Of Bathrooms and Cultural Differences

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Little Guy Peeing (and some obscure baseball jokes), Alexandria Bay, U.S.A

As a French, I have being taught that bathroom humour is a low form of humour. But I cannot hold it any longer (pun intended) – I’m Canadian now, and if I want to write an article about bathrooms, well so be it.

I was first introduced to bathrooms different to the ones I was used to in China. They really weren’t as bad as I had been told. I didn’t mind hole-in-the-ground squatting toilets because they were actually often cleaner. However, the fact that a lot of Chinese women do not close the door while doing their business, apparently because they don’t want to catch germs when touching the door handle, made things awkward sometimes. And in Hong Kong, the stalls were sometimes very low (i.e. waist level when standing up), which can make things difficult when you are taller than the average Chinese woman. The weirdest bathroom set up I have seen was in Beijing, in 2008. Our tiny hotel room had a “bathroom corner” (washbasin, shower and toilet). But the walls were made of glass – not tainted glass, not opaque plate-glass, just regular transparent glass. Let me tell you, we would always take a shower to fog the walls before using the bathroom!

In Latin America, bathrooms are quite straightforward but for one thing: don’t forget to throw the toilet paper in the garbage can provided instead of flushing it, because the plumbing can’t take it. Oh, and Bolivian men apparently love to pee everywhere, which made some bus rides very nauseating.

But are Canadian and French bathrooms different? You bet they are.

The first thing I noticed in Canada is that there are plenty of free and clean public toilets. In France, if you need to use the bathrooms, you need a lot of will and change. Once you actually found them, there are plenty of hoops to go through. In train stations and museums, bathrooms are okay but not always free, and the “dame pipi” (literally the “wee wee lady”, the toilet attendant who collect the money) can be downright bitchy. In U.S style fast-foods, to use the bathrooms, you generally have to enter a code printed on your food receipt. And don’t be tempted to use the bathrooms in a café: it is strongly frown upon  if you are not a customer. Most cities also have paid futuristic-looking toilet booths but few foreigners dare to use them — too weird. Moral of the story: don’t take free toilets for granted.

Oh, one more – horrifying – detail: most French toilets in restaurants, bars etc. are unisex. It’s like at home: a small room with one toilet plus sometimes a urinal. This is mostly is big cities where space is at a premium. I personally don’t see why so many North Americans are horrified at the perspective of peeing after someone of the opposite sex – it’s not like you are going together. On the other side, French may consider North American bathrooms not private enough because the stalls do not have full doors – most have a foot of empty space from the floor to the door.

Bathroom setups in France are also different: a bathroom (“salle de bain”) definitely doesn’t have a toilet in it but only a washbasin, a bathtub and sometimes a shower. “Toilettes” or “W.C” (i.e the actual toilet) are in a separate room. In Canada, bathrooms always have a toilet and, to my surprise, a lot of houses have two or more bathrooms. In Paris, it can be the exact opposite: sometimes, several apartments share one toilet, located on the floor, with the neighbors. Even in Nantes, when I was a kid the bathrooms were outside but we had a bathtub in the apartment.

Now, getting specific. I find toilet seats in North America extremely low compared to France’s — they look like kids’ toilets to me, and I’m not even that tall! I have no idea how big American football players or hockey players can sit on those. That said, the toilet bowl is definitely bigger, with way more water. On the other side, a lot of foreigners complain they have trouble finding the flush on French toilets, which never seem to be at the same place. Recently, Cynthia reported on the French obsession for colourful and scented toilet paper – come to think of it, toilet paper is just plain white here. I also find North American toilers very standard — they all look the same! In France, some toilets are “à la turque” (“turkish-style”, that’s how French call squatting toilets), some don’t have a plastic seat and lid, some have fancy fixtures… using the bathroom there is always an adventure!

Sure, writing about bathrooms and toilets is not super glamorous nor classy — sorry if you were having lunch reading this blog. But it is definitely part of the funny cultural differences you discover when you travel or live in a foreign country!


About Author

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


  1. Can’t stand the turkish toilets in France as they are way way way too dirty for me. It drives my bf nuts when we’re on the highway and we make the mistake of stopping at one of those rest area equipped with those since as soon as I see those toilets I get back in the car and ask him to drive me to a “normal toilet”.

    As for my toilet paper, it’s still pink 😉
    .-= Cynthia´s last blog ..Ma Matriochka =-.

  2. hahah! love your post. I had a few comments on French toilets that I passed onto my parents when they arrived for holiday – Most public toilets, even in restaurants, are not very clean; always take tissues as there is often not toilet paper; lots of toilets are unisex (its odd walking through the urinals to the stall!); there are hardly any public toilets; don’t be surprised by people peeing where they feel like it, especially men and young children, hence the strong urine smell in the streets; and don’t be surprised if you have to squat (turkish toilets).

    For me I’ve found the lack of hygiene/cleanliness in restaurant/bar toilets in France quite disturbing and also seeing guys pee quite openly in public. I assume its illegal? But like scooping up your dog poo, not enforced? I know peeing in public in NZ is illegal and the police often arrest/fine guys peeing in the bushes after a night out.

  3. I paid one euro to use the bathroom at Carousel du Louvre, with service…the lady was mean and it was a waste of time to tell people to wait before they clean the stalls. Sometimes certain “business” can’t wait!

  4. Ha! Living in several different places allowed me to see various types of toilets as well. Japan provided the most contrast: it featured automatic high-tech toilets (ones that even have a retractable sprinkler shower to wash your nether regions without standing up) and also traditional Indian-seat toilets. Public toilets in the Philippines and also in countries such as Colombia both do not feature toilet paper, which is why I have it in my habit to carry a roll whenever I travel. Oh, and back to Japan, a fascinating thing that Japanese toilet bowls have is the built-in sink. Whenever you flush, a regular toilet will trigger a device to fill the water in the tank. However, for Japanese toilets, this device doubles as a sink, and the water comes out of a spout on top of the toilet tank, which is shaped like a bowl, and has a hole underneath. So, you can flush the toilet, and wash your hands using the water that will be used to flush the next round.
    .-= Linguist-in-Waiting´s last blog ..A Trip in Three Phases =-.

  5. My wife and I spent a few weeks in Japan when her son was stationed there and I was fascinated by high-tech Japanese toilets. Linguist made the same comments I was going to make so I will not repeat them.
    Somehow I had the impression that French toilets all have bidets in them but you did not mention them. Maybe that is just advertising by companies who want to sell bidets. We did encounter one in a hotel in Nice when we were there. I did know what it was but had no idea how to use it so it went untried.
    .-= Tulsa Gentleman´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday – Magnolias =-.

  6. Hey, bathrooms are totally cultural and totally interesting.

    As for unisex toilets, I think they make complete sense in situations like French bars, where there are only two little rooms—why stand there waiting for the women’s when the men’s is empty and there’s no difference between the two? What I find weird about french unisex bathrooms is (like Kim said) walking past men who are peeing to get to the toilet. Or walking out of the stall and finding a man less than a foot from you at the urinal. I always feel like I shouldn’t be there or am doing something wrong.
    .-= Eileen´s last blog ..I’ve registered! =-.

  7. The missing toilet seats always puzzled me. Where do they go? Why aren’t they there? I only ever noticed it at schools, and of course I worked in elementary schools. Do they really think 7 year olds are stealing toilet seats?! I kind of see it for the lycees because they treat those kids like criminals, but I really don’t get it for the little kids. Easier to clean maybe?
    .-= Soleil´s last blog ..I wish my life were more "normal" =-.

  8. 1. The “little guy” is Calvin, of “Calvin and Hobbes”. Neither he, nor the baseball jokes, are “obscure” in the U.S. 🙂

    2. Of course the French find toilet humor to be ‘low-brow’; they also feel Jerry Lewis is a comedic genius. Shyeah.

    3. The foot of space at the bottom of the stalls is for convenience. We can see if a stall is occupied without bothering the person that may be within. This actually makes us more private than the French. :o)
    .-= Ghosty Kips´s last blog ..Memorial Day =-.

  9. Hey Zhu… How are you? Long time…

    Ah, quite a insight in to toilets 🙂 Yes, first culture shock I had when I landed in North america is “not private enougu” with its 3/4th door. In India its always full doors. I use to feel as if some1 might pep in 🙂
    .-= CM-Chap´s last blog ..OMG… My Name? =-.

  10. Great post Zhu and yes, I will never never take free toilet for granted as I know how desperate it was when we try to find loose change when we were in busy busy London tube station.

    I heard of horrifying stories too back in the 70s when relatives visited China that they have to bring along an umbrella because there is no doors in the loo. Last Dec, in Xiamen rural village, when the doors are half a door size so when you squat, you could literally see them….LOL.

    Thank you for this, great post 😀

  11. When I visited my cousin in France last November I saw they had installed a new toilet. It was very nice, a new style, new color, no feet, like suspended against the wall. Here in the US it’s hard to find a toilet in a different color unless it is imported. Also I never see bidets. In France most showers have adjustable shower heads for shorter people or children. Here, even in expensive hotels (and we went to the Hilton in Baltimore last month) they don’t have adjustable shower heads like in France, so when I turn the water on I get it in my eyes. I also like the unisex toilets, just like at the banks, you can go as the toilet is free. Here there are not enough toilets for women and while you wait you’ll see men toilets empty. ( I have been known to use men toilets when I could not wait.)
    .-= Vagabonde´s last blog ..Recollection: Mother’s Youth and the House of Worth =-.

  12. @Cynthia – I don’t mind turkish toilets that much, honestly in some places it is actually clean (because it’s easier to clean I guess). Plus it helps building up leg muscles 😆

    @Agnes – Yes, really… and it wasn’t that long ago, in the 1980s.

    @Kim – I agree with you, France has some truly dirty toilets, something I rarely see here. As for guys peeing everywhere… it’s also true. Guess in Canada they can’t do it — to cold 😆

    @Poem – Yes, some madame pipi are really means. Not a huge fan myself.

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – I always heard Japan has these really high-tech toilets, I just wasn’t sure whether it was a myth. I guess not! I’d love to see that.

    @Tulsa Gentleman – Bidets are fairly rare these days, you can only find them in very old bathrooms and I don’t know anybody who actually use them. I never did, at least.

    @Eileen – Another thing that can be weird is that a lot of toilets in bars and restaurants don’t lock properly and it’s never a great situation when someone interrupt your business 😆

    @Soleil – I know, I don’t get it either! And it’s often in schools, like you mentioned. We all hated using the bathrooms when I was in elementary school because of that.

    @Ghosty Kips – I’m not too familiar with Calvin and Hobbes but I do understand the baseball joke 😉

    @Yogi – Same for me!

    @Beth – I don’t think I ever used these… oh wait, I did, in Gatineau park! Now I wish I hadn’t remembered 😆

    @London Caller – OMG, that’s truly weird! How can you put that degree on your resume and be taken seriously???

    @CM-Chap – I felt the same when I arrived there, now I’m just used to it. I guess it’s for security reasons…?

    @shionge – I can well see that in China, some bathrooms in the country are just very very minimalistic 😆

    @Vagabonde – I also used the men’s bathroom more than one when I just didn’t feel like waiting. When I first came, I didn’t even know toilets weren’t unisex like in France!

  13. Tu me fais rire parce que beaucoup d’expats abordent cette question notamment pour les portes qui ne descendent pas très bas, mais peu rentrent autant dans les détails! Tu verras le jour où tu auras à acheter un toilette ici, que le bol peut être régulier ou allongé, la chasse d’eau en différentes matières, voire en 2 chasses mais dans ce cas il y a moins d’eau dans le fond du bol (comme c’est déjà le cas en France), ce qui apparemment rebute les canadiens… 🙂
    .-= Delph´s last blog ..Une petite pilule avec ça? =-.

  14. I’m always fascinated by bathroom culture… lots of variety around the world!

    The first time I saw public toilets with the blue lights (to prevent addicts from shooting up) was in Switzerland.

    The first time I saw ‘self-cleaning’ toilets was in Amsterdam. I thought those were pretty nifty.

    There used to be a Scandinavian cafe in Vancouver called “Don’t Show The Elephant” and we nicknamed it “Don’t Show Your Elephant” because it had a pane of glass in it that was rendered opaque when you locked the door. (It triggered a light that made the glass more like a mirror.) Drunk guys in Yaletown would run over there for a whizz and forget to lock the door, making themselves a sideshow for everyone in the cafe 🙂 Very entertaining at times.

    My theory about the low toilet seats is so they are handicap-accessible. And, remembering what it was like for my nieces and nephew, they could use the toilet without my assistance. There is, as well, the “hover method” for the ladies.

    Ah, toilet talk 😉 I do enough of it on my blog. I’ve written about my pet peeve of people on airplanes NOT flushing the toilet (Cathay Pacific CX888/889!)
    .-= Gail at Large´s last blog ..The Typewriter =-.

  15. Max Coutinho on

    Hey Zhu,

    I can feel that this post is one of those I love lol…let’s get started…

    “hole-in-the-ground squatting toilets” – LOL yeah, I have a problem with those (there also exist in Italy [in the industrial places] and in Turkey) but I admit that they are clean. However, they remind me of a joke Africans tell each other LOL (I can’t share it here)…they squat too.

    “However, the fact that a lot of Chinese women do not close the door while doing their business” – LOL LOL LOL I do the same…must be the Chinese in me (I have Chinese blood).

    “Let me tell you, we would always take a shower to fog the walls before using the bathroom!” – ROFL ROFL ROFL…this was a good one LOL…*nodding*.

    “Oh, and Bolivian men apparently love to pee everywhere, which made some bus rides very nauseating.” – disgusting!

    When I went to Canada to live (many moons ago) I found the Canadian toilet so odd (the water in it nearly touches your butt); I was always afraid of touching the water…but then I got used to it.
    When I lived in France I found odd the fact that the toilet was in a different compartment than the rest of the bathroom…in Portugal, we have everything in one room: toilet, bidé, shower/tub, hand-wash sink etc.

    “most French toilets in restaurants, bars etc. are unisex.” – yes, and I found it out the hard way too lol. Once, I finished doing my business and when I left the stall I saw a man entering the premise…I was like “this is it! This man is a serial killer and I will die in a public bathroom…so American!” LOL *nodding*…I was young…LOL…

    “In Paris, it can be the exact opposite: sometimes, several apartments share one toilet, located on the floor, with the neighbors.” – Say what? Hell no…in Portugal if the apartment has three bedrooms it is mandatory to have 2 bathrooms at least. My flat has 4 (one for each room). I love this feature LOL…

    “using the bathroom there is always an adventure!” – ROFL ROFL…excellent expression!

    Oh I simply loved this article: thanks for the laugh! 😀

    Have a great weekend!
    .-= Max Coutinho´s last blog ..No, the Holy Inquisition is not back! =-.

  16. The one thing I heard, I don’t know if this is true, is that canadians don’t say ‘toilet’ it’s considered rude. I have noticed they all say “washroom”. Here in the states we say “toilet” “can” “bathroom” (though baths are not taken there in public) or whatever.
    NPR did a big story on toileting and bathroom hygiene while profiling a book by a man who searched the world for toilet information.
    Apparently the western toilet paper tradition is considered unclean in lots of parts of the world (where water, soap/water, manual hands on cleansing is the norm).
    Also, there is a powerful amount of debate about toilet types, heights etc vis a vis the health of your nether regions and what it does to nerves, muscles, etc. Seriously, there’s a debate on you sitting on the shitter.
    I remember the toilet attendants in europe, weird. For a continent with egalitarian traditions I can’t imagine having my 3 kids there! We’d have to carry cans and shovels everywhere!

  17. @Delph – Effectivement, ça a l’air plus dur que ça ne paraît ! 😆 Et les toilettes publiques avec l’espace en bas des portes m’ont beaucoup surprises quand je suis arrivée. Je vois que je ne suis pas la seule !

    @Gail at Large – Oh, I want to go to this Vancouver café 😆 The first time I saw bathrooms with blue lights was in Sydney (OZ) at the train station. I had no idea why… I learned that later.

    @Max Coutinho – I agree with you, there is a lot of water in Canadian toilets, much more than in Europe! Ah, these little cultural differences… isn’t it fun!

    @Rich B – It’s true, Canadians almost never “toilets”, they tend to say “bathrooms” or “washrooms”. Must be an English thing. French have so many words for toilets… 😆

    @Nisha – Eh, you should! I bet you have interesting stories 😆

  18. I`ll let you know what they`re like in Thailand! I always have a knack for having to pee at the most inopportune moments…

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