Monday, October 18, 2010

Some French Bathroom Humor, Or: Trying to Find a Free Potty

Let's face it: Everyone has to use the bathroom. Purging one's body of wastes and toxins is one of the most basic of natural needs (akin to breathing and eating). Yet when you have the chance to escape your familiar surroundings to, say, vacation abroad, the "gotta go" aspect of life is either placed on the back burner or heightened by a thousand-fold.

Perhaps you have heard complaints from unsuspecting tourists who have visited Croissant-and-Baguetteland that you absolutely have to pay money to take care of your business.

This, for the most part, is not too far from the truth, quite honestly...

BUT that does not mean you have to pay your hard-earned money EVERYTIME you have to pee in France.

So, arm yourself with the most important question you will need during your trip to France: "Où sont les toilettes?" (Ooh sohn lay twalet), and embark on your worry-free journey!

For FREE (or semi-free) bathrooms:

1) Your hotel room bathroom.

I mean, sure, you have to pay for the hotel stay, but you can use your bathroom before you leave. My suggestion is that you DON'T drink too many fluids before you head out to explore the city.

2) If you are visiting a proper French city with a sizeable population (like Dijon), try out the Office de Tourisme. Their bathrooms should be free and you can also pick up a couple of maps to navigate your way around town.

For Dijon, the "WC Gratuit" is found outside of the actual office, just around the corner. "WC" stands for "Water Closet," a term which apparently originated in Britain (so said my high school French teacher).

And I simply have to share this with y'all: as I stood with the camera poised directly on the "WC Gratuit" sign, a Frenchman, who clearly thought that I was a stupid, non-French speaking tourist (instead of a Dijonnaise-native blogger), walked past and commented to his girlfriend about how idiotic I looked taking a photograph of a public bathroom. I wanted to retort saying "hey buddy, I found a FREE PUBLIC BATHROOM in France. That is a rarity which is worth eternal conservation!", but he was already out of earshot.

3) If you sit down to eat at a restaurant or café, DO remember to take the opportunity and use the bathroom. I've been to some Parisien restaurants where you have had to pay to use their loos. In Dijon, they should be free.

4) If you are truly desperate and really, really, really gotta go...try the self-cleaning toilettes that are shaped like a futuristic booth. Like this one:

(In case you were wondering: I have used one of these before, and they are fairly clean. Just don't expect any toilet paper. What is meant by "self-cleaning" is that they do clean themselves in regular 15-minute intervals. When the cleaning happens, try to NOT be trapped inside it.)

I must also say that you may not encounter these booths on a regular basis. You may see them around Paris's most famous tourist traps but for some reason, the French have deemed it a good idea to place them in rather obscure areas where most tourists would not think of venturing. For example, the booth in the picture above is located in a tiny parking lot that is between a very narrow street; hardly anyone passes by it. So it is almost as good as if it didn't even exist.

5) When all else fails for your cheapskate self, just do like the drunk 20-something locals do and pee in the bushes at a public park. Please note: I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS.

In the end, after undergoing so much hassle just to find a free bathroom, most tourists just give in and accept that paying 20 or even 50 cents to make their bodily deposits is just an easier (if not better) option.

I must also add that, should you be fortunate enough to experience it at a crowded bathroom that has a coin-operated door, the French have a surreptitious system in which one person pays to open the door and then everyone else just takes his or her turn. They will even HOLD the door for you to prevent it from closing behind them and thus cause you to waste 20 or 50 cents.

But, for whatever reason, I HIGHLY ADVISE that you always try to keep a 20 cent and a 50 cent coin stored somewhere in your little change purse. This is due to the fact that some public restroom doors are operated by a coin machine and the only way of going inside one is to pay with a coin of the amount required.

Don't feel bad if the uncomfortably irksome moment of not having the right change happens to you. Even a lives-in-France veteran like me has had the unfortunate experience to be walking around in a desert of non-bathroomness and be stuck without the proper money needed for an immediate transaction.

The Setting: Dijon's Rue de la Liberté

The Time: Nearly midday
State of My Bladder: Overly confident

I had just arrived in the Centre Ville after temporily leaving my job to grab a bite to eat. Since I had sagely chosen to pee before leaving my area of employment, I didn't expect to find myself to embark on an immediate quest to find a bathroom. The level on my personal Pee Gauge was this:

But as it was, I had drunk far too many fluids earlier that morning for my own good. By the time I had waited 12 minutes at the bus stop then spent another 20 minutes going Downtown, the state of my Pee Gauge had dramatically elevated to this:

My need to have lunch was temporarily placed on the back burner as the need to find a clean toilet decidedly took precedence.

As I mentioned in this post, Rue de la Liberté is a street that is filled with plenty of shops. Most French shops will not have a bathroom for shoppers. Now, if shopping in the good ol' U.S. of A. has taught me anything, it is that most places do have a public restroom on the premises. I could easily walk anywhere and ask to use the bathroom. This mentality is starkly different from the French one. As the French see it, you are going into their stores to shop, not pee. Walk into a small boutique and ask where their bathroom is; you will promptly be directed to go somewhere else.

In the trained American mindset, if you want to use a free available bathroom, all you have to do is to go straight to your neighborhood McDonald's and discreetly sneak in to use their lavatories. I reasoned that the concept would be the same for a French McDonald's.

Unfortunately, I went in at a time when other people had the intention of eating. LOTS of people.

Unlike some U. S. Mickey D's that only have chirping crickets as their sole customers, French McDonald's are PACKED at nearly every hour. Especially 12 o'clock. For the French, lunch is the heaviest meal of the day and it should never be skipped.

Fat chance that I was gonna sneak in successfully: McDonald's had one of their hired goons asking all the hungry French McFatties what they wanted to eat.

Well, it was true. I didn't want to eat at McDonald's.

I glanced across Rue de la Liberté to what I expected would become my second beacon of toilet hope: GALERIES LAFAYETTE. I vaguely remembered that the one in Paris had free bathrooms, so I decided to give the Dijon GL a shot.

I walked in and found the elevator. Which took a long time to get to my floor.


Ever notice how with every little delay that impedes you from going to the bathroom, your urge to go jolts sharply up a notch in an instant? I honestly felt like I was just going to wet myself in that elevator!

But no. I simply had to hold it. It would only just be a mere few seconds until I would be able to relieve myself.

The elevator doors opened. I rushed to the public restroom door. Lo and behold, I saw this:

The bastard.

Yes, this did yank at my insides, but at that point, I simply DID NOT CARE that I had to shell out a 20 euro cent coin. I was more than willing to do so.

I angrily fumbled with my handbag and extracted my change purse. The coins jingled unto the palm of my trembling hand.

Out of all these coins, which one would fit in the 20 euro cent machine?

That's right. NONE.

Why did I just have to drink so much water that it overloaded my bladder? I NEEDED TO GO. And I needed to go NOW.

What was I going to do?!

Suddenly, a moment of ingenuity: I'm in a store! There are cash registers in this store and cashiers who handle the registers! I'll just ask them to do an exchange of two 10-cent coins for one of 20 cents!

Prize in hand, I rushed back to the coin-operated contraption, viciously yanked at the taunting door handle and...

...saw a line of women waiting to use the two occupied toilets.

Amazingly, I didn't pee right on the spot. It truly was a miracle that I was able to wait my turn.

Why didn't I just walk to the Office de Tourisme, which had free toilets? Why didn't I go look for the futuristic booth? My mind wasn't thinking about neither the Office de Tourisme nor the booth; it was set on FINDING A BATHROOM.

So, in short, when in France, always have some spare change to use the bathroom.


Barb the French Bean


  1. Uh-oh, remind me never to go to France. I have a bladder the size of a Skittle and no money. Things could get very, very ugly. ;)

  2. That was always my least favorite part about living in Europe. There were NEVER any available bathrooms.EVER.


    America is spoiling me.

  3. Maybe I should go start a portable-loo business in France. I love American bathrooms! But I don't think it's all of Europe. London is cool like that.

  4. LOL!! I remember the bathrooms in France...gosh was that a mission o_o;

    I do not believe I have ever seen the futuristic looking bathrooms...with my luck I would actually get stuck during the self cleaning...


    Coffee Bean

  5. It's the same in shops in Holland but luckily not in most bars. I've annoyed a lot of bar men by sneaking in to use their toilets.

  6. o_O; I didn't know this. Good to know about this stuff if I ever visit Europe. Thanks for the warning!

  7. Public park. Bushes. Anybody asks, tell them Barb said it was okay. Got it.

  8. Tricia: I vaguely remember reading a post on your blog how you have trouble going to the bathroom when it *isn't* yours. For you, even paying to go the bathroom would just be a waste of money. ^.^

    Rose: Yes. Don't get too spoiled, though.

    Etoile: Thanks for informing me about London. I'll make sure to list that on my "safe to visit" countries list.

    Coffee: I haven't personally experienced getting stuck, buy my roommate's father has. :-P

    Stu: Mm. What about the Dutch Coffee Shops? Are their bathrooms free?

    Random Rambler: De rien. ^.^

    Legacy: Please notice that I hastily added "I do not recommend this." ;-)


  9. Its true we keep our water in closets. The Scottish used to say gare de lou before throwing their deposits out of the window, is this French?

  10. "Gare" is French for station. Unless it is some colloquial that I am not aware of, "lou" is not a French word - perhaps it is simply a variation on the English "loo." Otherwise, the phrase means "Lou's station." Might there have been a guy named Lou who used to go around collecting the deposits from outside of the windows?

  11. Or perhaps it's "garde de l'eau?" *shrugs shoulders*


  12. During my first sejour in France, I was constantly on the lookout for bathrooms, because the different mentality here (exactly what you described) made me anxious. This time around I've gotten more used to calmly planning my bathroom breaks, thank goodness.

    I still haven't gotten up the nerve to try a self-cleaning bathroom, though.

  13. OH, I would be soooo doomed in a situation like this. Not only do I worry about having to pee (or puke) frequently, I actually DO BOTH quite frequently.

    Hell, when I was in Ontario within feet of a washroom I managed to drunkenly publicly urinate and act all cool. We both know that didn't go well....

    p.s. I like your pee meter, you should produce and market that. Perhaps gain some French sympathy? Maybe?

  14. LOL!!!

    I didn't know it was that bad in France! Was a bit of a shock for me when I first went to Belgium and discovered the "madame pipi" phenomenon! These little old ladies jealously guarding the access to public restrooms and charging you 10-20-50ç to use the facilities... grrr!!! Sometimes they even have them in the McDonald's and in the cinemas!!! *shock*

    (on the plus side they're always clean and have toilet paper)


Apparently, leaving comments on this blog is a hit-or-miss game of Russian roulette: you are either lucky and can comment away, or you are required to log in when the settings are CLEARLY set to allow trouble-free commenting (sorry 'bout that, folks). If anything, the Facebook page is always a viable option. :) -Barb