Gross or Practical?

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Things that are not taboo in France:

  • Breasts
  • Extra conjugal relationships
  • Political opinions

Things that are taboo in France:

C’est dégueulasse!” I heard a French woman say. “Mais non!” someone else replied. “Faut bien qu’ils pissent quelque part!

Feng and I were taking a late-night walk and the group of friends in front of us had just noticed something apparently “gross” in the side street they had just passed.

I slowed down to take a look. There was a strong smell of urine, like in many side alleys in the bar district. Yeah, gross but… Then I saw the sign: “Uritrottoir,” a portmanteau of “urinoir” (urinal) and “trottoir” (sidewalk). Below it was a large orange box with an opening and flowers on top.

“No way!” I said in disbelief. “Is that a joke, or…?”

I got a little bit closer, albeit reluctantly because of the stench. You never know, after all, with all the contemporary art projects… could it be one of these? Or was it a sign put up by an exasperated neighbour a passive-aggressive way to tell men to go pee somewhere else?

It wasn’t a joke nor an art project. Apparently, the City of Nantes set up these eco-friendly composting urinals to curb public urination and save surfaces splattered by urine.

My first reaction was “how about women?” I mean, this is quite sexist. There is no way a woman could use these, yet I guarantee you we also need to empty our bladder once in a while.

French have an issue with bathrooms. It’s funny because we are fairly casual with sexuality and nudity and we use the word merde quite liberally, but God forbid you actually need to pee or poop. If you’re at home, it’s all good. If you’re visiting friends or relatives, chances are they will let you use the toilets (if they don’t, make new friends). But if you’re in town, you’re pretty much screwed. Public bathrooms are almost non-existent. In Nantes, I can only think of three locations open during business hours—the Jardin des plantes, the Château des Ducs de Bretagne and the Île de Nantes all have free, clean bathrooms. Unlike in North America, you can’t just use the bathrooms in major franchises such as McDonald’s or Starbucks—first, there aren’t that many chain restaurants, second a code is often required to unlock the restrooms. And even if you’re a paying customer in a small coffee shop, you aren’t guaranteed a clean, accessible bathroom. How many times was I told the facilities were “out of order”? How many times did I end up in a place where the flush didn’t work, there was no toilet paper, no water and no soap?

In a way, I understand the need for public urinals. The math is simple—if you drink, you pee. Considering the number of bars in Nantes, no wonder that at one point, bladders need to be voided and the police has better things to do than fine drunken urinating revellers.

However, I do find it sexist that women’s needs weren’t considered at all and frankly, it would have been better to open real public bathrooms.

What do you think?

Sign on the fence of a school in Nantes: “School’s garden, please don’t urinate here”

One of the first “uritrottoir”, rue du Moulin, in Nantes

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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.

8 Comments

  1. Martin Penwald on

    Let’s say that it is easy to set up and it doesn’t take a lot of public space. And it is probably less expensive than vespasiennes. So it is better than nothing. But it indeed is a problem. I’m pretty sure I’ve already read that cities weren’t very friendly towards women, but it was a long time ago, I don’t remember where I’ve read it.

    • It’s rare for me to claim that something is “sexist” but I really wonder what the logic is when guys can pee in the street and women can’t!

  2. Bee Ean Le Bars on

    I’m in favor of this. It is about habits. In my opinion, men usually think that it is ok to just pee somewhere, whereas women would probably hold the need or try their best to find a bathroom. I have seen so many men peeing anywhere they could, but seldom seeing women peeing in public.

  3. My first thought was ewww when I saw the picture. I was expecting one of those urinals you see in the streets sometimes that have walls around them…
    And yes I agree, it’s a nightmare trying to find a public bathroom when you are a woman or have a kid with you in France! A couple of years ago I went back to France via Chicago airport. The toilets were clean, airy and “nice” at the Calgary and Chicago airport. I arrived at Charles de Gaulle and felt sick entering the dark, smelly and all round horrible lady’s room.
    Re: women, when I was in Scotland I was shocked to see some women so drunk that they would find a alleyway and squat!!!

    • Oh, I hear you, the bathrooms at CDG are notoriously bad. Last time I was there, I waited until I was in the TGV to pee and I’m not squeamish.

      These urinals aren’t bad but the smell is awful, though.

  4. Yes, yes, yes and yes. I was so happy to be traveling through South Africa and not Paris when I was pregnant. The potential problem I see with these things is that cities could think the problem is fixed when for the people with higher bathroom needs (women, kids), it’s not at all.

    Part of the problem of dirty bathrooms is the people who are supposed to be keeping them up, but I do believe some of it is the users. People just don’t think it’s their job to help keep a place clean, and it’s worse in the south.

    • You’re so right re. potential issues. I had to teach Mark to hide behind a tree to pee a couple of times in Nantes, just because we were nowhere around public bathrooms and young kids can’t hold it forever :-/

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