Peeing in Paris—Vive La Sanisette! Guest Blog Post by Laurie Frankel

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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.

If only.

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 meanpublic 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.

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