A summer evening in a Catalan village. I have spent the day running up and down the dusty path in front of my grandparents’ farmhouse, and now it’s bedtime. “But first we need to wash your feet,” my mother says. She unlaces my red, rope-soled espadrilles and stands me in the funny little porcelain tub next to the toilet. The cold water feels delicious, and I wiggle my toes as the day’s accumulation of dirt swirls down the drain. The little tub, of course, is a bidet, like the one in our apartment in Barcelona, and the one in my other grandparents’ apartment, and the one in any house I’ve ever been in because, without bidets, how would people clean their feet?
Years later, when I was living in the U.S., American friends returning from Europe would tell about those ubiquitous footbaths, which were found in even the most modest hotels. If they had checked the dictionary they could have figured the thing out, since it lists as the first meaning of bidet, “a pony or small nag”—that is, something you straddle….
Even so, Americans used to wonder, why bother with this extra piece of bathroom furniture? Why not simply take a shower and scrub every square inch of your skin? I’m not sure when hot water heaters became the norm in Europe, but when I was a child there most people lived in unheated apartments (except for the occasional brazier or electric heater) where, if you wanted warm water for your bath, you had to heat it on the kitchen stove. Hence the usefulness of the bidet for localized hygiene.
But now, at long last, the bidet has come to America, and it has landed with a splash. The contemporary American bidet is to the bidets of my childhood as a Cadillac is to a pony or small nag. It does not take up bathroom space; instead, it is discreetly integrated into the toilet seat, where it performs some extraordinary functions.
Here is a random example: the Bidet King’s luxury Bliss Series (reduced from $699 to $489) features “sleek, fluid curves with a pearl-like finish.” Its many functions are controlled with a remote, although there is also a backup control panel that doubles as a blue LED night light. The water, needless to say, is heated, as is the toilet seat, as are the gentle puffs of air that dry what needs to be dried after every Bliss session. But the most impressive feature of this model is its selection of sprays—some extra powerful for people weighing over 250 lbs, some extra gentle for the gentle sex. The patented vortex water stream is capable of pulsating, and provides a choice between “wide cleaning” and “massage cleaning.” The bidet offers an “intelligent body sensor”; an “enema function” (I wonder what the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons has to say about this); and something called a “bubble infusion,” but when I got to this part my mind boggled and I stopped reading.
It’s easy to make fun of these smirk-inducing gizmos, but you should know that I too have acquired one—although mine has no heated anything, no remote to get mixed up with the ones for the TV, and only a humble mechanical flow adjuster. In fact, though, bidets are not only useful for people’s special needs and desires—and who, to quote Pope Francis, am I to judge?—but they are good for the environment. The boreal forests are being decimated by our insatiable need for toilet paper, and our obsession with long, hot, daily showers that use on average over 16 gallons of water threatens to exhaust our rivers and lakes and water tables. A bidet in every bathroom could be a force for good.
So I say, welcome to America, bidets of all stripes, whether bare-bones like mine or gold-plated and fit for the Trump Tower. From hygiene to entertainment, you serve many useful functions. But despite all your bells and whistles, doodads and refinements, you are no match for the old model when all one wants is to wash one’s feet.