La SanisetteMy mother always told me to beware of public toilets. I was never quite sure what I was supposed to be wary of – bad smells, germs, lurking perverts?

Still, her warnings left me with a vague sense of discomfort that continued to haunt me as an adult every time I used a public washroom (‘washroom’ being the preferred euphemism of Canadians for toilets – aka loo, bathroom, lavatory, WC, etc).

Until I moved to France and discovered la Sanisette. When that vague discomfort was transformed into an outright fear of public toilets.

The Sanisette was originally designed to replace the public ‘pissoirs’ or urinals in the streets of Paris. They’re the French answer to clean, modern and readily available sanitation in public places. Its success has been limited, as anyone who has ever taken the Paris metro can attest – pretty well every nook and cranny still smells like a pissoir.

Sad to say, access to such facilities is often restricted so as to discourage the homeless from setting up housekeeping. Although they decided to make the Sanisettes free of charge (they used to cost 1 French franc or 40 euro cents), they have a 15-minute limit so as to prevent illicit activity like drug deals, prostitution and overnight stays.

These self-contained, self-cleaning structures are situated on busy street corners and city squares, so your private moment still feels a little public. They’re also unisex – not unusual in the old world where a single ‘cabinet des toilettes’ (water closet) often serves as both the men’s and ladies’.

The real problem I have with the Sanisette is the fact that you are forced to rely upon technology to keep your private business private. It is a nightmare for the excessively modest, the claustrophobic and the phobic in general (in my case, all three).

Here is how it’s supposed to work. You press the button and the doors open. You enter and the doors automatically shut. You do your business, wash your hands and press on the button to open the doors. You exit, the doors close and the unit begins a self-cleaning cycle, during which it is temporarily ‘hors service’ until clean and ready for the next user.

At least in theory. My fears are:

  1. The doors will randomly open at an inopportune moment, revealing me in extremis to a crowd of bystanders
  2. The doors will not open when they’re supposed to, and I will go through the complete wash and rinse cycle (possibly drowning amidst my own filth)
  3. The doors will not open at all, and I will be forever fossilized in a Sanisette

Think I’m paranoid? Shit happens.

Check this out:

To be fair, there are over 400 Sanisettes in Paris and most of them work just fine. I’m sure the tourists are grateful to find a functioning toilet when lining up to see the Eiffel Tower. There’s even an app for that.

But you won’t catch me in one.

13 thoughts on “Beware the Sanisette

  1. I had that same feeling in Paris so I made my husband stand guard outside. But we took trains to smaller towns, and there were, well, not quite open sewers, but almost. Squat. And in Spain, well. The open sewers would have been better than liquid “slush” on the floors. In towns, the amenities were usually in the basement. And it was always an adventure to figure out what to push, pull, or leave very quickly because you couldn’t figure it out… I sometimes had the think to myself: no one who sees me here will ever see me again.

  2. Once in Annecy, my daughter couldn’t figure out how to get out before the cleaning cycle started, and yes, she ended up getting “cleaned” along with her “business”. It was terrifiant! Indeed, shit does happen. She has been scarred for life.

    1. Wow, what a horror story! This is what I feared but somehow I didn’t really believe it would happen. Guess that explains why you’re not supposed to let children under 10 unaccompanied in those things….hopefully she was old enough not to be in a life-threatening situation.

    1. Your daughter should be proud – at 16 she has already survived the worst fears of the bathroom-phobic. With a baptism like that, she’ll be ready to conquer the world!

  3. Just found this website. I share your paranoia and avoid these automated coffins like the plague. However, I once had no choice in Leiden station in Holland. I was desperate and the regular loos were closed so with trepidation I entered an automatic one. There were various buttons but NO instructions in either English or Dutch so I had no idea what to expect. The doors closed automatically, I did my business, and then couldn’t figure out how to get out. I pressed all the buttons in sight, red, green, yellow, whatever. Nothing happened. I pressed the buttons again. Nothing. I began to panic. At least 10 minutes had gone by. I had visions of being sealed in this metal tomb forever. Eventually, the oxygen would run out and my shrivelled bones wouldn’t be found for years. I began to pound on the door, yell, scream, Help, Let me Out. Nothing. More door pounding, more button pushing, more yelling. I was close to tears. Then suddenly, miraculously, the door slid open. Never have I been more scared or more relieved to see daylight. I will NEVER use one of these things again. Oh, and a friend of mine had a similar experience in one of these automated toilets on a train. Eventually, in full panic mode when the doors didn’t open, she pulled the emergency lever and stopped the train!

    1. So glad to know that others also share my distrust of such contraptions -but sorry to hear of your terrifying experience! And rather frightening to imagine the train toilet leading to an emergency stop. 😉 Nice to have you along, and looking forward to reading you soon.

  4. Made me laugh out loud 🙂
    I see these contraptions and yet have never ‘visited’ one…. They seem, even though they close all on their own, so PUBLIC…!
    And yet, I’m the worst – let me out of the house and ‘I need to go’…. Anywhere anytime, anyhow! Don’t talk to me about skiing holidays – a nightmare!!!! My X used to say I shouldn’t buy a ski-pass but a ‘coffee-pass’ as I had to go to the loo the moment I had pulled up my gear from the last stop!
    But it has to be said: They are intruiging and (probably) very helpful ‘restrooms’ (which goes well with Christine’s term of Automated Coffins…. RIP 🙂

    1. I hadn’t revisited that post in awhile — yes, you and Christine are right to call them automated coffins and ‘restrooms’ as I am always afraid of resting eternally inside!

  5. Here the absence of open loos twixt 6pm and 10am means the streets and gardens are contaminated with excrement, urine and syringes. As a holiday centre it is visited by old and young alike and despite the imposition of a “public space protection order” people still have to answer nature’s call. Council workers refuse to be exposed to the potential danger of late opening loos.
    Who’s health is most important? And how do you reconcile the absence facility with the exposure of our young to this vileness?

    1. That is a shame. People with and without homes should be able to find a safe, clean and private spot to their business at any hour of the day. I’m sure there would be a solution to be found if the council or other public authority was truly motivated – where there’s a will and all that.

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