Sunday, March 6, 2011

Faire pipi

weird self-cleaning toilets
Yes, that means what you (probably) think it means: literally, "to make peepee," but is probably better translated as "to go peepee." Though this may sound like a phrase reserved for children, it definitely is not, as I've heard people of all ages use this more familiar version of "aller aux toilettes" (go to the bathroom/restroom).

An important cultural side note: if you ask where the "salle de bains," (bathroom) is, you will likely get some strange looks, whether you are in a restaurant or chez des amis.* In France, the toilet and bath/shower/sink are almost always in two separate rooms, so unless you want to take a shower, make sure to ask for "les toilettes" (always plural).

 Anyway, for anyone who has ever traveled to Europe, you have likely discovered the disconcerting lack of "toilettes publiques." Unless you are in a restaurant or a tourist site, you better learn to hold it, or suck up your American pride a pay for it (to be fair, it can also be a challenge in big cities like San Fran or NYC). Usually, when you can find public toilets, they are payant*, and I'm not talking a fortune, maybe 0.50, but still, I'm sure I'm not alone here in thinking this basic human need should not come with a price tag--but once again, that is probably American me speaking. If you don't want to pay simply for the use of a more or less (more often less) clean and stocked bathroom (or can't find one) your other option is stopping in a cafe and getting the cheapest thing on the  menu--a drink. This of course continues the vicious cycle--though we can't always make our bladders listen to reason.

The first time I lived in France, I absolutely refused, on principle, to pay for the use of a toilet. Everywhere I traveled, I looked out for that sign of freedom and America: McDonald's. I remember really liking Italy because the Mcdo's were more abundant than in France. Just like in the US, those trusty golden arches could be counted on to provide me with free bladder relief. If there were none to be found, I simply waited till the next museum or mealtime. Well, except the couple of times I snuck into luxury hotels to use theirs--in London, my friend Danica and I smiled at the doorman of the Ritz, charming our way into their fancy pink restrooms, with white, wicker baskets for the real towels and a comfy velvet couch! We even had the cleaning lady take a picture of us in there. Your visit to Nice isn't complete without a stop in the bathroom of the fancy Negresco Hotel (and if you get caught, just blame Rick Steves--it was his idea).

bathroom in the Ritz in London

bathroom in the Negresco in Nice
This time though, I have succumbed to the European ways. It still grates every time I have to hand over that 0.50 centimes, but in emergencies, it's totally worth it. I thought I was going to die in Budapest, when I followed the signs to a public toilet, only to discover I didn't have enough money left to pay for it. Imagine my relief when, a few minutes later, I found another one that accepted Hungarian currency AND Euros. Whew. As far as those "trusty McDonald's," sometime between 2007 and 2009, the McDo's of France followed the example of other fastfood restaurants by installing codes on the doors--to get the code, you need a receipt (or just be sneaky enough to escape the notice of the employees and wait for another customer to open the door).

"This free bathroom is open Mon-Sun from 8am to 7:30 pm"
I can't tell you how stupid I felt taking this picture
This brings me to the situation in my lovely ville* of Lyon. Unlike pretty much every other place I have traveled in Europe, Lyon, against all odds, has, more than one, FREE PUBLIC TOILETS. In Europe, this is like stumbling upon a  unicorn. Even better, and once again, against all odds, they are always clean and well-stocked with toilet paper AND soap. Nicer than or a at least as nice as any toilet I've every paid for. Incroyable, non? The first time I saw the sign for the "sanitaire gratuit" next to the metro station in Vieux Lyon, I didn't believe it. Of course I knew "gratuit" meant free, but I was still doubtful. I peeked my head in and saw a man behind a counter on the left-hand side. Hmm. I ventured inside and saw a few coins on the counter. My doubt increased, but I carried forth, cautiously walking past the man behind his counter, offering a tentative bonjour, and waiting a second for him to demand .50 centimes. But quelle belle surprise, he did not! After returning my bonjour, he went back to reading his newspaper, and I practically skipped into an open stall. I recently discovered a second FREE PUBLIC TOILET along Rue de la Republique, one of the main streets of the centre-ville, and once again, I doubted its verity--how could this city have not one, but two such miracles? But, I can now attest that it's true--and this one is just as clean and nice as the other.

It might seem like a small thing, but come to Europe, and I promise you, you'll want to join me as I give a grand merci to the ville de Lyon. My bladder thanks you.

Free bathrooms in Lyon and Paris:
Paris: the Louvre--there is a bathroom in the lobby by the coatcheck. You don't have to have a ticket to go past security, so in the off season, this can be a good option. Otherwise, you'll probably pee your pants before you get through the line (if you're a girl anyway).
Musee Carnavalet (near Place des Vosges in the Marais): Besides being a really interesting museum on the history of Paris, it is always free, for everyone at all times. So if you're in the area, feel free to nip in, have a quick look around, and use them shamelessly for their bathrooms.
Victor Hugo museum/apartment in Place des Vosges: this is also always free.

Lyon: Vieux Lyon, next to the metro
Rue de la Republique, across from the Printemps department store, below ground just outside the parking garage.

And of course, there are always the creepy, free-standing, self-cleaning toilets in both of these cities (as pictured above--the ones in Paris are green). I have yet to gather enough courage to try one out, but hey, desperate times...

chez des amis: at your friends' place
payant(e)(s): adj which means that it is something you have to pay for
ville, centre-ville: city, downtown

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