Beware the Sanisette

Beware the Sanisette

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.