Stories from a French bathroom

Everybody has a repertoire of anecdotes, those little stories you pull out at social occasions when you want to contribute to the conversation. Some anecdotes are worn, such as the ones my grandmother tells me over and over. Some are sour, like that story about you that your mom keeps bringing up that really isn’t funny at all. And some are just plain dull. Many, however, succeed in being funny, or interesting, or at the very least informative, and as study abroad experiences become more and more common, the study abroad anecdote is gaining in popularity. In fact, you might even say it’s becoming a cliché. Doesn’t every study abroad student have that story of “the time I got lost in a country where I don’t really speak the language?” Or how about “that time I made a fool of myself by confusing two words that sound similar but don’t mean the same thing at all?” Well, here I offer you my own anecdote, the first of my semester abroad, falling under that slightly less common category of “that time I locked myself in the bathroom and couldn’t get out.”

It was the end of my first day in France. In the past 24 hours, I had gone from car to plane to train to taxi. I had met at least a dozen other students from my program as well as all seven members of my host family. I had sat through a dinner where we spoke only French, and I had done it all on three hours of sleep. Naturally, I was eager to slip away from the commotion of five children at one table, take a shower and go to bed. It is worth noting here that in French homes, the toilet and the shower are in different rooms, thus the bathroom (salle de bain) is really only for bathing. I almost locked myself in the toilet, too, which would have made for a much more embarrassing story, but I figured that lock out after a moment of trying. In the bathroom, however, the steam from my shower made the already-stubborn lock too slippery to grip well. I tried turning it to the right, but my hand slipped. I tried turning it to the left. It wouldn’t budge. I wiped my hand on the hem of my nightgown and — with deliberate patience — made another attempt. No luck. Okay, Lauren, remain calm. You can do this. My continued efforts, while not accompanied by any cries for assistance or muttered profanities, attracted the attention of one of my host brothers.

“Peus-tu ouvrir la porte?”

What? Oh yeah, French. I had been thinking in English for the past half hour, but the person on the other side of the door could only communicate with me in French. If only I knew the words for “doorknob” and “a lock.” I was capable of little more than, “Yes, the door is closed.” Really helpful.

So much for quietly slipping away from the family to shower and go to bed! My host brother went to fetch his parents, who were accompanied by the other two sons, and the commotion outside the door soon attracted the little girls who had been sleeping in the next room. I turned the lock this way. I turned it that way. I followed my host mom’s instructions and used a towel for better grip, but it was not the steamy shower that caused the problem so much as the stubborn lock. Finally, I heard steps retreating down the hallway as my host mother spoke through the door to say something about my host father and “un outil.” A tool. He was going to get a tool. What exactly was he planning to do with it? Was he planning to take the knob off the door!? Why don’t the French have keys for these things!?! I stepped away from the door and looked at myself in the mirror. Don’t cry, Lauren. You’ll only make it worse. For as crummy as this is right now, this will make for an excellent story later.

My host father returned, and I saw the screws of the door knob plate begin to spin. Before anything was removed, I was told to try the lock again. No luck. Finally, my host father gave a command in English: “Turn it to the left.” With great effort, I forced the lock to the left, and — finally! — the door came open. Had “turn it to the left” been the solution all along? I looked at my host family, all seven of them gathered there in the hallway, looking back at the American student who had just locked herself in the bathroom. On only three hours of sleep, I could have broken down in tears, but, as I told myself, this was going to be a great story. I would laugh about it later. I had to. So I looked sheepishly at all of them and offered “désolée” — sorry — before retreating quickly to my room and closing the door.

I put away my toiletries and sat on the bed. Did that really have to happen to me today? Did it have to happen at all? But I knew this kind of experience isn’t so out of the ordinary. Everybody has an anecdote like this. And even if it’s sour, worn, dull or cliché, the very existence of “the anecdote” still contributes to our lives by providing a lighthearted lens through which to view those trying experiences.

After locking myself in the salle de bain on my first night in France and causing the entire family to come to my aid, I knew that someday — not that night, but someday — the experience would serve me well, and I could choose to see it not as “the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,” but as the kind of funny story you bring out at parties. Or, in the absence of a party, the kind of thing you write about for TKS. So, Knox College, here’s to the crazy, awkward, embarrassing things that happen to us, and to the stories we tell about them later.

Tags:  France Lauren Styczynski study abroad

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