French Friday: Pipi in Paris … and Elsewhere

 

So many cultural facts jumped to my eyes when I moved to the USA from my native France!

However, when last week my husband forwarded me a link about newly installed public urinals in Paris he not only gave me an idea for a French Friday post but he also pushed my memory button on. I suddenly remembered the top cultural difference that I immediately noticed upon my arrival in California.

Wow! I thought. There are so many places pour faire pipi. And they are free and clean. They even have changing tables and are handicapped accessible.

I kept raving about the fact that toilets in the States were no longer a place to avoid and no longer a daily challenge. And our numerous French visitors confirmed my first impression, even if they were initially shocked to see that most stalls didn’t have full-sized doors and that it could be possible for someone to peek. At first, I was surprised, too. Years later, I can attest that no one has ever peeked. In fact, I’ve stood in long patient lines in women’s restrooms, everyone of us assuming that each stall was occupied while in fact some were not. No one peeks in American restrooms. Only visitors do 🙂

Back to the early 90s. Yes, doing number #1 in the U.S. was far easier than in France. French public restrooms were fewer, rarely free, and sadly much dirtier.

For more true stories on the subject, scroll down to read about our family toilet adventures in the City of Lights.

Despite the dire situation for all Parisians, men, though, had an advantage, thanks to urinals found in most metro stations and also in public spaces. My husband argues that they were filthy and that as a boy and teen he felt uncomfortable using them. I totally get him.

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Still, men had an edge. French girls and women had to learn one lesson: hold it.

Things changed in 1981 when the first sanisette was installed in Paris.

Kiosque à journaux et sanisette à Paris le 20 octobre 1984, France. (Photo by Mohamed LOUNES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

It cost one French franc to use them, but they were clean and private.

Fast forward to 2018. Has the French pipi scene improved?

Sanisettes are free, but many close at 10:00 p.m. since they can be used for drugs and prostitution deals. Cafés still forbid their restrooms to anyone who’s not a paying customer.

So it remains a challenge to find clean free restrooms throughout France, including in Paris.

No wonder alleys, building entrances, and street corners have turned into Men Restrooms. Women still hold it.

Which explains why men were on designers’ mind when they invented the uritrottoir, a noun created from urinoir and trottoir, which mean urinal and sidewalk in French.

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The French company based in Nantes installed the first uritrottoirs in Nantes in May 2017 and their arrival didn’t trigger vehement reactions.

In Paris it has been another story.

This summer a few uritrottoirs have been placed in the city.

From the Ville de Paris’s twitter account

This what CNN wrote about it.

A quick linguistic note: French people may contradict me, after all I’m not an expert on male toilets, but I never used or even heard of pissoir. In French urinals are called urinoirs, pissotières or vespasiennes.

Here and there are two additional articles, if you read French.

Residents in Île Saint Louis, one the most posh Parisian neighborhoods, argue that they spoil the look of the historical landmark.

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Visitors to the area, though, applaud the idea.

When I browsed through the articles, whether pro or con, I quickly noticed that almost every person interviewed on the topic was a man.

Of course, they love the uritrottoir.

The idea answers a need. Neither the pungent smell of urine wafting around nor the vision of men using the street as their urinal is particularly interesting. Also the uritrottoir is environmentally correct since there is no need to flush and yet odors are neutralized, thanks to hay placed inside the red metallic containers. They even come with flowers grown on top. How bucolic!

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But, I wondered, what about us? Where is our female uritrottoir?

It’s not men’s fault, of course, that nature has provided them with a handy way to relieve themselves in public. But I was still a bit upset to witness the absence of comments about a pretty huge gender-based inequality. This is why I was happy to find this humorous and so right-on post on the topic. I wish you all read French.

 

To conclude on the important topic of faire pipi in France:

*Two family bathroom adventures in my homeland, back in the early 2000s, with our little kids.

Soon after lunch, the girls asked for a bathroom. That would be a challenge. Paris closed most of the few public WC or water closets in the city, the cafés and restaurants forbid the use of their facilities if you are not a customer and the stores have no public restroom. Your only hope is that the public restroom called sanisette will work.

I dug in my pockets, emptied my purse, searching for the precious French francs the sanisette would accept. I felt my youngest daughter tensing. “I don’t really need to go,” she said. After three lemonades, I didn’t think so.

“I’ll go with you,” her older sister offered.

“That’s nice,” I said.

“You can’t,” my middle daughter announced. “It says one person at a time.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s just if you are too big and can’t fit inside.” Then a horrible thought came to my mind. You can be too small for a sanisette. I remembered a horrible story about a young child who drowned in one of them.

“Anyway,” the big sister went on, “it’s out of service.”

She was right. A sign had been hastily hung but in polite French asked messieurs and mesdames to look for another pipi room.

We took the car and slowly drove across the city, detectives on the look for a restroom. We saw a few more sanisettes out of service and more, which for some strange reason didn’t accept my change. After fifteen minutes of unsuccessful search, we decided to go to a café.

When the waitress came with our orders, I asked for “les toilettes, s’il vous plait?”

“Downstairs.” She pointed with her chin in direction of a dark stairway.

My three girls stood up as one and dashed to the toilets. They came back as fast as they went down.

“It’s locked,” one said.

“Maybe someone is inside,” I offered.

“No, we knocked. Come on, Maman,” they begged me.

I followed them down the narrow, poorly lit stairway, to a small closet at the end of the hallway. I turned the knob. The door didn’t budge. I knocked timidly and then louder. “Il y a quelqu’un?”

Nobody answered and I returned to the same waitress. “With all the homeless people,” she said, sweeping an invisible crowd of vagabonds with her opened arms. “We have to reserve the toilettes to our customers.” She handed me a key.

Why didn’t she give it when I asked for the restrooms? Wasn’t I a customer? Did we look like a homeless family? Anyway, homeless people need restrooms too.

The toilets scared my six-year-old and I walked in with her. It was smaller than a plane’s restroom, if such a thing is possible. With my back squished against the door I felt a puddle under my feet. “Just water,” I told my little girl whose big eyes searched for comfort in this unusually dark and smelly closet. I was glad the light was dim so I wasn’t able to check the nature of the liquid on the floor.

We hurried to the exit and found with relief the cozy café with its sophisticated waitress behind the counter. I had never paid so much attention to the French toilets than now.

Not representing the café where it happens 🙂

A few days later, we decided to take the children on a tour of Versailles and the Petit Trianon. A thin permeating rain fell on the French kings’ residence and we ran to the entrance to seek harbor. We bought our tickets, left our coats and umbrellas, as it was required.

“La salle de bains, s’il vous plait?” asked my daughter in her best French and most polite tone

Les toilettes,” I whispered. “Not the bathroom.”

Les toilettes sont dehors,” announced the lady behind the booth.

“Outside?” I said. The lady only nodded. “Then, can we get our clothes back?”

With another nod, she handed us our coats and tickets. Outside, the drizzle had intensified. More menacing clouds circled above us and we hurried before it poured across the paved courtyard, following the toilettes sign. We reached the door, drenched and freezing, wondering why the most famous French historic landmark had no restrooms inside the château. I took the girls to the ladies section and bumped into a woman whom I quickly identified as the dame pipi. I had forgotten about the ladies who govern the few French public restrooms. I searched my purse for a few coins.

“What are you doing?” whispered one of my daughters.

“I need some change,” I said, as if I had known all along that paying to go to the restroom was the most normal thing. Happily, I found one euro which I handed to the lady.

“That will be four euros,” she said. I must have looked puzzled since she specified, “Aren’t you all going?”

“Yes,” I said, hoping that perhaps I would get a package price. After all, France is one of the few countries that offer all kind of discounts when you have children. However, it didn’t seem to work for the toilettes since the lady insisted, “Then, you owe me four euros.”

I handed her the money and we all went to the restroom. The girls hurried. Did they think that it would be more expensive if they stayed too long? I wondered if I should try to explain my daughters why in France you have to pay four euros to go to the restroom when you visit Versailles. I wasn’t enough French anymore to find a justification and I felt sorry that my daughters might remember more about their restrooms experiences in France than the richness of Le Louvre and the grandeur of Versailles.

 

*Away from home, toilet breaks present challenges. For outdoorsy people, even more so.

Yosemite, the National Park I know best, has installed some toilets, flushing or not, even in remote spots. And when I camped in Havasupai, Arizona to hike the Havasu Falls the rustic eco friendly toilets amazed me. Not the case at the top of Mount Everest, it seems.

Now I’d like to hear from my blogger friend Curt, currently on a thousand mile hike on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail).

Curt began his hike in Ashland, Oregon and travels south to Mount Whitney, California. A seasoned hiker and a nature lover he writes from the bottom of his heart, with serious knowledge, humor, and humility, too, about the extraordinary landscapes of the west of the United States and about his numerous adventures as he explored them and keeps bumping into nice people, like these two French hikers.  The raging fires in California had the potential to impact his current plans. But he remains a real trooper and his most recent post shows him in good spirits.

If you have a minute, pay a visit to Curt’s blog. Through his posts and photos you’ll get the chance to follow a rare trip along the legendary PCT.

Seriously, I wanted to acknowledge Curt’s 1000-mile hike since a while. You may remember that in French we have an expression to describe something ridiculously easy: c’est du pipi de chat (it’s cat’s pee). Well, what Curt is doing is certainly NOT du pipi de chat.

If you are just reading this post or returning to it, this is an article posted on August 31, 2018 in the New York Times about the uritrottoirs being vandalized.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Oh, wow I had no idea that was an issue there! Good post 🙂

  2. Oh mais merci pour cet article!! J’ai été vraiment étonnée de la propretée des toilettes aux Etat-Unis lorsue je suis allée à New-York. Dans TOUS les lieux publics où je suis allée (incluant Central Park et 10 minutes d’attente) les toilettes étaient très propres. En France même dans les endroits privés c’est horrible. On dit souvent que la cuisine est propre si les toilettes le sont d’ailleurs.
    J’avais totalement oublié l’expression “c’est du pipi de chat” que ma grand mère me disait souvent haha! Par contre elle me le disait lorsque j’avais mal et que je faisais “du cinéma”, “c’est rien c’est du pipi d’chat”. Ou bien quand on buvait du thé pas assez infusé 😀

    • Je suis d’accord avec vous sur toute la ligne.
      J’ai un peu déformé l’expression pour les besoins de la cause. Pipi de chat est vraiment pour tout ce qui est insignifiant.
      Quant au café ou thé pas assez fort, chez moi on disait que c’était du jus de chaussettes. Comme quoi les expressions françaises ont encore de beaux jours devant elles:)
      Merci pour cette visite et commentaire, Angela.

  3. I was in Paris about 25 years ago, and found public restrooms everywhere I went. They were like vending machines, in that one had to put money in before the door would unlock. If there was a line, though, the woman exiting would hold the door for the next in line, so many could “steal a pipi.” When I got home, I said I had seen parts of the Louvre that few Americans had seen. That’s because I can usually sense the location of a rest room in an unfamiliar building. It’s like a superpower.

    • Yes, most require change. I’ve also been in lines with women who held the door to “steal a pipi.” I should have said that something French women do better than Americans is to let moms and kids go first. The American First Come First Served basis is terrific, but it applies everywhere, including in the restrooms:)
      I also have a sixth sense for bathrooms. I developed it with my kids when they were little and needed frequent breaks. This is when I loved American restrooms so much!
      See you soon, Marian.

  4. It really is more difficult for women. I used to take my teenage students on week-long bush camps in Australia and got incredibly frustrated with the male teaching staff who couldn’t see that extra planning needed to be done to help the girls with their toileting. I do agree that a lot of the toilets that we came across in France were not at all pleasant – but that is not just France.

    • It’s definitely trickier for women of all ages and everywhere. There should have more unisex restrooms. The symphony hall in Los Angeles has some and it’s rarely full. Thank you for another visit to my blog, Catherine.

  5. Probably the only occasion when I’ve sometimes wanted to be a man! Toilets are so important and it’s a shame the situation is so bad in Paris. I think we’re fairly lucky here though there still aren’t enough available. I would never use one of those sanisettes with the electronic doors – I’d be worried about getting stuck inside!

    • Me too, Andrea, I’ve only wished to be a boy or a man under the same circumstances 🙂
      Big cities are for sure more challenging in terms of easy access to restrooms. Los Angeles and New York and even much smaller San Francisco have often locked their restrooms to forbid their use from non paying customers, primarily to avoid homeless people to use them. Which is also a major issue since clean and free restrooms, in my opinion, should be a human right.
      The sanisette was fine until a few accidents happen and rightly scared people.
      Honestly, so far, I think the USA are the best in this department 🙂

  6. I enjoyed this post immensely. I feel like you really gave me clear understanding. I understand how you could think your girls would remember the bathroom problem more than the intended experiences of your travel.

    Oh the blatant sexism of this.

    Public toilets are a problem here, too. For one, yes, homeless people need facilities. Drugs and prostitution are not good enough reason to prohibit homeless people, all people, from dignity. I also don’t approve of people having to be patrons to use the facilities. Kind of a pet peeve of mine. Also not a fan of “getting the key”. Traveling with children makes getting the key a problem for many.

    Anyway, I was raised you let aged and pregnant women and anyone whose child is doing the pee-pee dance first and have taught my children the same. Were I in a long queue, in urgency, paying four dollars, I don’t know that I’d feel as generous! lol

    • Totally agree with you, Joey about the right to dignity for every person, no matter what. If there is an equalizer it’s our body functions. Like you, I was brought up by parents who taught me to let elderly, pregnant women, parents with small kids and just anyone who looks in urgent need for a bathroom or a seat or anything else to go first. It’s sometimes delicate as we don’t want to offend people, but in all cases so far everyone I offered to go first in a restroom has been appreciative.
      Thank you for reading my pipi stories and for commenting.

  7. Behind the Story says:

    Lots of clean toilets available for free is something we take for granted in the US. I had some awful experiences in China back in the ’80s. But I didn’t expect it in France. I have to admit that the angry face demanding money at a restroom in a park in Calais when I was worn out from our non-stop trip from Seattle to Paris to Calais and had left my purse with my daughter colored my view of France. Obviously, part of the fault was ours for not breaking up the trip, but you can’t erase that first impression. It was my first trip to France.

    • Yes, we Americans take many things for granted:)
      I’m sorry about the stern madame pipi you met. Not too surprised, though:(
      Sometimes I experienced good surprises with nice women also waiting in line, but this is not the majority.
      Thank you for stopping by, Nicki.

  8. Well, true there are some public clean restrooms. I’m just as happy with a clean port-a-loo, those plastic box closets in parks. The problem with North America is some of our our parks are HUGE…and lack enough public washrooms and port-a-loos because it depends if the municipality will spend money for staff to clean,lock-unlock, etc. The cost of long term maintenance and checks. We should know with all our cycling in cities and outside in the rural areas. It’s a challenge being in the prairies in rural areas!

    I was a little shocked in Copenhagen, where there were semi public pissing stalls for men..it seemed too open in the heart of downtown, near the historic Town Hall.

    If you go to Japan, especially in Tokyo and Kyoto you will befuddled by the bidets that are computerized to wash, dry, etc. you at press of buttons. In some instances there were so many buttons, I didn’t know which one was the flushing one. Oh yea, be prepared to stoop on your haunches ..for some women’s washrooms. At least, Japan’s big cities keeps them clean.

    • Agree with you, Jean about the role of municipalities. There are rarely enough public restrooms in big cities. What you describe in Copenhagen is similar in Paris and France.
      For the longest time there were also these toilets where you have to squat. In France they are called toilettes à la turque or Turkish toilets, which is an incorrect designation. They are the most basic and too often the dirtiest ones you can find in France. There are, fortunately, less than when I was a kid.
      Interesting to witness the various ways human beings deal with what is common to all of us.

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