01 July 2007

French rules for taking a shower

This week I've been reading the blog of a woman from Tennessee who is spending three weeks studying French in Aix-en-Provence and living with a "family" in that city.

It's interesting to me because my first trip ever to France was a six-month study program in Aix-en-Provence. That was more than 35 years ago. It seems to me that some things haven't changed much, and one has to do with American expectations about what it will be like to "live with a French family."

Here's how Kathy from Tennessee described an incident that had to do with taking her first shower in her landlady's apartment in Aix. Isabelle the landlady had been out the evening before, when her new boarder arrived, so the two hadn't even met yet. The man named Markus was living in the other room that Isabelle rented out to students. He and Kathy were to share the bathroom. Christine is Isabelle's daughter, who was arriving for a visit from overseas.
I went to bed Sunday night before Isabelle and Christine arrived from the airport, and unfortunately my first meeting with Isabelle was not ideal. Markus and I had decided the night before that I would shower at 6:45 and he would shower at 7:15. I was wide awake at 6:15 and decided to go ahead and get my shower out of the way, perhaps around 6:30 am. It never occurred to me that this would be a problem. I was showering away (with a handheld shower attachment), when BANG BANG BANG!!! It was Isabelle. NON, NON, NON!!!! I ended my shower as quickly as possible, put on my clothes, and went out to meet her. I had gotten up too early! I had woken up everyone else! And (worse offense), I had used too much water! I wasn’t supposed to keep the water on non-stop! I was supposed to get myself wet, turn it off, use the soap, turn it on, ecetera, ecetera, all in rapid-fire French. “Je suis désolée!!!” “Pardon, Madame!!” Oh my goodness… I was off to a terrible beginning.
The French have always been very frugal when it comes to using electricity, in my experience, and one of the most electicity-intensive electrical appliances in a house or apartment is the water heater. I learned years ago that the way you take a shower in France is to turn on the water just long enough to get wet and then turn it off again. With the water off, you shampoo your hair and soap up your body. Then you turn the water back on just long enough to rinse off.

I learned to shower that way because an apartment I lived in in Paris in the late 1970s and early 1980s had a very tiny water heater. It held 30 litres, I believe, of hot water. That's just seven or eight gallons. If I left the water running non-stop during my shower, it would be cold before I finished bathing.

Our water heater here at La Renaudière is bigger. It holds 200 litres, or 53 U.S. gallons. I don't know how much water a typical U.S. water heater holds. Here, if Walt and I both take showers and we use a good amount of hot water in the kitchen that day, the hot water runs out.

It runs out because of the way our electrical system, and most electrical system in most French houses, is set up. The water heater is on a special timed circuit that is controlled by the breaker box. The water heater comes on at about 10:30 p.m. when electrical rates go down, and cuts itself off again at about 5:30 when the rates go back up. Water is heated only during night hours, and once you use up all the water in the tank, that's it for the day. Unless, of course, you remember and decide to go down to the circuit breaker panel and flip the switch that turns the water heater on during daylight hours.

It's very ecological and economical, when you think about it. Water gets heated at nighttime rates, which are about half as high as daytime rates. Many days, you don't even need all the hot water in the tank, so what's the point of having the water heater on all day? It's a waste of electricity. And the by-product of generating electricity is pollution and greenhouse gases. Global warming. Climate change. Ecological nightmare scenarios.

French washing machines, and dishwashers also come with timers so that you can program them to run overnight, when electricity is cheaper. That's what we do. And the washing machine and dishwasher heat their own water, so they don't take water out of the water heater tank when they run. The one mystery we haven't solved, however, is why the normal washing cycle takes two hours to complete in France, rather than the 35 or 40 minutes an American washer needs.

So remember this when you come to France and go to take a shower. [1] Get wet, [2] turn off the water, [3] soap up, [4] turn the water back on, and [5] rinse off. That's the drill. Don't keep the water on the whole time you are in the shower. Ça ne se fait pas — it's just not done that way.

Walt says that when he lived in a boarding house in Paris in 1981, he was allowed two showers a week. If he stayed in the bathroom more than 10 minutes at a time, the boarding house owner would come and start banging on the door, telling him his time was up and to hurry up and finish.

Oh, and if you end up with a bathtub that has a shower attachment but no enclosure or curtain, do it this way. Run two or three inches of hot water into the bottom of the tub. Get in, splash around in that, and soap up. Then pull the plug to let the soapy water out and, while still seated, turn the water back on and direct the flow through the shower attachment. Rinse off while seated, being as careful as you can not to spray water all over the bathroom. It's nice to find, when you finish bathing and want to dry off, that you haven't gotten your towel sopping wet while you were showering.


  1. "The one mystery we haven't solved, however, is why the normal washing cycle takes two hours to complete in France, rather than the 35 or 40 minutes an American washer needs."

    Because it's better for the clothes! Just a guess, though!

  2. Why would it be better for the clothes to flop around inside that little tank for 2 hours, as opposed to sloshing around in a lot more water in an American machine for 40 minutes or less?

    I think the difference must have to do with the amount of water (a precious commodity, though most people don't think of it as such) the machines use -- less in the case of French-style machines, more with American machines. But friends of mine say that they can't understand why using less water would require tripling the time the clothes stay in the machine.

  3. I remember when I was a teenager staying over for a week at one of my friends' parents.
    Everyone there took one bath a week, mother and daughter in the same bathtub water, and father and son next in another water.
    I was offered to join the mother and daughter and declined. ;)

    Nowadays, there are campaigns explaining that you SHOULD turn off the water while soaping up, that it saves water and is more planet-friendly.
    I've always had a large water heater and have never paid much attention, but now I am feeling guilty when I don't turn the tap off.

  4. Hi Ken !

    //And the by-product of generating electricity is pollution and greenhouse gases. Global warming. Climate change. Ecological nightmare scenarios.//

    Well … something like 70% or so of the electricity in France comes from nuclear power stations, so it is unpolluting, insofar as greenhouse gases are concerned (but not, of course, insofar as nuclear waste is concerned). So one could perhaps rephrase "And the by-product of generating some electricity is immediate pollution and greenhouse gases." (grin)

    Ken's juice might be coming from not too far away: the nuclear plant at Saint-Laurent-Nouan, on the Loire between Blois and Orléans. Or perhaps just 70% or so of it comes from there ... (wider grin)


  5. I've probably spent a total of 40 weeks over the years with the three households of my French host family. I've never noticed that they take stop/start showers, and they've never said a word to me about it--although when they lived in an apartment, I was told not to shower late at night for fear of disturbing the neighbors. Guess I'd better ask next time.

  6. HMMM...tell my teenage daughters that that's the way to take a shower in France.

    We used to use the timer functions on the dishwasher and washing machine too, then we had friends whose dishwasher CAUGHT ON FIRE in the middle of the day. Fortunately they were around or it would have been a major incident. They learned in the process the dishwashers are one of the most frequent sources of house fires. We don't use the timer anymore.

    As for the large appliance mystery, it has baffled me for years. Someone told me the French are very concerned about clothes being rinsed properly, but that doesn't explain why dishwashers and clothes-dryers take so long.

    I asked a salesperson once about this difference, and he had no idea...

  7. We bought a front-loading Bosch washer and dryer a few months ago and have noticed the same thing. There doesn't seem to be much correlation between what the cycle control says and how long the load actually takes. A load of towels, for example, takes about 2 hours to wash, using about a litre of water (or so it seems). Instead of taking hours, towels dry in about 30 minutes. The net is a drop in both our water and gas/electric bills. The flip side is it takes about a week to do a week's worth of laundry.

  8. Claude, good decision about sharing the bathwater. I've heard recommendations concerning taking showers rather than baths, because you supposedly use less water in the shower. But if you don't do it right, I'm sure you can use as much or more than it would take to fill a big bathtub.

    Chris, maybe your French family doesn't worry about the amount of hot water used at their house and maybe they have some kind of water heating system that doesn't run out of hot water. I'm sure not all French people operate the same way.

    Our American friends out in the country have a boiler that heats water for both household use and the radiators for heat. I don't think they would ever run out of hot water (unless the boiler stopped working). Still, they are heating water with oil, and that's expensive these days. And polluting.

    And maybe your French family would think it impolite tell you how to take your showers at their house! Or they aren't paying attention.

    At our house, I can hear the shower and I can't help but think about how much hot water is flowing down the drain when I hear the water run without interruption for 15 or 10 minutes. I'm not talking about your shower usage, by the way...

    Susan, I know what you mean about the front-loading washer. I think back to all those Sundays in San Francisco when Walt and I would do four or five loads of laundry in a day. Here that would take many, many hours, if not days.

    Amerloque, nuclear power pollutes differently. It heats up the water in the rivers, and then there is the nasty problem of what to do with all the nuclear waste. If there is ever an accident, we will have ungodly pollution for decades.

    Thanks for editing my post, though! With readers like you, I don't have to worry about doing much research. LOL. Actually, I was talking about the pollution produced by electicity generation in the U.S. as much as I was talking about France.


  9. My French "relatives" are quite frank with me (I've been told my hat is unattractive, for example, and have been briskly corrected about household gaffes), so now I'm really curious about the shower thing.

    We always have an interesting conversation when I ask about French customs, so it sounds like I'm in for another one.

  10. I love this post. I was a naive young teenager back in 1987 and I was living with a French family in Nice for a summer while going to school. My fellow Canadian classmate and I would wake very early and have a shower (sitting in the tub with the handheld) and then we'd come home from the beach in the evening and take another quick shower in preparation for hitting the town to party. Our dear sweet family was so nice about it event though they disapproved. Mme. Bojard would always shake her head and lament, "You American and Canadians are so crazy about the shower. Always washing, washing washing. You should buy some perfume instead."

  11. In the late 1990s I went on assignment to Nice, a very NICE place, along the French Riviera, for close to 3 months. I worked for a large Engineering firm, alongside some very sharp, and nice, people.

    NOBODY showered for weeks! The stench was unbearable. I could see my coworkers waring the same cloths and the same disheveled hair for at least 2 weeks before I noticed a change of cloths; didn't matter whether they were boys or girls, though I did notice a couple of them gals, the exception, had perfume on.

    Walking down a corridor and approaching a group of 3-4 people chatting idly outside someone's cube, I was hit with the collective reek as far as 10 feet away! Amazing - I kind of had to hold my breath while I walked right past them. :)

    And this was not isolated, by any means. I spent half a week in Paris, where ALL the Parisians I came across were going by the same habit.

    Quite frankly I was flabbergasted by this. But all and everyone I met they went about without a hint of apprehension. That's just the way it was. In fact I did notice early on during my visit some people were visibly taken aback by my showing up showered and wearing a change of cloths every day. Strange, really strange.

  12. Anonymous, I don't know what kind of people you were hanging out with but it all sounds very strange to me. I guess you're just making it up.


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