Paris: Loo-la-la! Toilets are hard to come by

Courtesy Dan Taylor/Flickr
Loo-la-la! Toilets are hard to come by

When I first moved to Paris, someone told me that French women (in addition to not getting fat) don't pee.

I had also read a book that counseled never to ask for the bathroom in somebody's home.

Neither of these turned out to be entirely accurate.

But it is true that the French more discreet about the callings of nature. Cultural sensitivities aside, travelers are obliged to make use of the local toilets. So when you gotta go in Paris, your options look like this:

Find a free public toilet. There are public restrooms near the following tourist monuments:

Carrousel du Louvre — the world's greatest museum has a shopping mall beneath it, and that mall contains a bathroom. You'll find it near the entrance to the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre Métro station (1st arrondissement).

Jardin des Tuileries — the toilet is inside the gardens near the corner of rue de Rivoli and the place de la Concorde (1st arrondissement).

Pompidou Center — the modern art museum has a public toilet on the entrance level that you can access without buying a ticket (3rd arrondissement).

Notre-Dame Cathedral — the public toilet is located outside and south of the cathedral — follow the signs to the "WC" (4th arrondissement).

Eiffel Tower — the "grey lady" has thoughtfully placed a toilet between her legs. It's on the right side if you're looking from the Champs de Mars (7th arrondissement).

Sacre-Coeur — the freestanding public toilet is located outside and just southwest of the basilica (18th arrondissement).

Find a café. You have two options in a French café — either stop and buy a drink to "earn your right" to use the toilet, or else be sly about it. If you're paying, you can take your time in finding the toilet, asking your server for "les toilettes, s'il vous plait?" If you're not paying, you need to walk discreetly toward the back or basement of the café, looking for a WC sign to guide you. Act like a paying customer (perhaps one who is using the restroom before sitting down), not a charity case. If someone stops you, smile and ask for the toilets, but be prepared to pay for a coffee at the counter afterward as a courtesy.

It is possible, although unlikely, that you'll encounter a Turkish toilet — a ceramic plated hole in the ground. If you're a girl, take my advice and get outta there. It's not possible to use a squat toilet and escape with dry ankles. Just find a different café.

Find a McDonalds… or a Starbucks, or a KFC. Compared to a café, franchises are "anonymous" spaces and the employees (who are trapped behind their counter, anyway) can't tell whether you're a paying customer or not. Restrooms may be located one floor up or one floor down. They will never be Turkish.

Find a sanisette. More than 400 self-cleaning pods are scattered around Paris, providing a space-age space to do your business. A sanisette bears little resemblance to a backwoods outhouse. The interior is fully cleaned after each session, and newer models include skylights and reservoirs that store rainwater for use in the toilet.

Use an app to locate a nearby toilet. If you don't mind the potential charge from your cell phone service provider, fire up the latest smartphone (Blackberry or iPhone), which will give info suited to your exact location, so you never have to punch in zip codes or addresses. SitOrSquat (free) automatically points out nearby public restrooms and includes details such as whether they're open and if they have changing tables. It relies on user-submitted data, which can be a bit hit-or-miss, depending on your neighborhood.

Find a wall…at your own risk. Men in France still unzip in the most unlikely of public places, but new sanctions are beginning to change that. Special walls around town are designed to splash the offending squirter, and the Brigade des Incivilités are issuing fines against anyone caught making urine sauvage. Check out this amusing video from the Wall Street Journal which follows Parisian cops looking for "crimes against hygiene."


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