30 October 2005

Wherefore art thou, pay toilettes?

We’re going to Scotland! Well, Colin is, anyway. Colin got accepted to present a paper at a conference in St. Andrews, so next July, he’ll be headed up to Scotland for a few days. Of course, I’m DYING to go, but I have a hunch that by that point in our little adventure, we’ll be out of cash. Either that or I’m going to have to step up the membership dues to this blog! (Get your toilette memberships now…)

Speaking of toilettes, someone asked me recently to explain what on earth the pay toilets were all about. While I could try to elaborate on this myself, I think it will be more useful to quote the 2004 edition of Culture Shock: France by Sally Adamson Taylor. She does a good job of explaining the situation in rather glowing terms, so here goes:

“Until the last decade, French public toilets were notoriously smelly old tin fence structures, where men (and men, only) could take one step off the sidewalk, pee behind this barricade, and continue walking down the street, often zipping up as they went along.

“These urinoirs or vespasiennes were basically a hole in the underground sewer system, with a bit of water dribbling along with the urine. You could smell them a block away and they were entirely for the benefit of men.

“No longer! The French jumped from the 19th century to the 21st with their sparkling new Toilettes. You’ll see them everywhere in France, now, and elsewhere in the world they are cropping up. A modern plastic tubular structure, these facilities are a tribute to French ingenuity: they are spotlessly clean, nearly vandal-proof and offer complete service for men and women, including toilet paper and piped-in music.

“Insert fifty (euro) cents in the slot and the handless door slides open, receding into the curve of the structure. Step inside the seamless, all white, brightly-lit cavity and the door automatically closes. Music begins. The toilet-like seat is used in the normal manner but there is no flushing to do and no apparent plumbing. Push the button to open the door when you finish and once you’ve stepped out, the door will close again and the entire room will be flushed and cleaned chemically, ready for the next user” (Taylor 195-196).

If you haven’t traveled to Western Europe, you probably don’t know that the pay toilet is fairly common throughout most of the countries. I guess the idea is to take some of the burden off of stores and restaurants, who don't want throngs of tourists coming in for the sole purpose of using their bathrooms. Understandable. Anyway, I distinctly remember seeing a pay toilet when I was in Europe in the early 1990’s – it had a timer on it, and when your time ran out, the door flew open. I think that the pay toilets here are the same, but I don’t know how much time you get. (I would guess 15 minutes.) The timer is designed to discourage homeless people from sleeping in the street toilettes, but let me tell you, the limit puts a lot of pressure on the average user! You have to be pretty desperate to take your chances on getting caught with your pants down, literally.

Of course, Colin and I have both been that desperate. Based on my experience, hurried though it may have been, Taylor's assessment of the French "leap into the 21st century" isn't quite the dream that you might imagine.

First off, they don’t offer “complete” service for women because there is no seat on the toilet. In fact, there is an alarming shortage of seats on toilets throughout France. Seriously, the situation merits some kind of telethon to raise money and awareness regarding the horrific treatment of women in this manner. On the bright side, there are handles in the toilettes, so you don’t have to rely solely on the strength of your quad muscles to keep you from falling in.

Second, there is no piped-in music. Thank God. Given what I have already reported on French music, I can only imagine what I would be subjected to in a public potty.

On the flip side, it is true that there is no apparent plumbing, a detail that I was glad to know before I got inside. Otherwise, it would have been a bit unsettling to have to open the door to the bathroom without flushing.

We did, by the way, come across an old urinoir as described by Taylor. You could smell it at least a block away, if not more. Colin got strangely nostalgic about it (he spoke about “the old pissoires” as if he was reminiscing about the good old days in Paris) and temporarily felt compelled to use it to round out his French experience. As you can probably guess, the stench was a pretty strong deterrent to that idea, and we kept walking. (I’m glad that my method for getting the full French experience involves the purchase of scarves, shoes, and pastries instead.)


At 23/12/05 20:43, Anonymous Tammy said...

My first sight of the automated pay toilet was actually in San Jose, CA. In between the Children's museum and the train lines are these little enclosed capsule shaped things, about the size of a small car. I think they were $2.

I can just see it now....
Child: "Mommy, I hafta go potty!"
Mom: "But we need to catch the train!"

(some moments later)

Mom: "Okay, the train's not here. Here's $2. You go into this dark tomblike crypt to go potty on your own because there's not enough room for me to be in there with you. While you're gone, I'll catch the train without you."

Or something like that.


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