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When I was living as a teenager in Spain back in the ’70s, the topic of toilets in Europe was never-ending conversation for many Americans, from the filmy tissue-type toilet paper that resembled flimsy wrapping paper, to the strips of newspapers. We’ve come a long way from those days, haven’t we?
Some things never change. Recently a group of women friends came to visit, and surprisingly one of the favorite topics at dinner was about finding toilets in Paris, go figure! Why are we fascinated by toilets when we visit foreign countries? Well, first of all, unless you have a colostomy bag, you’re going to need to use the toilet at some point—it’s human nature. And, when traveling in a foreign country, toilets are not necessarily viewed as necessity; why would they be when you can simply go behind a bush if modesty dictates and in some countries you just “do it”—a familiar slogan to most Americans—and forget the modesty.
Before I delve into our fascination with toilets I need to discuss our culture. America, as described by many foreigners as well as Americans, is a country of conveniences. Everything is convenient for Americans, from having a multitude of choices to having 24-hour stores open for those candy bar cravings some people get in the middle of the night—you get the picture. If you go to a grocery store in the US, chances are pretty high that there will be a restroom in that grocery store; that holds true for practically any kind of major store. And in those toilets there may even exist a fold-out changing table to change a baby’s diaper, and some women’s toilets even have a lounge area so they can rest and catch up on the recent 411. As for the smaller stores situated in a strip mall, there will be conveniently placed toilets throughout that strip mall. They’re also free, and for the most part are kept clean. And in some of our larger malls there are restrooms at almost every couple of feet. OK, this paradigm does not hold true in Paris. If you go to a major grocery store, e.g., Carrefour, I can guarantee you there will be no toilet facilities; however, if the major grocery store is in amall, chances are you will find public toilets which are almost always difficult to find, but they do exist, though sometimes you have to pay to use them. Personally, I don’t mind paying for a bathroom if they are kept clean.
Some toilets will even wash you and blow-dry you, as in this particular high-tech Japanese toilet.
Most of my friends know I have kidney issues so I go to the bathroom quite often. With that said, my first year was trial and tribulations of having to find bathrooms throughout the city. In fact, at one point I thought there was a conspiracy and they purposely don’t have toilets in Paris so you’re forced to go into the cafés to order something and, hence, be able to use their facilities. Sure, there are the free public street toilets, but more than half the time they’re out of order. And, the ones that are working and clean are usually situated in front of parks, etc.; hmm, could that be because they don’t have to use them with all the trees and bushes available? And don’t assume that the pastry shops that have tables and chairs have public toilets. I made that mistake once. There’s a pastry shop along the St. Paul area in the 3ème. I saw people sitting at their chairs enjoying coffee, teas, sodas and pastries, so I told Jack since I had to go to the bathroom, may as well get a snack. Got there, ordered a large soda and pastry, and wouldn’t you know it, no toilette. Lesson learned: don’t assume, clearly look for a sign that says toilet before going into any pastry shop with tables/chairs; cafés, however, will always have toilettes.
I was once asked, don’t the French have to go to the bathroom? Of course they do, but they’re better adept at holding it for much longer periods than we are. I was told by a very close French friend that the French are taught to restrain themselves at a very young age and to wait til they get home. Granted, I’m generalizing, but knowing the French, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. I was actually recently on a flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia to connect to Paris. A French woman sat next to me, and during the whole flight she did not once go to the restroom. She had coffee and sodas; if I didn’t know any better, I would swear she was wearing Depends or had a catheter.
So, what do you do? Here are a few of my tips and tricks:
- Hotels. If you are near a hotel, go in and act like you belong there. If you are stopped, say in your heaviest American English accent, which shouldn’t be hard to do, that your wife/partner, etc., is across the street with the room key but you just want to use the facilities in order to rush to your next rendez-vous.
- Fast food places. McDonald’s and Starbucks, how more American than using their bathrooms. They’re very popular and usually very busy; just simply go to the bathroom. Keep in mind, though, that if the McDonald’s is situated in a mall, there may be no bathroom, so you must use the one in the mall. Also, the bathrooms in some fast food places require a door code, usually printed on the food receipts. If you haven’t made a purchase yourself, you can often get the code from a sympathetic diner.
- Malls. Malls will have toilets, but they won’t be as plentiful as in the US. If there’s a mall map, they should be listed, but it can be confusing as sometimes the man/woman sign with a little zigzag is actually a sign for the elevators. There may be a charge, so have some change handy.
- Department stores. Stores such as Galéries Lafayette, Printemps, etc., will have toilets; however, they tend to have one per building and very small so expect lines. Some now charge for the toilets. Also, if you’re in the Men’s department store at BHV department store, there will be no toilets there, you need to go to the main building across the street.
- Tourist areas. If you are in a tourist area, e.g., Montmartre’s Place du Tertre, the cafés are so busy you can just simply walk in and use their facilities; however, there will be some cafés that have a little coin-operated door. If you truly are a customer, than ask for a token; if not, just pay to use it.
- Train stations. Stations will have toilets, again difficult to find, but they do exist. In almost all you have to pay to use them, but they tend to be adequate.
- Metro. Some of the metro stations will have pay toilets, e.g., “Hôtel de Ville”, but the problem is they’re not always open.
- Government Offices. if you are going to a government office, all I can say is good luck! Restrooms will definitely be difficult to find, and some cases they won’t exist at all. So, if you think you’ll be there for a while, avoid drinking too many liquids before heading out. We once waited 3 hours at the Prefecture (police station) in the 17ème to get some paperwork signed. Once inside, we were shocked that there were no public toilets. This prefecture is being remodeled, so I am assuming there will be a public toilet installed.
- Museums. You should have no problems there. They seem plentiful. However, if you are at Versailles in the main château, the restrooms close at a certain time, so if you want to hit one before the road, go before it’s scheduled to close.
- Bistros/restaurants/cafés. These are more sympathetic to children, so if you say your small daughter or son really needs to go, they will let you use their facilities. Just as an aside, it’s not uncommon for a bistro/restaurant or café to have one toilet for the whole place. I’ve been to large restaurants where there was only one shared toilet for as many as 50 people—imagine that!
Turkish style toilet
Finally, although not as common, some toilets will be “Turkish style toilets”, even at some of the newer establishments. They tend to be slippery so be careful, otherwise you’re going to have one wet mess. And, because there is no toilet, just an opening, you’ll need to know how to balance pretty well. More importantly, when you’re ready to flush, stand back as they can splash all over. But when you gotta go, don’t pass them up.
Something that you should always have on hand is toilet paper, or tissue. Not all facilities will have it, and not all will have toilet seats, so you may also want to bring portable toilet seat covers. I also have on hand Purex and/or disinfectant wet wipes. If you’re modest, beware—many toilets are shared by men and women and sometimes the urinals are visible or have a simple partition. It is not uncommon to see a person of the opposite sex in your bathroom cleaning. Also, it will be very rare that there will be paper towels to dry your hands, though there will always be some type of blow dryer, so bring lots of hand lotion. After a while those dryers can wreak havoc and give you really dry hands.
Hopefully these tips and tricks will be helpful, so that rather than looking for a toilet, you can be looking for that special boutique or museum instead.
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