Attention! This is not a photo of a French toilette publique. It could not be a photo of a French public toilet because this public toilet is equipped with a toilet seat. And toilet paper. There is also a railing for those who might be unsteady on their feet. Note, too, that the facilities are clean.
It is therefore impossible that this would be un W.C. français. It is, in fact, un W.C. japonais — specifically, the restroom in the Starbucks directly across the street from Kyoto train station. And it is a wondrous thing, if you should ever happen to get there to see it. Not because it has a toilet seat warmer, various electronic buttons for cleaning various body parts, and jazz playing from speakers hidden in the corners of its artfully lit ceiling. No, it is a wondrous thing because it says to every visitor, "Welcome! We appreciate your business, so we have aimed to make what can be an unpleasant experience as pleasant as possible."
If I could force every French citizen to visit this Japanese W.C., I would. Because foreigners have been complaining about France's facilities ever since the country was a monarchy under Louis IV (his Château de Versailles was famously under equipped, and guess what? It still is). Centuries have passed, yet our complaints continue to fall on deaf ears.
Why? This was a mystery I had to get to the bottom of, even if it meant going where no foreigner wants to go.
I began my quest for truth, or at least a plausible explanation, with la lunette de toilette, the toilette seat, which all to often in France is missing. At first I blamed this lack of équipement on the caliber of cafés I frequent — cozy neighborhood joints on the city's east side that are short on décor and long on affordable drinks. Perhaps, I reasoned, if I wanted the luxury of une lunette, I would have to pay for it; I would have to visit tonier cafés on the other end of the city, in les quartiers bourgeois. So I went into the sixth, seventh, eighth, and sixteenth arrondissements to inspect the quality of their restrooms.
Imagine my despair when, after I had been gouged €5 for un café crème, I found that half of the toilets lacked seats. To add insult to injury, some of the restrooms were far dirtier than the worst of American facilities — those found in American gas stations located far from the highway in the middle of nowhere.
Still, I remained optimistic. It's just the cafés, I thought. But then I joined a €70-euro-a-month health club with a gorgeous swimming pool, state-of-the-art gym equipment, and a locker room with a row of bathroom stalls sans lunettes. My theory blown, I knew it was time to confront the French directly.
I waited, though, for the perfect opportunity. It came during "un brunch" at a popular Paris restaurant, a trendy place with a clean but seatless W.C. that, by the end of the meal, everyone had visited, as this was a typical three-hour brunch. When I returned to the table from my own journey to the ill-equipped loo, I blurted, "Why is there no toilet seat in the restroom?"
Everyone looked up, puzzled. There was a pause before Stéphanie, a raven-haired photographer, ventured, "What do you mean?"
"In there," I said, pointing to the restroom door. "There is no seat."
"Huh," she said. "I hadn't noticed."
"Me neither," someone else said.
Undaunted, I continued. "Half of the time there is no toilet seat in the public restrooms of this country. I don't get it. Why not?"
No one knew the answer and, from the looks they were giving me, I gathered that they all thought I was a little nuts. And possibly demanding.
"I always squat," Stéphanie added helpfully.
Everyone nodded. They were trying to give a pointer to a lost foreigner, which only exasperated me more.
"Of course," I sputtered. "But what about old ladies? Or children? They could fall in!"
At that the group gave me a collective shrug and I knew it was time to ask an expert in French-American differences.
My friend Gaëlle is French but has lived in the United States for over a decade. I knew I could count on her to consider my question carefully. I also knew that I wouldn’t have to hold back, for she and I swap cultural compliments and complaints with ease. So I asked her, where are the toilet seats? Why are the restrooms so filthy? Why hasn’t anybody bothered to install hot water? I mentioned the plentiful hot water in such “Old World” cities as Amsterdam, Florence, and Barcelona. And I mentioned the cleanliness of most American restrooms, the fresh flowers, fancy soaps, and scented candles that are frequently found in even modest establishments.She thought about it a while before answering. “Peut-être,” she mused, “it is because in France les toilettes are considered to be public space and therefore the café owners and workers do not consider the restrooms theirs to care for, so they do the bare minimum.” “And,” she added, “most women squat.” It was, as Oprah would say, an Aha! Moment. I thought about all of the purely utilitarian restrooms I had visited in France, and the practical way in which the French deal with the facts of life, and I knew she was right. I have since tested her theory on other experts, people who have lived ten-plus years in France and in other countries, and everyone agrees — in France, to faire pipi is a simple necessity. So why make a big deal of it? Why clean up or decorate when les gens are just going to come in and ruin your efforts?