I hydrate therefore I go. A lot. When zipping around Paris it’s important to know where my next pitstop is. With more than 7,000 cafés in Paris you might be thinking, what’s the big deal? Just go already. Stop blogging and be done with it.
In cafés, les toilettes* are typically located in the back, down a narrow, winding set of stairs. It’s not easy to slip in unnoticed and it’s an embarrassing drag to be caught and yelled at by the equivalent of your angry French grandmother. Yes, servers have hunted me down and booted me out. I’ve offered to pay in advance and still been denied access. Of course, one can always buy an espresso to use the facilities but putting something in to get something out seems like bad math.
Enter the handi-cap accessible, free, unisex Sanisette public street toilet—an entirely self-contained, self-cleaning hut-like structure the size of a small storage pod devoted to one’s elimination pleasure. More than 400 of these things dot the streets in every district of Paris appearing like green igloos.
When I first saw a Sanisette I swore I would never use one. The fact you entered a public pee pod that opened and closed electronically was enough to make me hold it. While it looked fine on the outside I couldn't and didn't want to imagine what was going on inside.
Interesting how quickly a full bladder and pissed-off grand-mère can change one’s perspective…
We have the Romans to thank for the public toilet which dates back to 25 BC. And when I say public, I mean public as in if you wanted to eliminate while holding hands you could. Seated side-by-side on long benches with keyhole-shaped cutouts, Romans thoroughly embraced the idea of public elimination to the point they became places to gather and socialize.
A tersorium, communal sponge on a stick, was used for wiping (derivation of the phrase “wrong end of the stick”) and in the absence of flowing water, a cleansing bucket of salt or vinegar was used much to the irritation of everyone’s nether regions. Romans even had a goddess of sewers or the “main drain” called, Cloacina.
Fast forward to today when having to go is thankfully a private matter devoted to a small cubicle with a closed door.
The day I first tried the Sanisette I mourned all the days that had passed when I had not used one. Let’s just say if there was Team Sanisette I would proudly wear its jersey and if there was a facebook page I would like it, with the heart emoji. I’ve favorited the link so now no matter what area of Paris I am in I have the peace of mind of knowing where my next stress-free pee is.
How does it work? There are four lights on the outside indicating: vacant (green), occupied (yellow), cleaning (blue), out of service (red). Upon entry, a woman’s voice tells you the door is open. Upon hitting the “close” button she tells you it’s “fermé et verrouillé” which is both reassuring and not, given you are now locked inside a small pee pod.
When finished with your business simply punch the “open” button and off you go. There is a red manual release as well should all hell break loose (then again, if all hell breaks loose maybe inside a Sanisette is where you want to be?) Between each use the unit self “cleans” and while I wouldn’t eat my dinner off the floor like I would in the bathroom of a Japanese train station it was surprisingly tidy.
With all this relatively slow electronic opening and closing, could someone follow you into the unit and have their way with you? Theoretically yes, but when I googled “violation et Sanisette Paris” nothing came up.
Additional fun facts:
After fifteen minutes the door automatically opens so it would behoove one to limit a visit to this timeframe.
Sanisettes double as a water station where you can fill a bottle and then gag every time you drink from it thinking about where the water might have come from.
If you get stuck in a Sanisette there’s a call button to push and a phone number on the website to call. At 9:46pm one night I decided to try it and someone actually answered which I found heartening. I told him I had the wrong number.
Sanisettes carry a warning that young children must not be allowed to use the toilet alone as the weight sensor may not detect a small child, allowing the cleaning cycle to run with a him/her inside. Two birds, one stone?
Paris pays $6 million €/year to the company JC Decaux to maintain the Sanisette program. Serious job security.
The other day, in the 10th arrondissement, I waited in line to use a Sanisette. The light turned green but the guy ahead of me didn’t go in. “Vert,” I said, and pointed. He told me he’d watched someone go in who had yet to come out. If that was the case this person had stayed in through the wash cycle which I thought unlikely and encouraged the guy to move it along. With hesitation he pushed the button. The door opened. He peered inside—it was empty. He looked very surprised. And high. This is how urban myths get started.
* While in the US it is considered rude to say, I need to go to the toilet it is equally odd in France to say, I need to use the bathroom as “salle de bain” implies toilet plus shower/tub the idea being you are about to embark on a head-to-toe hygiene routine. In France for whatever reason, when referring to area in which one “goes” the plural is always used, les toilettes.