Free public toilets
One of my favorite topics with friends visiting Paris is about toilets, go figure? In fact, we recently spent half of our dinner conversation with friends discussing why is it so difficult to find toilets in Paris? Why are we fascinated by toilets when we visit foreign countries? Well first of all, unless you have a colostomy bag, you're going to need to use the toilet at some point, it's human nature. And, when traveling in a foreign country, toilets are not necessarily viewed as necessity, why would they when you can simply go behind a bush if modesty dictates, and in some countries you just "do it" a familiar slogan to most Americans, and forget the modesty.
Before I delve into our fascination with toilets I need to discuss our culture. America, as described by many foreigners as well as Americans, is a country of conveniences. Everything is convenient for Americans, from having a multitude of choices, to having 24-hour stores open for those candy bar cravings some people get in the middle of the night, you get the picture. If you go to a grocery store in the US, chances are pretty high that there will be a restroom in that grocery store, that holds true for practically any kind of major store. And, as for the smaller stores situated in a strip mall, there will be conveniently placed toilets throughout that strip mall. They're also free, and for the most part are kept clean. And in some of our larger malls there are restrooms at almost every couple of feet. OK, this paradigm does not hold true in Paris. You go to a major grocery store, e.g., Carrefour, I can guarantee you there will be no toilet facilities; however, if the major grocery store is in a mall, chances are you will find public toilets which are almost always difficult to find, but they do exists, and sometimes you have to pay to use them. Personally, I don't mind paying for a bathroom if they are kept clean.
Most of my friends know I have kidney issues so I go to the bathroom quite often. With that said, my first year was trial and tribulations of having to find bathrooms throughout the city. In fact, at one point I thought there was a conspiracy and they purposely don't have toilets in Paris so you're forced to go into the cafes to order something and, hence, be able to use their facilities. Sure there are the free public street toilets, but more than half the time they're out-of-order. And, the ones that are working and clean are usually situated in front of parks etc., hmm, could that be because they don't have to use them with all the trees and bushes available? And, don't assume that the pastry shops that have tables and chairs have public toilets. I made that mistake once. There's a pastry shop along the St. Paul area in the 3eme. I saw people sitting at their chairs enjoying coffee, teas, sodas and pastries. So, I told Jack since I had to go to the bathroom, may as well get a snack. Got there, ordered a large soda and pastry, and wouldn't you know it, no toilette. Lesson learned, don't assume, clearly look for a sign that says toilet before going into any pastry shop with tables/chairs, cafe's; however, will always have toilettes.
I was once asked, don't the French have to go to the bathroom, of course they do, but they're better adept at holding it for much longer periods than we are. I was told that the French are taught to restrain themselves and to wait til they get home. Granted I'm generalizing, but knowing the French, I wouldn't be surprised at all. I was actually recently on a flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia to connect to Paris. A French woman sat next to me, and during the whole flight she did not once go to the restroom. She had coffee, sodas; if I didn't know any better, I swear she was wearing depends or had a catheter.
So, what do you do? Here are a few of my tips and tricks:
- Hotels. If you are near a hotel, go in and act like you belong there. If you are stopped, say in you're heaviest American English accent, which shouldn't be hard to do, that your wife/partner etc. is across the street with the room key but just want to use the facilities in order to rush to your next rendezvous.
- Fast Food places. McDonalds and Starbucks, how more American than using their bathrooms. They're very popular and usually very busy, just simply go to the bathroom. Keep in mind though that if the McDonald's is situated in a mall, there will be no bathroom, you must use the one in the mall.
- Malls. Malls will have toilets, but they won't be as plentiful as in the US. If there's a mall map, it should be listed, but it can be confusing, sometimes the man/woman sign with a little zigzag is actually a sign for the elevators.
- Department stores. Stores such as Galeries Lafayette, Printemps etc. will have toilets, however, they tend to have 1 per building and very small so expect lines and I also hear that they are now planning on charging for the toilets. Also, if you're in the Men's department store at BHV department store, there will be no toilets there, you need to go to the main building across the street.
- Tourist areas. If you are in a tourist area, e.g., Montmartre Place de Tertre, the cafes are so busy, just simply walk in and use their facilities; however, there will be some cafes that have a little coin operated door. If you truly are a customer, than ask for a token, if not just pay to use it.
- Train stations. Stations will have toilets, again difficult to find, but they do exists, and in almost all you have to pay to use, but they tend to be adequate.
- Metro. Some of the metro stations will have pay toilets e.g., "Hôtel de Ville" but the problem is they're not always open.
- Government Offices. if you are going to a government office, all I can say is good luck! Restrooms will definitely be difficult to find, and some cases they won't exist at all. So, if you think you'll be there for a while, avoid drinking too many liquids before heading out. We once waited 3-hours at the Prefecture in the 17eme (Police station) to get some paperwork signed, once inside we were shocked that there were no public toilets.
- Museums. You should have no problems there. They seem plentiful. However, if you are at Versailles in the main chateau, the restrooms close at a certain time, so if you want to hit one before the road, go before it's scheduled to close.
- Bistros/Restaurants/cafes. Are more sympathetic to children. So, if you say you're small daughter or son really needs to go, they will let you use their facilities. Just an aside, it's not uncommon for a bistro/restaurant or cafe to have one toilet for the whole place. I've been to large restaurants where there was only 1 shared toilet for as many as 50-people, imagine that?
Turkish style toilet
Finally, although not as common, some toilets will be "Turkish style toilets", even at some of the newer establishments. They tend to be slippery so be careful, otherwise you're going to have one wet mess. And, because there is no toilet, just an opening, you'll need to know how to balance pretty well. More importantly, when you're ready to flush, stand back, they can splash all over. But when you gotta go, don't pass them up.
Something that you should always have on hand, toilette paper, or tissue. Not all facilities will have them, and not all will have toilette seats, so you may also want to bring portable toilet seat covers. I also have on hand purex and/or disinfectant wet wipes. And, if you're modest beware, many toilets are shared by men and women and sometimes the urinals are visible or have a simple partition. It is not uncommon to see a person of the opposite sex in your bathroom cleaning. And, it will be very rare that there will be paper towels to dry your hands, there will always be some type of blow dryer, so bring lots of hand lotion. After awhile those dryers can wreak havoc and give you really dry hands.
Hopefully, these tips and tricks will be helpful, so rather than looking for a toilet, you can be looking for that special boutique or museum...
(See comments below for updates)