Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Urinal This Together

Having given birth to two children- fellow mamas, I know you can relate- the need to relieve myself, when it strikes, can often do so with a sense of urgency. Even if I haven't been consuming my 8 glasses of water per day, I still have to visit a public toilette on a regular basis. And, because I am the same gender as my children, that makes me their default bathroom escort.  Therefore, I now have lots of experience using public restrooms in Paris and the other regions and countries that we have visited over the past nine months. I am still very much grappling with several issues that pertain to the necessary evil of relieving oneself on this continent.

This city, like many others in Europe, suffers from an underwhelming supply of available free toilets. In Walnut Creek, when I gotta go, I can pop into Nordstrom, sneak into Starbucks, or drive to a gas station and take care of business without having to fork over a cent. On this continent, I pay 1.50 euros (as of today that's about $2.00) to use the facilities in a department store, or, I pay for a cappuccino in a cafe to gain access to their bathroom, and, I can forget about using one in a Paris gas station since a single gas pump sitting on a sidewalk is how gas thirsty cars get their fuel. Ironic, isn't it,  that my most usual method of gaining access to a toilet- buying a beverage in a cafe- is only going to exacerbate my core issue of needing one in the first place. And, at my current bladder retention rate, I'm talking less than an hour later.

$5.00 granted us access at the Galeries Lafayette's public restroom. Who wouldn't want to pay for the use of all that pretty toilet paper? I have never before seen a restroom with a maitre d'.  He's too busy taking toileting reservations by phone to admonish us for taking this photo.

Paris does have some free public toilets located on the sidewalks, but every time I attempt to use one, I encounter some kind of mishap. It's the kind of experience when, moments afterwards, I feel the urge to look around for the hidden camera that just caught my blunder on tape. I sort of expect Ashton Kutcher to jump out from behind a garbage can or bus stop and say, "Holli, you've been PUNKED!"

During my first attempt to use one of these toilets, I was accompanied by Raelyn. We waited our turn in line on the sidewalk of a busy shopping district. The young woman ahead of us was British and when it was her turn to use the facilities, I made certain to watch carefully so that I would know what to do when it was our turn to enter. I noticed that she pushed a button to open the door, then she stepped inside, and just as the door slid to almost a complete close, it opened up again while she was unbuttoning and unzipping her jeans. The door attempted to close three more unsuccessful times before she gave up with a loud and exhasperated, " #@!!% this!" and off she went. Despite the intimidation I was now feeling, I was determined to figure it out and make it work for me and Raelyn. She and I quickly scooted into the restroom while the door was still open. Seconds later, it slid closed and we were inside the surprisingly clean looking pod-like contraption complete with toilet paper and soap. I was impressed!

Suddenly and unexpectedly, a recorded French female voice loudly instructed us of something. I had no idea what we were being told. Raelyn, thank goodness, understood that the voice was warning us of the self-cleaning cycle that was about to commence. Before I could push the button that opens the door, a loud alarm sound bleeped repeatedly and Raelyn, who had taken a brief moment to read the French instructions printed on the wall, realized that if we didn't get out- and fast- our feet were about to get soaked with water. This is because the bathroom floor gets a washdown between each usage. In addition, the toilet retracts back into the wall, dumping its contents into an unseen basin and receives its own rinsing before lowering itself back into the ready position for the next patron. I now understood why the British woman could not succeed in getting the door to remain closed- this bathroom knew it was dirty and in need of a cleaning- it's smarter than we are!

While waiting outside for the self-cleaning cycle to terminate, I noticed that these units come equipped with an exterior light system in which each colored light indicates the toilet's current cycle: Green = Available, Red = In Use, Yellow = Self-Cleaning, or Blue = Out of Service. I have learned that these colored lights can be misleading and that, most of the time, a seemingly available sidewalk toilet isn't. I wish there was a light indicator for: This Toilette Looks Available But Isn't And Won't Be For Who Knows How Long So Move On.

I have tried to outsmart these sidewalk bathrooms. Having lost faith in the light system, I employed my other senses, mainly, my hearing, in an attempt to decide if I should keep persisting in getting the door to slide open. I'd like to say that I gleaned useful information from this method, in fact, I'd like to have a reason to become known as The Toilette Whisperer, but listening did not prove to be any more useful than looking.

My intelligent friend, Renee, tried to outsmart the toilette by suggesting that we all go in together. At least this could ensure that all of us who need to go pee actually get face-time with the toilet. Make that butt-time. Her idea was not embraced by all as you can see here:

Raelyn's and Nola's need for privacy trumped Renee's 'Urinal This Together' idea simply because, as Americans, we are used to having a much more privatized public toileting experience. In Europe, I have noticed, gender separation of public toilets is a rarity. I have used restrooms that have a communal sink area, one semi-private urinal, and one toilet stall all confined within a very small space. Even though I want to look in the mirror to freshen up and dab on a bit of lip gloss, I don't due to my own discomfort with the lack of privacy. I am forced to share this space with men and boys and I really prefer to do my female primping in private or, if I must, only in the company of other females. Sometimes, I have cleverly pulled out my compact mirror that I keep inside my handbag and reapply my lip gloss while in the toilet stall. Sure, I take longer, but I'd rather risk others assuming I'm going #2 than go without luscious looking lips.

"Why is she taking so long in there?" Little does this guy know, that, behind closed doors, I am searching around in the bottom of my purse for my lip gloss. He can always use one of these display toilets if he becomes really desperate.

Soren has been forced to get over his desire for privacy, especially when he was using the urinal in a communal bathroom and a cleaning woman mopped around his feet while he stood there taking a leak. This was just one of those in-the-moment cultural lessons for us about the fact that the public bathroom boundaries around privacy and personal space are way different here. The fact that I was even able to take the photos shown below are proof of this relativity.

Soren not quite embracing the lack of privacy.

Soren's comfort level with the Urinal This Together concept is increasing as demonstrated by his ability to flash a lighthearted smile despite the fact that the ladies room is next door to his semi-private urinal.

One fine example of Europe's relationship with toileting was evident in Den Haag, The Netherlands.  We arrived on the eve of Holland's biggest holiday - Queen's Day- a celebration of their queen's birthday which is marked by street fairs, flea markets, and the Dutch consuming copious amounts of alcohol. Our hotel was conveniently located in the city center, the heart of the celebratory action. Naturally, a city needs to provide the means necessary for its celebrants to relieve themselves. Back home, this means setting up rows of individual porta potties. They're stinky, but at least they're private. As you can see from the photo below, the Dutch have devised their own version of the porta potty.

I can't help but wonder what they expect women to do as well as all the people that may have to go #2?

The next morning, while the Dutch slept off their hangovers, we awoke early to find that the urine holes were filled to the brim with beer bottles. Urinating and littering conquered with one invention. I wonder if its creator realizes just how doubly ingenious this contraption is?

Less ingenious are the toilets that I use while out and about in Paris on a daily basis.  The usual toilet bowl configuration leaves much to be desired. Granted, this isn't India and there is an actual porcelain fixture in the stall rather than two foot plates on either side of a hole in the ground. Nonetheless, the functionality of ladies' toilets here aren't much of an improvement. This is because the vast majority of public toilets lack a seat. I'm not naming names, but it's like living with a man who forgets (or refuses?) to put the seat down at home. Except that here, there is no seat to put down. So I resort to squatting over the toilet, giving my quadriceps the same workout that they received when I was traveling in India. There are no seat covers, but I wouldn't want use one. Sitting is just not an appealing option for me. I know someone who, when she travels in Europe, sits on her hands because she does not like to squat. She figures that at least she can wash her hands (obviously not her butt) afterwards in the sink.

Washing is another gripe of mine. There are no paper towels in most restrooms. The majority of public bathrooms here are equipped with very old and/or inoperable hand dryers so I usually resort to shaking mine dry. While I applaud environmental friendliness, for a germophobe like me, I really prefer having a paper towel in my hand when I turn off the faucet and open the bathroom door because of all the folks I see who opt out of hand washing after using the toilet. 

And, let me tell you, size does matter. For ladies' bathroom stalls at least. Like everywhere else in Paris, space is at a premium and toilet stalls are no exception. Most of the time, my knees bump up against the door as I squat over the dirty, seat-less bowl. At least then I don't have to use my arm to hold closed the occasional door with an inoperable lock. The width of the stalls is not generous. When I cram myself, my purse, and the occasional coat and/or shopping bag(s) into my postage stamp of a stall, I become grateful that I do not suffer from claustrophobia. I just hope that my Louis Vuitton handbag (my Baby!) does not fall into the toilet every time I have to hold it behind my body and over the bowl so that I can create enough free space in order to open the stall door.

There are no female-friendly hooks or pull-down shelves for my Louis Vuitton which means that My Baby remains uncomfortably restrictive and burdensome on my shoulder. It inevitably slides down towards my elbow thus challenging my balance during my squat. My germophobia prevents me from putting my Baby on the floor. The reality is, for me to have ease of use in a European toilet stall, I need to grow a third arm. This extra appendage would become my much-needed handbag, coat, and shopping bag holder since, during certain times of the month, I need both arms free for taking care of business. TMI, I know, but I gotta call it like it is. And besides, I take comfort in knowing that at least half of you who read this can fully relate to and appreciate my toileting challenges.

The French appear to have a method of dealing with these toileting challenges by simply avoiding the use of toilets. Based on my observations, one of the ways in which they accomplish this feat is that the French drink very little to no water, at least during mealtimes. The French guests that we have hosted in our home never even touch their water glass and they never use our bathroom. For instance, our 11-year-old French relative spent a full day with us and despite her eating and drinking while in our company she never once used the toilet. Not long ago, our new French babysitter spent the afternoon with us. She drank a glass of wine with lunch (she did not touch her glass of water), and later, she consumed a cup of coffee. She never went to the bathroom! For me, that amount of liquid creates the need for at least two trips to the loo.

Last week, using our babysitter as my cultural relativity barometer, I asked her what this toilet avoidance is all about. She explained that many French people refrain from making trips to the bathroom as a guest in somebody's home because doing so is considered to be slightly crude, embarrassing, and impolite. Urinating and defecating are considered private bodily functions to ideally accomplish in the privacy of one's own home. She did stress the reality that, when you gotta go, you gotta go, and the French- when necessary- will and do make use of the facilities outside of their own home. I was relieved to hear this bit of news because my bladder was really beginning to develop an inferiority complex.

Most Parisian apartments have a salle de bain, or bathroom, which consists of a tub or shower and a sink and then a separate water closet; the tiny room containing only a toilet. Sometimes these two rooms are located next to each other, sometimes they're at opposite ends of the hall. The French, unlike many Americans, create a boundary and sense of privacy in their homes by not taking guests on a tour of their entire house. Therefore, the location of both their toilette and salle de bain remains a mystery to me unless I inquire as to their location.

For almost a year now, I have been totally naive and I have indeed made use of the facilities as a guest in the homes of many French relatives and friends. Had I known that the norm is to hold it in until I get home, I would have been more restrictive with my beverage intake because now I fear that I have been perceived as impolite by asking my host or hostess to point me in the direction of their toilette.  Hopefully, they realize, like our babysitter said- when you gotta go, you gotta go. Because- let's face it-  when you get right down to it, despite societal norms and cultural relativities, we're all human beings at the mercy of Mother Nature, and, when She calls, they, I, and urinal this together.

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