My blog post about the predominance of ghastly pink toilet roll in France has proved to be one of the most popular ever, and there is a bit of an obsession about toilet tales on expat sites in general at the moment, so I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon with an extract from my book Heads Above Water that deals with our own traumatic toilet experiences. I originally posted it a couple of years ago but took it down when The Telegraph wanted to publish it in their expat newspaper. However, time to repost it!


The Exploding Toilet

The chemipotti was proving to be hard going. Even though we all used it as little as possible, adopting the French habit of peeing al fresco, the wretched thing always seemed to be full. We started off emptying it down the existing pit, which was beneath the old wooden seat at the back of the loo with a view. But then we began to worry about where exactly that was going, so we then dug holes around our property and disposed of the contents in line with the instructions that came with the loo. This isn’t one of those jobs you relish. So when the Sun-Mar Centrex 2000 (third generation, three chamber) arrived, you’d have thought we’d won the pools. We were delighted.

Composting loos work like this. They recycle the waste on the spot by evaporating the liquids and converting the solids to fertiliser. Aerobic bacteria convert the carbon atoms in the waste to carbon dioxide and the hydrogen atoms to water. You’re left with 3% of what you started with. The toilet uses very little water for flushing, less than a pint. The kit consisted of a toilet (with a foot pedal flush), a substantial biodrum and plenty of connecting pipes. The biodrum has three chambers, one each dedicated to composting, evaporating and finishing. You need to crank the drum over after each use. This shakes the liquid component into the evaporating chamber, leaving the dry matter to compost. Now, of course, this dry matter needs to be removed periodically. This time you turn the biodrum’s handle backwards so that the evaporating unit is sealed, and then you can pull out the drawer that contains the compost. And that’s probably enough detail about this ingenious and eco-friendly invention.

As I mentioned, the biodrum was substantial. So substantial, in fact, we couldn’t get it through the front door. Hmm. OK, it would have to come in through the window. It made it by about 1mm each side, after we temporarily removed a few sticky-out things on it. And it wasn’t a lightweight item, made for easily slipping through openings a couple of feet off the ground. It took the combined efforts of the whole family to heave it up onto the window sill (which bears the scars to this day). Leaving one person on each end to hold it still, the rest of us raced round to help lower it more or less gently into the room. Slightly scratched and dented, we shoved it into place in the corner of the room.

The toilet had to be a metre or so above the biodrum to allow for a good drop. Ideally, the toilet goes on the ground floor and the drum in the basement – it’s a Canadian design and they’re pretty big on basements over there. Not so the Creuse masons who built our house. Most houses in this area don’t have cellars, which seems unusual for France. It’s more to do with the heavy, waterlogged soil. So to install our system correctly, we built a platform for the loo in the shower room. Half a dozen steps led up to it. This room became the throne room. I painted the platform red, white and blue to jolly things up a bit. It was impressive.

After a month or two of constant use, the loo was fairly full. It would soon be time to remove some of the composting material. But before we could, the worst happened. There was a toilet explosion. I was turning the handle in the usual way one morning, when suddenly there was a clunky, grounchy sort of noise and – a tidal wave of shit washed across the floor. I fled for the door, screaming for Chris. He came hurtling from upstairs – and joined me in looking in horror at the scene of devastation. The floor was covered with poo. It was heading for the kitchen. We grabbed implements, were fortunately already wearing our wellies – we lived in them these days – and did our best to contain the creeping crap. One thing in particular stunned us. Had we really eaten that much sweetcorn?

Recovering from the initial shock, the repercussions began.

“What did you do to the toilet?” Chris demanded.

“Nothing!” I protested. “Honestly! I just turned the handle.”

poo_shovellingChris glared at me disbelievingly. But we later discovered that the dratted thing hadn’t been working properly from day one. Something had got of alignment along the way, most probably during the biodrum’s airborne antics through the window. Everything we had deposited into it had been heading straight into the evaporating chamber, instead of only the liquid. That chamber of the drum had simply got overloaded, and unluckily I was the one in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So, for the next day and a half, our other jobs went onto the back burner. Everything stopped so we could shovel shit. Into buckets it went, and then, well, just don’t ask me what we did with it. Oh boy, the stench. Even with scarves tied tightly across our noses and mouths, we were constantly retching. The poo had got everywhere – down through the floor boards into whatever lay beneath, into every single nook and cranny and it had been soaked up by the plaster at the base of the walls. Would we ever get it all dealt with? We didn’t have a choice. Poo isn’t the sort of thing you can leave lying around. But even after we had finished, the smell hung around, an unpleasant, malevolent miasma clinging to everything in the house. It was hideous, vile and stomach-turning. And Philippe, the estate agent, chose then to come and see how we were getting on. He brought his new business partner with him, who was every bit as dapper as he was. We were grubby and dishevelled, since were starting to pull down plaster from the walls now, and dispirited, which is what two days’ of shovelling shit does to you. Believe me. You don’t need to go and try it for yourselves. And smelly. The miasma clung to us too. We explained what had happened, but whether they bought it or not, I don’t know. Tales of inland seas of shit aren’t commonplace in central France.