When nature calls

Free toilets in France tend to serve only 50% of the population

Finding public conveniences in France not up to much? Grenoble Life’s resident Australian Shonah Kennedy reports from the front line.

Having arrived at Paris Gare de Lyon an hour prior to the TGV leaving, I decided to try out Le Train Blue café express.  This forced lunch time also coincided with a call of nature. Perfect – delicious lunch in an iconic café (well, the express part) and the thought of clean facilities to use – free of charge too – or so I thought. I was assuming a little too much.  After going down the steps, I was greeted with a barrier that asked me for 20 centimes. I thought this must not apply to sit-down diners, so I asked my friendly waitress and her answer was confusing to me. Having thought I misunderstood, I repeated my question in a different way, but I received the same answer. I took my 20 centimes, placed it in the slot and was allowed entry into the exclusive world of European facilities – or lack thereof.

I have a social problem when it comes to needing the bathroom in France. And, may I just point out here that I have lived in different countries in Europe and seemingly this is a Europe-wide problem. However, now that I am living in France, this is the country I am picking on – I drink a lot of water.

Prior to leaving the house every morning I drink one litre of water and my ritual café au lait! My difficulties begin about half an hour after I lock the door and leave my clean, reliable facilities far behind. Perhaps it is all psychological as I don’t see others with that grimaced expression on their faces looking beseechingly up and down every street in search of the elusive cubicle. BUT, here we can remove almost 50% of the population as there ARE public urinals (as unhygienic as they look) scattered around Grenoble for those more vertical in their activities. THEN, to add some sort of insult to the matter, I have also seen a number of doggy toileting areas. 

What about the female of the species? Why is it we must pay for the privilege of hovering above a bowl? AND, may I interject here and say even though we do pay (and up to 70 centimes in some places – I get desperate) it does not guarantee the cleanliness of the area or the provision of paper.

So … in my quest of need I have found some amenities – and at times free – I would like to share with you.

You can of course boldly go where many people have gone before and risk the cafés/brasseries. This can be done by walking in as if you own the place – or are at least dining there. This plan is often foiled when you get that lost look on your face and it is evident to all that your only intention is using the bathroom* and you aren’t dining there, had no intention of dining there and probably never will. Or you could be completely honest and ever so sweetly ask “Puis-je utiliser vos toilettes s’il vous plaît?” Be prepared for holding on just a little longer, however.

Then there are the chain restaurants/coffee houses. The only reason I ever walk into these places is on the off chance the big burly guard is not standing against the wall asking to see your receipt, so that you have the exclusive right to use their second rate facilities. Normally you can see if he/she is on duty before you get so far into your mission you have to explain yourself to the self appointed toilet* bouncer.

There are a number of so-called self-cleaning toilet cubicles found around Grenoble. They do cost – normally 20 centimes (that you need the exact change for) – and from experience I have only used one that looked like it had been doing its job properly (on the North East corner of Place Du Dr L. Martin). Sadly the others I have tried: next to the merry-go-round in front of FNAC; behind the market at St Claire Les Halles; and at Leader Price in Seyssinet, should be relieved of their self-cleaning duties due to a job not well done.

Then, there is my find of the year – The Bibliothèque Municipale de Grenoble. On the first floor, on the left hand side there is a toilet. It is guard free, does not require any donation and normally there is paper! However, do take hand sanitiser as the soap is usually missing. But, it is a toilet. It is in the centre of town and it is relatively clean.

I hope there are others out there who share my European social inadequacy and can help with any alternative treasures they have found when nature calls.

*Australian English = toilet; American English = Bathroom (When visiting America I received some vulgar looks after asking where the toilet was!)

11 thoughts on “When nature calls”

  1. well written. what i would like to add is the complete absence of toilets on French Railway Stations. If there are any they would be locked. Add to the desperation if in the TGV you travelled the toilet was non functioning.

    Also another issue related to the drinking water part. Why don’t they have normal tap water on railway stations. Atleast there you can carry your water bottle, on the airport you have to throw your possibly liquid explosive (read tap water) and buy expensive bottled water.

  2. Thanks for your response Prakhar and I ENTIRELY agree…and awful if the toilets on the train – especially a TGV – were not functioning.

    Also the air travel is a BIG issue – I take my stainless steel water bottle everywhere and it is very annoying when having to then buy a plastic bottle of water once through “the water barrier”!

    I was thoroughly surprised in Spain to see they have water fountains near all restrooms at airports! France needs to catch up!

    Shonah :->

  3. What about those icky holes in the floor? I always feel I must take off my pants entirely so as not to soil them! And how does one, um, aim?! I cannot picture French women in their Chanel doing this.

  4. @ Jen – I was quite surprised to find such “icky holes in the floor” at the university yesterday. To be fair, though, I’ve even discovered ‘Turkish’ toilets like that in Japan – pardoxically also home to the multifaceted throne with its assortment of puzzling dials and nozzles.

  5. This is a real problem in France, how to find toilets, and clean ones … We never understood why we don’t have toilets like in England : clean and free .. It is a mystery..
    As going to turkish toilets wearing a Chanel .. I think people who can buy a Chanel are not concerned .. they don’t live in University rooms or ever go to cheap cafés

  6. Suzanne,

    It is great to hear a French perspective – thank you. I thought I was being very fussy, but to see you write that you see this as a problem too is refreshing.

    I must say I went to a really lovely restaurant in Lyon, not long ago, and their toilet was a turkish one – these themselves do not bother me, it is the level of cleanliness that does…maybe the Chanel just gets hung on the door if a Chanel wearer ever needs to use a turkish toilet!!

  7. Just when I didn’t think I could be shocked anymore regards facilities in France…I went (for the first time) to Grand Place last weekend and lo-and-behold to use the facilities (IN THE SHOPPING CENTRE) you MUST pay!!!?

  8. Finding toilets is really a big big problems…. I’m ok with paying but some charge 1 euro for that…. that;s a bit too pricey for me.

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