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Of Bathrooms and Cultural Differences

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!

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