Following an emotional week here in France (see note below) and in the spirit of keeping my mind from more noble pursuits, I am going to give you the down and dirty on toilets and bathrooms in France. By special request and dedicated to Kiki!
I have posted before about the mysteries of French grammar when it comes to les toilettes, such as why they are invariably referred to in the plural when most often available only in the singular?
When it comes to the plumbing in people’s homes, however, the plot thickens further. There is essentially one rule that guides such installations: the separation of the clean from the dirty.
A toilet is a dirty place; a bathroom a clean one. So you have the explanation, as far as I can gather, as to why the French insist on separating the WC from the salle de bains.
When we bought a new house a few years back, the builder provided plans which we were able to modify to a degree. For the upstairs, I suggested one room with everything: toilet, sink, bath and shower. The builder looked at me, perplexed by this request: Why would we do that when we had enough room to keep them separate? I was lost for words to explain why it seems only natural and fitting to be able to perform all of one’s ablutions at the same time and in the same space.
Seeing my hesitation, he drove the knife home: “C’est plus propre.” Cleaner sounded like a better option so I nodded dumbly as he kept the upstairs toilet separate from the bath. Downstairs, however, where space was at a premium, I had my way: next to the sink and opposite the shower went our main floor toilet. Not only did we save the cost of an extra door, our guests can wash their hands without having to navigate from one room to the next.
Toilets, much like bathrooms, half-baths, powder rooms and other plumbed spaces dedicated to personal hygiene, are not quite as readily available in France as they are in North America. Our first house had one toilet and a separate bathroom. The times they are a-changing, though, and the proliferation of the water closet with them. Now, you will often find small sinks in main floor toilets, elevating them to the status of the powder room or half-bath. Master bedrooms with ensuites are starting to proliferate in French homes, although most often these adjoining bathrooms do not include a toilet.
The insanity of this still leaves me gape-mouthed as I watch the property shows on TV in which potential buyers rave about the luxury of an ensuite bathroom without a word for the missing WC. Do their nocturnal wanderings happily take them downstairs to pee, I wonder? Or do they use the bidet? Perhaps this explains why I have so often heard the older generation see a bidet and exclaim: “C’est pratique, ça.”
The bidet deserves a post of its own. The mysteries of this plumbing fixture, so oddly reminiscent of the toilet yet with a tap instead of a flush, have long perplexed the English visitor to France. (“We use it to cool the wine!” a fellow Canadian once confided. Another friend raves: “Great for washing your feet!”) Formerly prized by the French as a way of ensuring intimate hygiene when showers and baths were scarce, the bidet has lost popularity since the 1970s and these days is rarely found in new houses. It is, however, rumoured to be making a bit of a comeback.
So, what are the various bathroom equivalents in French and English?
Les toilettes, also known in French slang as les chiottes, are most frequently found in a dedicated room called le WC. Alternatively, le cabinet de toilette.
(“WC? Like Water closet?” I asked in stupefaction when I discovered that toilets in France are identified by this entirely English yet unpronounceable expression. Because the ‘w’ is so unwieldy in French they pronounce it ‘vay say’.)
When it comes to homes and hotel rooms, there are a few terms to keep in mind.
- WC séparé means a separate toilet. What to call this room in English presents a problem for North American translators. Water closet is literally what it is, i.e. a closet-sized room in which water runs. But that sounds odd. Toilet room? Still strange. Sometimes these toilet rooms have a small sink or ‘lavabo’, what some call a half-bath but for which I can find no specific expression in French.
- Salle de bains is a bathroom that includes an actual bathtub.
- Salle d’eau is a bathroom with a shower but no bath.
- Salle de bains avec WC (or salle d’eau avec WC) is a bathroom that includes a toilet.
- WC avec lave mains intégré is a new concept that I have just discovered. An actual toilet with a small sink built-in. Have I been leading a sheltered life or is this now a thing?
So there you have it. The scoop on the poop. Hope this helps you navigate the wonderful world of French plumbing.
Oh, and don’t forget to ‘tirer la chasse’ – flush — on your way out!
P.S. I can think of no more fitting way to honour the memory of a man who has become a national hero than to scoot over to FranceTaste’s excellent blog and read her post about Carcassonne in the aftermath of the Trèbes attack.
Caca is a rich topic. Years ago, I housed a young summer intern from my hometown. She spent at least an hour in the bathroom every morning, which not only made it impossible for me to get ready on time but was exceedingly uncomfortable. Later, when I had a stepdaughter with a similar beauty routine, I was infinitely grateful for the WC séparé.
I have seen pictures of the integrated sink/toilet, but none as nice as this. It makes sense. And I hate when there’s no lavabo in the WC. The plumbing is there, so put in a little sink for crying out loud.
My brother noted wearily that every WC in Europe was an adventure in trying to figure out how it worked. Push a button? Pull up a button? A lever? A chain? A pedal? Who knew!
Thank you for the link. I wish it were for a happier reason. We are still reeling at this complete aberration in our normally quiet ville pépère.
A rich topic indeed! Toilet habits are mostly not discussed but often on our minds… 🙂 Did not think about the issue of separate toilet and someone monopolizing the bathroom — good point! Certainly an argument for the French system that I had not thought about. Your brother’s comment is spot on. Makes me realize that we no longer ‘tire’ la chasse but push a button most of the time. The worst is when you can’t find the pedal or figure out what to do; this happened to me recently on a train! On a more sober note, hope that your town settles back to its quiet ways soon. Probably never quite the same but at least a ‘retour à la normale’….
Lovely post – did you know that there was a Thomas Crapper in Britain, who is supposed to have invented the flush toilet?? Perhaps it’s an urban myth…
As for half-bath, I don’t ever remember anyone in Britain calling it that, but it did turn up on American websites. The toilet with integrated sink is a great idea, especially if the water used for washing the hands ends up in the tank and is used to flush. I saw something along those lines years ago in Japan, and was wondering why it hadn’t been replicated in Europe!!
PLs tell me you’re kidding…. 😉
Pretty sure that Thomas Crapper question was a Trivial Pursuit standard so perhaps it is true. Such a great name for convenient invention!
The main advantage of a separate WC is people can use it even when some lady or young maid occupies the bathroom for hours . I want a separate WC everywhere I live . There is more and more a small sink built-in nowadays, so this solves any problem . You’re right, this extra sink was occasional in the past and is becoming common now . It’s for weird Aliens anyway, we French just open the window and wash our hands under God’s rain .
Le bidet was excellent for intimate hygien, but now showers and baths killed it . Do you know “bidet” means a small horse in real French (before the XXth century) ? So this hygien item draws its name from there .
Why is “les toilettes” a plural ? I guess it is to make a distinction with “la toilette”, which has two meanings : faire sa toilette = to wash oneself, and “la toilette d’une dame” means her clothing, her attire .
The word WC comes from the English Water-closet of course, this term was adopted somewhen in the late XIXth century, in the “Entente Cordiale” period . Another weird Alien stuff : since the Gaulish presence in our beautiful territory people did these things outside, as the Lord told us in some Bible verse I forgot but, well, we had to deal with all those invaders who buy our cherished lands and houses .
Actualy in until the 70s people called this room “les cabinets” (I know, another plural, but it’s more fun in group !) . Until then I barely heard “les toilettes”, and this must come from the invasive Anglophone presence in the holy French language that God gave to humanity after the Tower of Babel failure ( you can chek, it’s in a verse somewhere) . But I have to tell you, you dramatically lack of slang equivalents for “les WC” . Beside your “chiottes” there are plenty, at least remember “les gogues”, preferably to be avoided in the Préfet’s salons, and for children or Puritan invaders it always has been “le petit coin” (this one you can use it in society) .
Wonderful comment – in every way and sense. Je me souviens encore qu’en enfant j’ai appris le mot ‘les cabinets’ – ça ne fait pas si long que ça…
Thanks for the informative comment as ever, Phil. Wish I’d known what ‘bidet’ meant when I first tried to use one — I might have mounted it like a horse instead of sitting on it backwards and spraying water everywhere! 😀 As for chiottes, at least I know now that it’s not the female of chiot. 😉
We were never allowed to refer to ‘a toilet’ in our house because my father abhorred what he called ‘bastardized French words’ – Maisonette (a flat with it’s own door to the outside) and Serviette (a napkin) banned for the same reason. We called it the lavatory, the loo or if we were in polite company, the cloakroom. I believe that would be the correct translation for WC (which is only used with tongue stuck firmly in cheek). I don’t think the British ever use the expression half bathroom but of course it is in common usage in the USA. One of my favourite books is Lucinda Lambton, Lady Worsthorne’s excellent ‘On The Throne – The History of The Lavatory’ …. I highly recommend it. I also join you in highly recommending France Taste’s excellent blog and in particular her post about Trèbes and Carcassonne in the aftermath of the atrocity last Friday.
As a sometime stickler myself, I can relate to your father’s refusal to bastardize the English language. However, I wonder how he would have called the actual toilet that you flush — surely not a lavatory? I have clearly been with the Gauls for too long as I was confused about ‘half-bath’; should have known it came from the land of palatial bathrooms. Thanks for the excellent reading recommendation – right up my, er, alley! 😉
He called it ‘the heads’ mostly which is a Royal Naval expression and I care not to delve into why, to be frank. He did, however, read most of War and Peace in Tolstoy’s original Russian on that throne – eccentric? My dad? Surely not!!! Lucinda is an absolute gem – she had a series on the BBC many years ago and became a bit of a celeb because she is so wholeheartedly, bemusingly upper drawer English 🇬🇧
Thank you for reassuring me that it’s not language but culture that confounds the plumber! When I requested a salle de bains on the top floor, giving four salles de bains and salles d’eau (all with loos) to the 5 bedrooms in the house, the response was a look of almost profound concern and the comment that ‘Madame est vraiment tres propre’. I was then counselled that one per floor would be adequate before I got them to put all the wastes in anyway for later, when I hope to be able to afford them!
One can never have too many bathrooms, n’est-ce pas? If that’s not a set phrase, I shall coin it as such!
It was a request made in a joking fashion, didn’t really expect a post on this – but made me chuckle anyway! Thanks Mel.
NOW, the stories vary ‘selon la source’. I assure you that in our house’s deed a ‘salle d’eau’ is any room with a bath or a shower or both…. but hey, it doesn’t really matter, does it. Maybe the laws are just as approximative as train time-tables!
I have actually never seen any combined toilet-washbasin either. Maybe we both live under a stone.
My first experience with a ‘bidet’ was a business visit to a forlorn village in French spoken Switzerland. I too, like many others, didn’t ‘need’ a bidet but as it was placed conveniently next to the WC, it served as an outstanding feet-washing facility. Never were my feet cleaner than on that trip!
Thanks for this excellent post.
Be careful what you wish for, Kiki! 🙂 You are welcome and glad it made you smile. Made me realize that such delicate points require clarification, and who but moi to provide it with a dose of tongue-in-cheek? Probably the term ‘salle d’eau’ is used more generically for bathroom than ‘salle de bains’ which does really require a tub. Glad you also found the utility of the bidet.
personally I always used a bidet to wash my feet . It’s very convenient for this even it was not designed for that, and I miss bidets nowadays for this reason . (Washing one’s whole body is indecent and is a source of multiple diseases as people knew centuries ago) .
As a woman who has lived almost my entire adult life with an “irritable bowel”, I am perhaps overly preoccupied with bathrooms and toilets. This post is outrageously funny AND practical AND educational should I ever find myself traveling in France. I would definitely require a Salle de bains avec WC. I think the final toilet/sink combo is ingenious. I spent part of last evening at IKEA shopping for new furniture for our youngest daughter’s bedroom and this toilet struck me as very Swedish.
As a woman who has long lived with a man who has an irritable bowel (or at least, one that reacts often and without warning to stimulus ;-)) I am also fairly preoccupied with plumbing. 🙂 All joking aside, it is certainly not funny when you need the facilities and they are not to be found. Whether a nervous bladder or too much coffee is to blame, I am also the person who immediately asks to use the loo upon arriving anywhere — which I was recently informed is considered rude in some French circles. Thankfully I’ve never been made to feel like a boor because of it. That toilet does look very Scandinavian, eh? IKEA is a great source of design inspiration (and perspiration).
It has taken our plumber years to get his head around the concept that we want two bathrooms, both with toilets, in a modest house.
He has recently rationalised it by regarding this as a purely space saving solution, but many here still have only one, downstairs loo.
Possibly not the easiest thing for a plumber to fit into an old house if the pipes weren’t designed that way in the first place. You are right to insist on having it your way, in your own home! But I think it really is cultural. Or the French have very strong bladders.
Well, until fifty years ago they used the gutter in the courtyard
The toilet in our home is nowhere near the salle de bains, unfortunately. I don’t like it at all but have got used to it. It’s been embarrassing, though, when we have had workmen in who have taken no notice when I’ve pointed out where the bathroom is after they have used the loo…
Lol. Wash their hands? Quelle idée! Now that I think of it, after many months of workers in our house, never once did I get a request to use the loo. Many they had a port-a-potty hidden in their truck, or went behind the tree at the back.
As I read, I kept waiting for you to mention the nightmare of my youth – the squat toilet. Do they no longer exist?
Here in Australia, older houses used to have a ‘dunny’. No idea where the name came from, but a dunny is a closet-sized tin shed out the back, in the garden somewhere, with a toilet inside. Boiling in summer and freezing in winter, the dunny would also shelter spiders so it was always a good idea to check the seat before getting started.
These days we’re a bit more civilised and ‘ensuites’ are all the go. 🙂
Yes, we Canucks also had outhouses like your ‘dunny’ back in the day, at least at the cottage or in some rural homes. Often they were just a hole cut into a piece of wood with an open area underneath where who knew what lurked. Yuck. As for the dreaded squat toilet (à la Turque), they do still exist in France but mostly in public spaces. Not very nice especially for women who are a disadvantage when it comes to simply peeing!
I’d really like to be able to find (clean) public toilets wherever we go in France ! We have so much progress to make ! PersonallyI don’t use the words les cabinets or les WC any more, just les toilettes. I don’t know when the vocabulary changed ! And I’ve always thought it was much more convenient to have a separate toilet (and 2 bathrooms), especially when one of our sons spent so much time there getting ready for school ! Also I’ve read recently- in the U.S. press – that when you flush the toilet without closing the lid, very fine particles can get on toothbrushes !
I read that too, Anne. It definitely a convincing argument for having separate WCs (and for closing the lid!) I think France has made quite a bit of progress in the toilet department over the past 20 years but we definitely still have a way to go. I think it must be cultural; people are so used to public toilets being unclean that it’s accepted as normal.
I must admit that I quite like the WC to be in a separate room as long as it also has a sink to wash your hands afterward. I never understood why it wasn’t always the case in France…don’t they wash their hands after doing their business or why make it so difficult to do it when you have to move to another room to wash up…Nice post. (Suzanne)
Thanks, Suzanne! I have to agree – when hand washing is enabled, it’s all the better to have the WC separate, especially for guests. 🙂
totalement et entièrement d’accord avec toi, Mel… btw, no Japanese toilettes?… ’cause you have to see(use!) them, to believe them… and I did 5 times in Japan!!! 🙂
Oh, gosh! Strong post & strong images! it sounds so strange: a toilet is an essential part of the human life & the French are so much embarrassed of it…Not I get why when you fly with Air France (personal experience) toilets often don’t function during the flight.
I don’t know if they’re embarrassed but they certainly don’t consider it a priority worthy of time and attention to cleanliness! Sorry to hear the Air France flights are even worse than I remember!
They are either too strange or too sophisticated! 🙂 🙂 🙂 Unfortunately. Air France should change something in their ‘pretty’ service.