A Not So Delicate Discussion!

Some practical tips and explanations of some cultural differences regarding toilets in France!

This entry should be rated “R” for some sexual content, “V” for some vulgarity and finally “Y” for general yukkiness.

The faint of heart and sensitive of spirit should maybe skip this page. I fear this isn't going to be particularly pretty.

Useful? Yes.

Tactful? Probably not.

But wouldn't you rather know beforehand?

The water closet (or toilet)

The water closet or W.C., as it is often referred to, is simply the toilet.

In hotels it could be located in the bathroom, or in a separate tiny room adjacent to the bathroom.

In most French homes it enjoys its own tiny room sometimes with a tiny sink for hand washing prior and post "business”. Most often, the owners have made an obvious effort to decorate this space with not a little regard to making your stay there as pleasant as possible, sometimes even providing reading material.

In relatively modern buildings or those recently renovated, the actual commode is quite a lot like what you would expect in the USA, the most notable difference being the flush mechanism.

It's likely that instead of a lever handle located on the front side of the tank, you'll find a button on the top of the tank. In some cases this is a push button with two parts, one larger than the other. It's up to you to determine if you need the smaller or larger quantity of water to flush. Obviously, you base your decision on what you've done in there. This decision making possibility is based on environmental issues referring to the wasting of water.

However, the fellow who invented this double button quite possibly never used toilet paper. Its presence in the bowl commands the larger flush, the smaller one doesn't rid the bowl of much of anything at all. Therefore you flush again, and thus waste even more water than if you had initially larger flushed.

I'm afraid he was paid substantial amounts of money to design this completely idiotic feature, or at the very least was a man, who most of time doesn't use toilet paper.

So, Ladies - large flush all the time.

Men - whatever.

Sometimes, in versions which are 20 years old or thereabouts, you'll find a small knob rather like a miniature top hat sitting on the top of the tank. You lift this to flush, no choices, just pull upwards and away it all goes. Simplicity.

Some of the really old toilets will have the tank hanging on the wall about eye level, with a chain dangling from the ceiling. Pull the chain downwards, it will flush. Kind of fun and nostalgically funky.

So much for the easy parts.

Public Facilities

Now, you're on vacation, sightseeing and spending most of your day away from your lodgings and their relative comforts. At one point in time you're going to have “to go”.

If you're stopping for lunch in a restaurant, you'll be fine. Just do remember to bring facial tissues into the toilet with you, or some sort of back up in case there isn't any toilet paper, which is so often the case, it's almost generally true.

The bathrooms are cleaned in the morning before the business opens, a roll is put up and then this is repeated again the next morning. Depending on what time you arrive, you'll find all variations on the spectrum of supplies and cleanliness. Rarely are they attended to more than once a day, unless you're lunching in a very posh establishment.

Rest Stops

If you're on the road, driving somewhere, only stop at rest areas where there's a gas station. They're all pretty much okay.

Do not stop in the other rest areas where there are simply brown or green painted buildings. These stops can be badly frequented and therefore can actually be dangerous.

Several of them are renowned for being a haven for a sort of sex-trade, either a paying service or simply exchanging services rendered. I'm assuming that you don't want to get involved in that sort of extra-curricular activity on your vacation. Let's face it, even if you did, how would you barter? You're not going to find the useful vocabulary in your pocket dictionary.

So, since you also won't know which rest stops are “those” rest stops, better just to stop at the service stations- the official service stations where you can buy a coffee and a sandwich and use the toilets.

Enough said and sorry if I've offended anybody but I told you this page should be rated “R”....


In the streets of yore, you could find what is called a “pissotière”. Quite a visual word, that is, and describes just what it should - somewhere for men to go to urinate.

Existing simply of a shield about 3 feet high, suspended at about waist height, it keeps the public passing by from participating too actively in what you're up to.

These “pissotière” are becoming increasingly rare, and good thing, too! Not only are they strange, since anybody walking by will see the head and feet of the user and could eventually engage in conversation with the occupant, which is just a little too weird for me, they also are a bit disgusting, since they're NEVER cleaned and the odor of urine floods the street.

Somebody finally realized that VERY public toilets were not good ideas, and they're being phased out little by little. But in case you see a three sided open stall with a guy in it, don't saunter over with your map and ask for directions.

Another weird thing about this concept is that there is absolutely nothing similar to be used by a woman. Why not? Did women of yore not urinate?

“Madame Pee-Pee”

In some public facilities you might find a “Madame Pee-Pee”.

No, I did not make that word up. It is an expression which all French people use, and they don't find it to be particularly offensive.

This person's job is to hand you towels to dry your hands on, to check that the stalls are all clean, and the toilet bowls flushed and free of unsightly spots.

She is paid for this service, by you. Sometimes she'll have a little sign with a fixed price, most often around 20 to 50 euro cents. Sometimes it's up to your discretion as to the amount of tip you'll give her. The mentioned amounts should get you by.

Quite often in train stations and in malls you'll find them sitting at a little table wearing a smock with an assortment of spray bottles, buckets and utensils ready to be put to use.

In nice establishments she'll be an attractive young woman who might offer you perfume or hand lotion and she'll be wearing a smart, suit-type uniform, with all her buckets and bottles stashed out of sight. She'll want a bigger tip.

And even in the men's room she'll still be female. I have never seen a “Monsieur Pee-Pee” anywhere, ever. So Guys, be prepared to have a woman in your facilities with you, handing you a towel, and you too, must pay her.

Personally I'm more than happy to pay if the facilities are clean, because when they're not......well... read on.

“Toilettes à la Turque”

Lots of cafés in Paris and in the larger cities have a very scary thing which the locals fondly refer to as “toilettes à la Turque” or "Turkish toilets".

The first time I opened the door to be confronted with this oddity, I turned around and went out to make sure I hadn't mistakenly entered the men's room. After confirming that indeed, the figurine on the door sign was wearing a skirt, I checked the other stalls. More of the same!

As my heart fell into the general vicinity of my socks, I realized that since I did really have “to go”, I was going to have to bite the bullet and do my best with what was on offer.

Hopefully you've got lots of experience camping and doing everything you need to in the woods without a porcelain fixture in sight. Unfortunately for me, I do not.

In front of me was a sort of porcelain insert on the floor with two raised footprints on either side of a hole in the floor. On the back wall, the white (well it should have been white) porcelain thing went up about halfway from the floor to the ceiling as if it was a shower enclosure, except without the sides. There was a water pipe descending along the wall from the ceiling with a large button like a drawer pull along the pipe. At the bottom of the pipe where the wall met the floor there was a spout.

I won't go into any detail about my own harrowing experience that day. Suffice it to say that now, I do my very best to avoid situations of this sort.

I do have a few suggestions about what NOT to do when you enter a “toilettes à la Turque” danger zone.

First of all, if you're wearing a longish coat, take it off and give it and your handbag to somebody outside. Under no circumstances will you want to place anything belonging to you on the floor.

If you're wearing open toed shoes, don't attempt this. Just hold it until you find someplace else to go.

The best attire you could possibly have upon entering would be knee high rubber galoshes, shorts or a very short skirt with no underwear, rubber gloves in case you lose your balance and accidentally touch some surface anywhere, and a gas mask.

I'm not joking, these installations are invariably vile. Don't ask me why, they just always seem to be. Once I noticed that someone had attempted to write a message in excrement on the wall. I didn't try to read it, assuming that its content would most likely be rather like its author - deranged.

Oh and in case you wonder, your backside should be facing the wall. Just don't tip over against it.

Once you've finished, dress completely and step off the footprints before pushing the button on the wall pipe, or your feet will be instantly drenched. In fact, if you'd noticed all the water on the floor when you entered, now you'll know why.

The really funny thing about these toilet facilities is that the French (and I mean French people of my general age and education, thus “normal”), continue to defend them as being more hygienic that the sit-on-it type commode we're all used to.

While it's true that you don't sit on anything, the results are absolutely everywhere and in my opinion, no amount of water squirting on the floor is going to remove that message from the wall. But then again, I'm American, n'est-ce pas?

To sum it up, bring your own tissue, don't place anything on the floor, avoid clothing with fringe, long dangling belts or ties on it. Good luck.

In the case I've scared you too badly, be aware that toilets in France aren't any worse than Spain, Italy, Germany or England.

In fact, on a jaunt to London, a friend and I had just strolled across Tower Bridge one winter evening and the cold must have gotten to him, so he insisted, against my admonitions, that he had to run into the public toilet located in the park on the south side of the bridge approach.

I was waiting outside admiring the lovely view of the bridge lit up at night, when he came rushing up behind me and grabbed me by the arm, pulling me back out of the park and up to the street level.

As I stumbled along, hanging from his arm, I insisted on an explanation. It seems there was a party of some sort taking place in the men's room, involving.... well, I guess I shouldn't tell.... or this will be rated “X”.

Happy traveling!

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