Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Les Toilettes

When I came to Europe for the first time in the late eighties, I was forewarned about having to bring my own toilet paper when using public restrooms as it usually wasn't provided for you.  I was also told that the public restrooms often consist solely of a hole in the floor that a person simply had
to straddle. Doing one's very best not to splatter all over yourself, you simply had to make do with what you had available. Believe me, I visited many restrooms in many restaurants and cafes that fit this description to a tee. Fortunately, the facilities have, at least for the most part, done some improving over the course of the last couple of decades. For one thing, paper is generally in the stall now and more often than not there is an actual toilet there too. Sure, I still may run into a forlorn hole in the floor on occasion, but thankfully, it is more of a rarity rather than the norm.

That being said the toilets here are, simply put, wierd. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for indoor plumbing, but coming from the U.S. my perception of how things "should" be is skewed by my cultural upbringing.

So, what's so different about the toilets here? Well, they all have a different way of flushing. Some toilets are like our w.c.'s of a hundred years ago with a chain that you must reach up to in order to pull it down. Some may have a lever on the lid that you have to pull up. But more commonly, they have flushing-buttons which are either on the top lid of the toilet or in public restrooms they may be on the wall. There are usually two choices to make. A big button, perhaps in the shape of a large crescent moon and another one in a smaller crescent shaped moon. The big button is for "big" needs and the little button is for the more common smaller needs.

That's all well and good—save the environment and all that, but that little button gives me a headache! Unless you place the toilet paper so that it lands completely in the small amount of water in the bowl, you will likely have a problem.  I am more of a throw it in the bowl and get it over with kind of girl and it has been a challenge to break the rhythm of my normal routine. When I forget (which is most of the time, mind you) I push down that button in order for the toilet to suck up the few pieces of paper in there and it cannot handle that much work. Oh, you can press it several times, without much luck. Or you can hold it down, wasting just as much water that you would have had to if you used the big button in the first place. Mon Dieu! What's a girl to do?

It's not just the operation of the toilet that is an issue for us foreigners.  A few weeks ago, while washing my hands in a public restroom a family of Australians queued up for the bathroom, but when it was their turn, they were perplexed. They weren't sure how to open the door. That's easy to understand as I once was in their shoes myself. In this establishment along with many others in Paris, there is a fee of  fifty centimes to open the door. Some places will actually give you a blank coin to use, but you need to be 'in the know' to ask for one as there isn't a sign explaining it. So after wasting your time putting real coins after real coins in the box (that you more than likely will not be reimbursed for) you are at a loss why this sucker isn't opening up for you. After explaining that they needed to go upstairs in order to ask the bartender for a special coin, they did just that and were able to take care of their business. I saved their day—or at least that moment. Just call me Superwoman of the Toilet Explanation.

On another occasion, last summer, I had been out on a long stroll, consuming bottled water along the way to quench my thirst from the heat. Well, water doing what it does needed to come out. I scouted out the first cafe available and explained my predicament to the hostess, begging her to let me use the facilities. I added the customary s'il vous plait only to be rejected. She practically screamed at me, "Ce n'est pas possible!" (It is not possible!) She told me I had to buy a coffee in order to not explode. I turned to the bartender and handed him a five and asked him to not make me a coffee as I detested coffee! This action nearly caused World War III and was totally unacceptable to them. They informed me that I not only had to buy something, I had to consume it, as well. Don't ask me why they wouldn't just take the money, that is just how it is. Luckily, I discovered they sold bottled water. Evian came to my toilet rescue! Thankfully, I never have this problem with male servers. So, I have taken a mental note, when in sheer desperation, bat my eyelashes and ask a man.

Also you should keep in mind, there are those public restrooms that will actually have someone posted in the restroom for your convenience. What that convenience is I am not exactly sure, but hey when in Rome do as the Romans do and when in Paris—well, you get the point. You will be expected to pay them a fee and perhaps even a small tip too. The fees range from fifty centimes on up to maybe five euros. At least the restrooms you have to pay a pretty sum for are usually clean. The fifty centime joints, like at the train stations, not so much. Just pay the fee, plug your nose and squat!

Another thing that might be a bit shocking is that quite often men and women share restrooms. Men will be standing at the urinal, doing their thing while you wait in line for an available toilet. The French don't give it a second thought. I am still at the point where I am giving it a second thought and admittedly I may have sneaked a peak or two...Shh, don't tell anyone!

Now, if you decide to live in Paris, just a word about cleanliness. Toilet bowls are shaped differently here and many of them need to be cleaned after each use. No further description will be given here, just remember to have a toilet bowl brush nearby at all times.

All this talk about toilets, and I haven't even gotten to the bidets yet. Well, I will let you figure that one out on your own. The good news is, gone are the days of me having to lug my own toilet paper around as I visit the sites. Hail to Les Toilettes!

Thank you for reading and happy flushing!