That first visit came on our honeymoon in the late summer of 1971. We arrived in the city’s old quarter well after dark, driving a red Renault through its narrow, bumpy streets. I have no idea where we parked. But I do remember the hotel had a steep staircase to a second-floor reception desk, where a woman waited behind a glass partition.
A room, she said, would cost us the rough equivalent of $3 American. And it had a shower, something that had been missing from our low-budget lives for several days.
She requested our passports, which in those days every hotel in France held onto overnight to register the comings and goings of foreign travelers.
“Ah, but you are married,” she said, somewhat quizzically.
“Mais oui,” I said.
“Ah,” she said again, after a pause. “But so many aren’t.”
It didn’t take long to decipher her meaning. The room had a double bed that sagged in the center close to the floor from serious and active use. And the shower? It stood in the middle of the room, a drain in the floor more-or-less surrounded by a shower curtain. That was it.
We fell into bed exhausted. But soon the walls whispered, then sighed, then groaned. This was, shall we say, a hotel with a purpose, a place for liaisons of a nature we never did quite figure out.
The sun finally rose and it was time for our shower. As we soaped up, water splashed to the ground, puddled, then rolled across the floor. By the time we retreated to the car, weary-eyed and damp-soled, our towels were a heap of water-logged white atop the still-struggling drain.
Did the maid sop up the floors each day with a wet mop, we wondered? We didn’t wait to find out.
Four decades later, Aix is an upscale and fashionable city (though stand-and-squat toilets in some public spaces serve as a throw back to an earlier time). We’re renting an absolutely lovely apartment on the second story of a house, complete with 12-foot ceilings, two patios, Persian throw rugs, Provencal table cloths, and furniture and knick-knacks that date back to the era of our landlady’s grandparents. Though the house was built in 1936, its bathroom is spanking new, with gray tiles, red-and-white cabinets, a metal towel rack, and a sparkling glass shower with ample hot water. The only thing missing is a shower door; one side, you see, is completely open. And so when we shower quickly, huddling in the far corner away from the opening, we are careful to pat down the damp bathroom floor before we leave.
I am happy to say we have, in our first three weeks, avoided any serious crises. No floods. No piles of soggy towels. After one longish shower the other day, I did, however, have to address one troublesome puddle drifting toward the bathroom door.
Still, I think it’s safe to say definitively that the engineers of French plumping are advancing. All that remains to be discovered is the shower door.
This blog appeared first in the Huffington Post. It has been edited slightly here.