I was going to be polite and title this post ‘Faire pipi.’ That is the more polite French expression for urinating. Non-French natives, take note: ‘pisser’ is only used for animals or among males.
But then I thought: why mince words? Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m pissed (annoyed, not drunk) about how often the topic of where to go still comes up. And why, after all these years, so many stairwells and street corners in every French city still reek of urine?
My original post about the dreaded Sanisette is one of the all-time most viewed on this blog. And my ode to Madame Pipi was also highly appreciated. By now I would have thought we’d exhausted the subject. Mais non! Imagine my surprise when this video landed in my newsfeed.
Seems that comic Swann Périssée was commissioned by the city of Paris to make a point about the blight of public peeing. It certainly captures the essence of the problem in authentic French fashion. Someone apparently thinks that humour will work where fines and public outrage have failed. I’d say that rather than fancy campaigns they should invest in a few more pissoirs or public urinals.
Mais, I hear you say, they have! Et oui, that the was the scandal of the summer. The new ‘uritrottoirs’ – a scanty public urinal in a flower pot that has Parisians making rude mouth noises. And they decided to test it on the ultra-chic Île Saint Louis of all places!
Firstly, where is the female version? Surely we are not intended to sit on the thing?
Secondly, even for men, it provides almost no privacy. While the French are obviously far less concerned about modesty, the proximity of this urinal to passing tourists on the banks of the Seine leaves little to the imagination. I fear that in many cases the shy bladder will prefer a dark corner of the ‘trottoir’ or sidewalk rather than these highly public places.
This report from France3 emphasizes the ecological component but at a cost of 25,000 EUR to operate just a few on an ‘experimental’ basis, economic is not part of the equation. And I am not convinced they offer an improvement over the original vespasiennes.
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!
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.
When you think of souvenirs, you probably think of kitschy items like snow globes, seashell picture frames or Eiffel Tower key chains. I remember how important such mementos were to the kids when they were small. That coveted item, shark’s tooth or baseball cap, took pride of place on their dresser before being relegated to the memory boxes that still gather dust in our basement.
Now, our souvenirs tend to be digital. These bits of digital flotsam and jetsam that help us to remember where we were and when, what we did and chose to record. A photo shared on Facebook or emailed to family members, an update or a post about something we saw.
Thinking back on our holiday in Corsica two years ago, this unlikely image came to mind. On a scale of importance, how would you rate a mini-toothbrush dispenser in a restaurant bathroom? It seemed incongruous to say the least, given the French propensity for strong flavours in food and cigarettes (although perhaps those things offer an explanation for the market niche). But given the low priority dental hygiene is generally afforded in France, it was unexpected.
It went against all reasonable expectations of things you would find aux toilettes: Condoms, feminine hygiene supplies, even cigarettes all struck me as more plausible items compared to the (relative) superfluity of a mini-toothbrush dispenser. Presumably it was designed for date nights, as nothing kills the mood more than garlic breath or a bit of spinach in the teeth!
Even odder was the attempt to turn the experience of brushing one’s teeth into a mood memory, with choices ranging from ‘sexy’ to ‘pensive’. I did not try the machine, so cannot say whether the prepared brush with its dollop of toothpaste provided a satisfying experience. I tried to find out more about these dispensers through the usual search methods, by Google only rendered a link to a patent describing the invention, and one other in Le Parisien, mentioning the introduction of the machines to certain restaurants.
As souvenirs go, this photo was hardly emblematic of our stay on the beautiful island, which is why it was relegated to a folder of B-roll pictures. But the image stayed with me as a souvenir in the French sense: a memory, something you take away from an experience that lingers in your mind like a perfume.
Et toi? What is your most unusual souvenir of a summer holiday?
This is what you say in France when a situation is entirely contrary to the way you think it should be. “C’est le monde à l’envers!” Or another way of saying the same thing: “On marche sur la tête!”
I am tempted to say it is a useful phrase in France – but that would be a cheap shot, undeserving of this blog. Not to mention entirely mostly untrue. If you are sensitive to these small ironies, you will notice them everywhere you go.
Full disclosure: I had to google the definition of irony to make sure I wasn’t using it wrong. Ironically, considering what follows, one of the definitions of the word refers to Greek tragedy.
“A literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.”
Some readers will know that last week found me in Greece on holidays. Leaving behind the changing skies of the Alps, I had every hope of a solid week of sunshine. Instead, this is what happened:
Le monde à l’envers !
I went to visit the Acropolis, the birthplace of civilization, where I was surprised to find readily available public toilets – modern, clean and free. Le monde à l’envers? Perhaps not. It was quite civilized, so that’s just how it should be.
Although in contrast to what is usually available in France, it certainly felt that way.
I took several taxis in Athens and each time the driver spoke no English and had no idea where I was going. I had to show him a map on my phone, which did not seem to help much. Then he would pass me his cell phone to speak to another person who spoke a little English but still had no idea where I wanted to go. All the while driving and texting on a tablet-size device to figure out where to go.
A note on Athens taxi drivers: avoid them. The metro is much more efficient, if rather hot.
I love Greece – it was my third time in that country. It was my first time in Athens, however, and I was a little overwhelmed by the sheer density and size of the metropolis. It was also my first time on the island of Kythnos, a beautiful spot. I will be back. By the way, the sun came out after a day of disruption.
And there is nothing ironic about that.
Where have you been lately? Was it how you expected or le monde à l’envers?
In honor of World Toilet Day, I am dedicating this post to that beloved institution of French life, Madame Pipi. Also known as la dame pipi, it is a mystery as to why this job is invariably held by a woman.
Public toilets, especially clean ones, are much sought after in France, nowhere more so than in cities like Paris. And certainly by no one more than yours truly. Given my distrust of la Sanisette, I have only the greatest appreciation for the important job of the toilet attendant. Unfortunately, she is a dying breed as automation increasingly takes over.