for me, but no less bizarre. Apparently, it sterilizes one seat and puts out another for the next person -- the seats permutate indeed!

"Au Chateau"

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