The French And Their Bathrooms

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Nope, Not This Way, Nantes, March 2012

French have an issue with bathrooms.

I first noticed the many differences between North American bathrooms and French bathrooms a while ago, but I had somehow forgotten about it. It all came back to mind today, when I went for a drink with one of my oldest friends (we’ve known each other since we were six years old!).

The weather is lovely in Nantes, so we lounged at a terrace table for a few hours, under the sun. After a Diet Coke, I excuse myself and headed inside the café to find the bathrooms. I stepped in and paused, realizing I didn’t know where they were.

“Excusez-moi,” I asked the waiter politely. “Les toilettes…?”

“Are you a customer?”

“Sure, I’m sitting outside,” I gestured towards the sun-bathed terrace.

He sighed. Well, duh, dude. Customers drink, they need to pee. Biology 101.

“Down the stairs, not the first door on your right, not the one on your left either. Past these two doors, take the hallway and you will face a red door. That’s the one. There is no light though.”

That’s precisely when I remembered using a public bathroom in France was an act of faith.

Have you seen the movie Trainspotting? Well, I felt like Renton using “the worst toilets in Scotland”. The fact that the light bulb was broken was probably for the best, and so was the fact my business there was mercifully quick. And mind you, it was an okay bar downtown Nantes, not a seedy place!

I’m convinced French have an issue with bathrooms. First of all, bathrooms are nowhere to be found. In train stations or touristic places, toilets may be okay but they aren’t free—you will most likely need to spare some change to access them. In restaurants and bars, they are usually free but strictly for customers (yes, you will be scrutinized) and they may be smelly, dirty and downright unsanitary. In franchised restaurants, including at McDonald’s and Quick, bathrooms are usually cleaner and free but to use them, you gen­er­ally have to enter a code printed on your food receipt so you must be a customer.

Honestly, when I first came to Canada, I was amazed to see free and clean bathrooms in malls and restaurants. I never took going to the bathrooms for granted in France.

Second, when you do find a bathroom, don’t expect anything fancy. In North America, “stalls” style bathrooms are most commons, and there is almost always a sink, soap and either a hand-dryer or some paper towel. In France, expect a tiny unisex room, with one toilet and sometimes a urinal. I rarely see soap and even sinks are not always provided. Yuck.

Fun fact: in the apartment where I grew up when I was a kid, the bathrooms were shared and outside, in the hallway. Can you believe that was France in the early 1980s?!

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

17 Comments

  1. I can never get over the fact that toilets are dirty in France. I think the worst ever was those of my university it looked as if they have not been cleaned since 1999 and that they had no running water. Hepatitis and E. Choli were reigning over it 😉

  2. I was so grateful to be able to go pee wherever I wanted in Montréal (well, not exactly wherever, but I could go to the McDonald’s without anybody asking me for anything!)
    The most shameful thing is that in my neighborood mall, the toilets are clean, yes, but aren’t free! Come on!
    I was so surprised to travel in the US national parks and see not only clean toilets, but… toilet paper in it! Free toilet paper! And soap! In the middle of nowhere, there was still a cleaning lady several times a day!
    When you’re not french, you really can’t get how wonderful this is. My cousin, who’s americain, thought we were crazy to be as enthusiastic.
    The good thing is, I think it’s improving, at least in Lyon, there’re putting free chemical toilets everywhere in town, and they are super clean.

    • I have yet to see clean public toilets in France and I feel really bad about it. Of all the countries we traveled too, I think it’s one of the only ones where using a bathroom is so complicated!

  3. No soap or sinks? Aren’t they worried about getting sick?

    I hate the whole ‘paying to pee’ thing that appears to be rampant in Europe. It’s a basic biological need, you shouldn’t have to pay for it! In restaurants, I understand not wanting every single person to use your bathroom and showing preference to customers, but there should be some free toilets in public.

    • I completely agree. I think that bathrooms are somewhat tabooed in France… not really sure why because it’s a biological need, like you said!

  4. Last year when I was in downtown Nantes I went to a bathroom in a café. Teeny-tiny, of course, but it was clean enough, it had a cute little sink with soap, and there was no problem until it was time to leave… The door was a sliding one, and it got stuck as I tried to open it – it came off its track or something – and I was trapped inside! I spent a few moments pondering the possibilities, wondering what I should do…I ended up being able to jiggle and push the door just wide enough so that I was able to squeeeeze through and make my escape!

    One more reason to stay thin. 😉

    • Almost happened to me the night I wrote that article! I went to a crêperie and the bathroom was down the hallway, a tiny place in the corner with a sliding door that didn’t close nor open very well!

  5. Ha ha this is so true!!
    Where I come from (near Beziers in the south) it has got sliiiiightly better in that the new Auchan shopping centre actually has a SET of public toilets, male and female AND even a breast feeding area! Wow! It’s free and amazing, when you walk in everyone has an astounded and slightly apprehensive look on their faces as if it’s a mirage or something, or as if some attendant is about to jump out and force you to donate 10 euros or something!
    The restaurants and bars haven’t changed though, they still look at you like your scum if you ask to use the toilet, and sometimes you get sighed at, scrutinised and then handed a key dangling from a dirty cord hanging from a huge keyring that you then have to carry on a walk of shame to the back of the bar to wrestle with a prehistoric padlock while everyone watches and shakes their head: SHE’S going to pee!
    All that for the pleasure of sitting drinking a Demi that cost you 5 euros served by a guy you KNOW hasn’t washed his hands all day! (come on, that key?!)
    Still love it though ;-))

    • It’s exactly that! 😆

      You are right though, newer shopping centres have modern facilities. The problem is often in the downtown core. I think in the suburb, you can sneak into a fast food and no one will mind. But in city centres, you pay a premium to pee 😆

      Your description is spot-on!

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  7. I laughed reading this. I agree with everything, just one thing I wanted to add.
    It’s not only French bathrooms, everywhere in Europe is the same. You need to be a costumer, you are handed a key sometimes and it’s dirty.
    I remember last time I went to Amsterdam earlier this year in May. Each time I used the toilet in a bar or restaurant, I came out with a story to tell my husband about.

    In this (central and fancy looking on the outside) bar I asked the waitress where the bathroom was. She points to a room behind the counter! where there was a man with a ladder working on some water pipes that where under the floor. Basically the bathroom’s floor was made out of wood and it had a door trap. I noticed there was a lineup for using the bathroom, I was 4th in the line. As I was waiting, 3 more customers showed up behind me and the waitress was smiling at us every time she passed by with a tray full of drinks. Out of boredom, I looked around at tables and other customers, they were all looking at us and smiling. They all knew we were waiting in line to pee! It was embarrassing.

    Another restaurant, another story. I asked the waiter to show me the bathroom and he points to some stairs that go down, very tiny stair steps (one wrong move, and you would get a sprained ankle) with a tight staircase. I managed to go down the stairs by balancing myself on the walls, and reached the bathroom door on the left. To my astonishment, the door on the right side (facing the bathroom door and a foot apart) was the kitchen door! On my way out of the toilet I exchanged smiles with a waitress carrying plates of food to customers.

    • Yuck for the bathrooms being so close to he kitchen! That’s not very appropriate!

      I know that most restaurants or shops in Europe are much smaller than in North American and well, I understand that bathrooms may be smaller. But why are they so dirty? And why is it so difficult to find a bathroom in touristic places? This is so strange… I mean, we all pee, right?!

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