Daniel left toilet paper with little pink flowers on it in our apartment.
I know this flowery TP is not mine because sometimes on an entire wall of toilet paper in France, there’s just one pack that isn’t pink or flower-patterned. And I go out of my way to find it.
Daniel is my virutal roommate. He’s the Swiss professor I share an apartment with in this mountain town in eastern France. We don’t actually live together – for the last few months, we’ve had a set-up that goes like this: He trusts me with a set of keys and we trade another set second set back and forth – he goes to Canada or Lebanon for a few months for work, and I come here to Grenoble for work and live in his apartment. When he occasionally comes back, I telecommute to my job in France (from my laptop in my living room in Milan).
Obviously we met online (via a site called LeBonCoin, which is a sort of French Craigslist where you can find anything. Look it up if you’re moving to France.) We’ve exchanged dozens of emails about dates and mail box keys, but met in person just once. We traded life stories over a beer and judged each other mutually trustworthy. But apparently we have different opinions about toilet paper.
This is the first time I’m writing about living in France, and instead of telling you about all the éclairs I eat, or how beautiful the Alps are from my window, what I’m going to tell you first is that I despise the toilet paper here.
And I was once certain I had a good reason for this TP rage, but now I’m not so sure.
The reason was this: My practical mother made sure I learned to never buy scented pads or tampons – because (logically) you don’t want cheap perfume in or around important, delicate body parts. When I got to France, I guess I applied the same logic to the pink dye in so many rolls of French TP.
But it was so much more than that. I found the pink weird and unnecessary and just so useless. It just seemed so prissy to try to dress up something that does not need to be dressed up.
In other words, it was new and foreign, so I decided it was The Dumbest Thing Ever.
Yet I never noticed that for my entire life I’ve used scented soaps and body washes on those delicate body parts. I only even thought of this because of a different European quirk: Italian “intimate wash.”
When I moved to Italy and started living with my boyfriend (long before he was my husband), I asked him why he had special “intimate” soap in the shower. He made a face like he was realizing for the first time that I might be disgusting.
“What do you use?”
Probably something scented, artificially colored, non-Ph-balanced, unhygienic bar of soap, as is normal where I’m from. This is what I’m used to, so I don’t think about it. Even if maybe it’s no less ridiculous than pink toilet paper in France.
When it struck me as weird that I felt so strongly about toilet paper, two things came to my mind:
First was that I was probably exaggerating how important this little thing was (but that didn’t make the reaction any less automatic).
If you travel and can just get past that “ewww / gross / weird / that’s-dumb / that-doesn’t-make-sense / that-must-be-so-unhealthy” reaction, you can see so many different ways of living in the world.
That’s one of my favorite things about visiting places I’ve never been (or places where I’ve been but I still feel foreign). They give me that refreshing opportunity to see everything through a different lens – myself, my language, my habits.
The second thing I realized was that it’s these wonderful little things that aren’t changing with globalization.
Everything in the world may seem international at this point, but the details are always local. You can book a flight or rent an apartment nearly anywhere. But the more you zoom in, the more you realize how different and diverse places still are. Not everything is as simple as it looks online.
Food is more often my topic of choice (not toilet paper) to talk about how distinct and rich and specific cultures still are (despite globalization – hello Starbucks in Milan). To me, food is this huge, important, amazingly fun topic that is one of the most interesting carriers of culture.
But the small, unimportant, boring things that are so easy to ignore might keep me just as attached to where I’m from, and aware of where I’m not from. Even down to the pink toilet paper in France.