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Gross or Practical?

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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