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?!