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The French And Their Bathrooms

French have an issue with bathrooms.

Nope,  not this way, Nantes, March 2012
Nope, not this way, Nantes, March 2012

I first noticed the many differences between North American 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 took a table outside and hung out in a café for a few hours. After my first Diet Coke, I excuse myself and stepped inside to find the bathrooms. I paused in the doorway, scanning the place for a “toilettes” sign.

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

“Are you a customer?”

“Yes, I’m sitting outside,” I gestured towards the sunbathed 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’s 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 tourist 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 customer use (yes, they check) 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 you gen­er­ally have to enter a code printed at the back of your receipt, so it’s pretty much a “customers only” option.

Honestly, when I first came to Canada, I was amazed to see free and clean bathrooms in malls and restaurants. I never take access to 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 common, 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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