No. 11 Eau the Toilette
Here’s my dilemma. My daughter, Faith, and I spent five glorious days in Paris, one of my favorite cities. The one-bedroom flat where we stayed was slightly less glorious. Airbnb pressured me for a review—How was your stay? The owner reviewed you, find out what they said!
Just how many stars do you award to an owner who tried, only partially successfully, to make your stay comfortable? What would you do in the situation below? Take the poll to let me know.
The afternoon we arrived in Paris, we lugged the suitcase up two flights of stairs to our Airbnb. We were eager to shower off the overnight flight and take a nap.
The apartment was located in the Quartier de l’Opera, and perfectly sized for two people, with a galley kitchen, living and dining rooms, and a single bedroom. Large windows ushered in the sounds of the enclosed courtyard below. A full bathroom was divided into two separate spaces—the tub and sink, and a closet with toilet.
Faith slipped into the toilet closet, and moment later there was a shout of disgust. She bolted out again trailing a cloud of gnats that had ballooned from the toilet bowl. They flew in drunken liberation into the living room. When we opened the other bathroom door, the air was a wet slap. With no windows for ventilation, the tub had grown its own colony of trapped gnats. They were overjoyed to reunite and inbreed with their cousins.
To make matters worse, the tub had no hot water. A recon of the kitchen faucet yielded the same result. I don’t know a lot about the mysterious inner workings of household plumbing, but the blinking red light on the hot water heater seemed bad. Faith and I gave up on showers and went to bed in our travel-stress sweat.
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The homeowner, let’s call her Claudette, apologized in a reply to my email and said she’d have someone come fix the hot water. I hadn’t mentioned the gnats. Not to worry, she assured me, the handyperson had a key in case we were asleep. When we awoke the next morning, Victoire, the building manager, had left a bag of croissants and a note that the chaudière, hot water heater, was broken. The croissants were delicious, but it felt a little off-putting that a strange man had been in the apartment while we slept.
In the meantime, Claudette arranged for us to bathe in an empty studio apartment in another building. Very thoughtful. Unfortunately, we had timed tickets for the Musee d’Orsay and didn’t have the time to shower right then.
That evening, when we entered the Airbnb, a bike helmet and a wrench sat on the kitchen counter. “Hello,” I called. Even as I reasoned that most thieves or serial killers would probably have hidden their bike helmet and wrench to maintain the element of surprise, I still didn’t like returning to a stranger in the apartment. A middle-aged man poked a salt-and-pepper head out of the dining room.
“Hallo,” he replied. The man explained to us in pidgin frenglish that he restored the hot water, but the tank was now leaking. A slender white tube dangled from the bottom and dripped into a bucket. I thought it was strange that plumbers in France rode bikes to their jobs and only carried one tool. I frenglished back that I wouldn’t let the bucket overflow.
While Faith showered, I went to get a drink of cold water from the kitchen faucet. There wasn’t any. Cold water, I mean. I turned the knob back and forth and nothing came out. The hot water worked, but now the cold was broken. I filled my bottle with steamy water and stuck it in the fridge to cool off. I was irritated, but resolved to live with it.
Until I tried to flush the toilet. No cold water = no flush.
Perceptive readers may have noted the name of this newsletter. A functioning bathroom is almost as important as oxygen. Even almost as important as chocolate.
I didn’t panic immediately. We could still use the toilet if we put the used paper in the trash can. It was 3:45 am when I emailed Claudette.
In the morning, she replied that her dad had forgotten to re-open the cold-water valve before he left the previous night. That explained the bike and wrench. As aggravated as I was about the water, I found it touching that Claudette had called her father. He’d probably been working all day and was looking forward to relaxing at home. Instead, he’d biked across the city with the only tool he could carry because his daughter needed help. It was the sort of thing my dad would have done for me. It was the sort of thing my husband would do for our daughter.
I softened a little as I rotated the red lever that Claudette’s dad had forgotten. Cold water flowed from the tap once again. Oh happy hour, it was time to flush the toilet.
If you’ve been to Europe before, you’ll know that they have a different flushing apparatus on their toilets than the US does. Rather than a handle on the side, there is a divided button on the top of the tank. Push half the button for a baby flush, the whole button for a monster flush.
I gave it the full thumb monster flush treatment. Nothing happened. I pressed it again, harder. A hollow clink resounded in the tank. It hadn’t refilled. The inability to flush was no longer due to the lack of cold water. Maybe something was just wrong with the toilet. I’d have to take a look inside the tank.
The flush button is intricately connected to the inner workings of the tank. As a result, the lid of the tank didn’t simply lift off. I tried to Google a quick tutorial in European toilet tank top removal—as one does—but the apartment’s internet chose that moment to go out and stay out.
Try as I might, I couldn’t remove the lid. Some little doohickey was hanging on tight. If I pulled harder, I would damage the toilet. But what other choice did I have? Hang my bottom out the window and shout “Gardez l’eau” (Watch the water!) like they did when emptying chamber pots into the street?
I yanked on the lid. With a metallic screech, it pulled free. When I reached into the tank and manually lifted the rubber stopper that initiates the flush, the toilet flushed but wouldn’t refill. That’s when I heard the plop, plop, plop on my shoe. The waterline that filled the tank had sprung a leak. The gnats now had an indoor swimming pool that spanned the confines of the closet floor.
The shut-off valve was rusted, but turned enough to choke off the leak. I collected the chaudière bucket from the kitchen, and dumped the contents into the toilet tank to refill it. It would be a multi-step manual process to get the toilet to function, but at least it would work.
Wednesday morning, the housekeeper came in with her key to tidy up while we were out. Was there anyone in Paris who didn’t have a key? The gnats had hidden in our toothbrush bristles, and released in a cloud of welcome when we came home.
Friday morning, professional plumbers charged with replacing the hot water heater were waiting for us to leave. It worked out well that Faith and I took a day trip to Tours. The heater was installed when we got back a little after midnight. The toilet, however, had not been fixed, despite Claudette’s instructions.
The gnats were still happy at least.
In the end, Claudette refunded one night’s stay to compensate us. It amounted to twenty percent of the rental cost. I appreciated it. She didn’t have to. But I felt forty percent inconvenienced by not having internet, a reliable toilet, and an apartment not available tot half of Paris.
Which brings me back to my dilemma. Our accommodation was unsatisfactory in a number of ways for the duration of our stay. Balance that against the charm of the flat, captured in part by the photograph I took of the dining room below and how hard
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Claudette had tried to remedy the situation while also trying to keep the inconvenience to a minimum. Add further the fact that Claudette’s apartment only had three reviews. Whatever I gave would have a major impact on their overall score.
Should I rate it according to my own experience, or the happiness of the gnats?
I asked Faith how many stars she would give our Airbnb. She shrugged. “It got the job done.” Not a ringing endorsement, but better than a box in the alley.
How many stars would you leave?
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