Readings — From the October 2013 issue

Is Paris Bathing?

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From 112 Gripes About the French, a 1945 handbook for American soldiers in occupied France, edited and republished this month by the Bodleian Library.

“Why isn’t there decent plumbing in French houses? The toilet facilities are disgusting!”

They are. What should the French do about it? It takes money to have decent plumbing. That’s why so many people in France don’t have it. That’s why so many people in our own United States don’t have decent plumbing, either. The Germans have much better plumbing than the French — the Germans could afford it. Most French buildings are very old: it’s harder to install plumbing in an old house than in a new one.

“French cities are filthy.”

The French haven’t had paint for a long time. In some cities and districts, the acute shortage of gasoline prevents refuse trucks from making daily rounds. French cities and houses are a great deal older than ours; old cities and houses smell more than new ones.

“The French are unsanitary.”

The French have a lower living standard than we in the United States. So do the Poles, the Russians, the Greeks, the Yugoslavs, the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Hindus, the Turks, and most of the other peoples of the world. Sanitary standards rise as the standard of living rises. It is not cheap to install modern plumbing.

“The French don’t bathe.”

The French don’t bathe often enough. They can’t. They have had no soap worthy of the name since 1940. The Germans took the soap, for four years. That’s a long time.

“You ride on the subway and the smell almost knocks you out. Garlic, sweat — and perfume!”

You smell garlic because the French, who are superb cooks, use more of it than we do. You smell sweat because the French must use a very poor ersatz soap — and don’t get enough of that. You smell perfume because French women would rather smell of perfume than of an unwashedness which they dislike as much as you do. Incidentally, the Chinese will confess to you, if you’re a friend, that the scent of white people, no matter how well scrubbed they are, is unpleasant to the Chinese.

“The French villages are pigsties. They pile their manure right in front of the houses.”

Some French villages are pigsties. Others are not. The malodorous custom of piling manure in front of houses is practiced in many villages throughout Europe, including many villages in south and central Germany.

“I’d like the French a lot better if they were cleaner.”

That’s perfectly understandable.

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