Public toilets in France are called “sanisettes,” and are a level in between a small building and a porta-potty. They seem slightly permanent, but are still mostly plastic, and are small enough that they seem to house only one stall. They have huge, sliding, electronic doors and are free to use. As someone with a small bladder, I considered myself a sort of connoisseur of public toilets, but this breed was a new one for me.
Less than a month into living in France, I went to a wine festival in the city center of Montpellier. After a few days of intensive French classes, I was still at a caveman-level of French, but at least if I stared at signs long enough, I could make out what was going on. And at a wine festival, all you really need to know is how to point, hand over money, and drink.
Anyway, after an hour or so into the festival, I found that I needed to pee, so I left my group to find to the sanisette I remembered seeing just outside the festival.
When I arrived, there was one person waiting in line. Then two or three others got in line behind me. Soon, a small group of friends gathered next to one of the people in line to chat, and we became a small party waiting for this slightly-permanent toilet. I appreciated that I didn’t need to interact with anyone and thereby out myself as a “foreigner-who-doesn’t-speak-French.” I was cool as a cucumber waiting in that line with everyone else. This protocol was blissfully universal and I was very practiced with it.
Finally, after several minutes of pretending to be French and in line for a toilet, the person in the bathroom walked out. Out of habit, I glanced at the person ahead of me, ready to walk forward after she entered to take her turn….but then….she didn’t. She just stood there, staring at the bathroom as if nothing had happened.
I looked at the door now sliding shut, then back at the lady, and my entire body tensed. This was not the protocol. Everything I thought I knew about toilet etiquette was thrown out the window and the familiar panic started to settle in.
Was I supposed to go? Was she not actually in line? If that was true, then everyone was waiting for me right now. Are people waiting for me? I looked at the lady still calmly staring at the bathroom in front of me, at the closing door, and then back at everyone else behind me. The friends were still chatting and the person behind me was staring straight ahead, just like the lady. Nobody looked as confused as I was feeling, nor did they seem particularly bothered that I was also just standing there. In fact, nobody looked like anything had just happened at all.
The door was now closed, and without another explanation, I was becoming fairly certain that we had all just mutually agreed to stare at this empty bathroom while our bladders ripped at the seams. I was so confused.
We waited for a couple minutes for I don’t know what, the entire time my hands becoming more clammy. I told myself to mirror everyone else and remain calm. This was normal. This was totally normal. I am French and I do not enter bathrooms directly after the last person. Finally, a full 2 minutes after the last person left the bathroom, the person in front of me walked forward as if waking from a dream. She pressed a button and then entered that mysterious toilet.
French people are so weird. I thought. Maybe she had been waiting for the bathroom to air out a bit? Was that a culturally understood thing here? It’s possible. I arrived after the other person had entered—maybe they had taken an unusually long time. In that case, perhaps understandable.
What I was becoming more concerned about now though was the fact that I was up next and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
Enter immediately like a normal person? That would be my preference. Wait several minutes until I was spiritually moved enough to enter? How would I know? How did she know when to enter? Real talk, my bladder was full and I didn’t have time for these games.
As I waited, I decided to take the casual, cooler-than-the-last-person approach. I imagined myself handling it in the way that made everyone else think, Wow, finally someone bold enough to get it done and get us out of here. I would not wait like the last person, because I had no idea why the last person waited and because we all needed to pee. I would enter directly after the lady in front of me, no matter how long she took, get my business done and then get out. I didn’t come here to stare at a permanent, plastic, public toilet, and neither did any of these other people. It was time to take charge.
After a couple more moments, the doors of that toilet opened. The lady walked out, and I took my cue. I tried to smile coyly at her as I walked forward, but probably just averted my eyes as I prayed to all the toilet gods that I wasn’t messing this thing up in front of a line of French people who still thought I was cool and French.
I walked into that toilet, turned, and found a button that looked like “Close doors.”
I pressed it.
I tilted my head as if I’d done this hundreds of times before and this was just completely peculiar.
I jabbed it a couple more times, all the while looking around at the other buttons and making quick smiles at the people now staring at me.
Finally, the doors activated and slowly started closing. Relief.
See? Just stay cool.
The doors closed so slowly. How awkward it was to stand there waiting for those doors to close. I couldn’t remember how the last lady handled it, so I just stood there unsure where to look, but quite pleased that I decided not to wait and waste any one else’s time. Awkward doors aside, the plan seemed to be working fine.
The door finally clicked shut, and I glanced at the wall of buttons to see if there was one to lock it.
And then suddenly it became very clear that something was wrong.
First, I heard a couple sounds that sounded like a small engine. I turned to see where they were coming from. The toilet, a porcelain basin hanging from the wall, was mechanically raising into the wall.
Oh. This is not good.
I backed up against the doors. About 2 seconds later, jets of water around the hole into which the toilet had just receded started spraying at the basin, bits of toilet paper withering around its sides and water particles ricocheting off and into the air I was surely breathing. Oh my god, oh my god. The sink began spraying itself next, and I felt bits of water and God knows what flying onto my face. The bathroom was cleaning itself.
Oh, I was definitely not supposed to be in here right now.
I started frantically trying to figure out how to get out, listening as different sets of water jets activated and calculating how likely I was to catch a deadly disease from whatever chemicals and germs that might be coming in contact with my skin. Not likely, right? People survived in the Middle Ages, right? How long until jets start washing the floor I’m standing on? Would there be air to dry it that would bake me to death? The doors were locked—surely there was a button that I could press to open the door—
Just as I turned to look, a siren inside the bathroom sounded—literally the same siren as a jewelry store security alarm. As the siren sounded, the bathroom-cleaning horror stopped—jets shut off, toilet remained still. But before I could take a breath of relief that my life was saved, a new horror began: the doors slowly opening to a crowd of people.
I don’t think that anyone’s face had ever been as red as mine was in that moment ever in human history. Those doors opened so slowly. The siren was blaring, there was now a recording from the bathroom of a French woman shouting at me—surely telling me just how reckless I was and that I should to go to a hospital and sanitize the crap out of my entire body (literally). When the doors were wide enough, the only thing I could think to do was give the crowd of people that cheesy smile you give an acquaintance when you unexpectedly run into them a second time. It was safe to say that everyone in line was now staring at me, some with their mouths agape, and now many surrounding people craning their heads to see who had caused this plastic bathroom to blare a siren into the night.
Maybe because I was too mortified to think straight, or because all I wanted in that moment was to be out of the spotlight, I assumed that the bathroom was done cleaning and just needed to be “reset.” I thought that I just needed to close the doors and it would finally let me use the bathroom in peace. But as I stubbornly pressed the “close door” buttons, the French recording still talking to me and the siren still blaring, this plan, like that last, wasn’t working.
Finally, a woman in line shouted, “Sortez! Sortez!”
It took me a few seconds to sort through the siren, the recording, the panic, and the 5 days of French lessons under my belt, but I finally remembered that that meant something along the lines of, “Get out!”
So I did. The sirens stopped. The recording finished. And the doors slowly—ever so slowly—closed again. I stared at the doors, listened to the jets begin again, and felt the judgment of (what felt like) 100 French people staring daggers into my back.
This time, I noticed labels and lights to the side of the door—the one that said something along the lines of “Sanitizing” was now lit. I started imagining what everyone was thinking when that light went on as the cool-as-a-cucumber foreigner was trapped inside. Was anyone even concerned?
I’m not going to lie that a part of me was annoyed that no one else in line tried to save me in the first place. All it would have taken was someone to grab my arm as I walked forward and shake their head. Or just shouted really anything at me. I would have understood that. But no one had lifted a finger as I walked to my doom. Were they just curious to see what would happen?
Well, now we all know, don’t we.
Failure of humanity aside, I did learn one more survival skill in France that day. This time, I waited for the bathroom to clean. About 2 minutes later, just like last time, the doors slowly opened. This time, I checked the lights on the side and noticed it said, “Libre.” That seemed safe. So walked in, pressed the button to close the doors again, got my business done, and got out, leaving all of my dignity behind.