Peeing in front of Parisians

Paris’s latest attempt to keep its streets pee-free comes with some major problems.

If you’re passionate about history and oddities in Paris (a city rich in both), you sometimes find yourself thinking about the old vespasienne in the 14th arrondissement.

This small, round metal stall was a place for men to discreetly pee in the middle of the city — discreetly being relative. There used to be vespasiennes (or pissoirs, as they’re also known) throughout Paris, but as times have changed, they’ve been replaced with automatic toilets (which, unfortunately, are often out of order and simply peed on by impatient or helpless would-be users).

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Named for the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who imposed a tax on urine collected from ancient public toilets, Paris’s first vespasiennes sprang up on the sidewalks of crowded boulevards in the 19th century. Public urination in Paris, however, had been going on a lot longer. I imagine the vespasienne came about as ideas about hygiene changed. Before, when you walked through a city it was sort of expected that you’d be trudging through all kinds of unspeakable fluids (and solids). The same could also be said for the streets of Paris today.

They may no longer be as filthy, and there are no longer wild hogs running around eating refuse, or harmful fumes from tanneries tainting the air. In winter, you’re unlikely to find solid blocks of human and animal waste frozen to the paving stones — now, it would just be dog poop.

Dog poop is a major issue in Paris, as anyone who’s lived or visited here knows. When I taught my Paris-born son to walk, part of that included regularly looking down to make sure he didn’t step in any little gifts left behind by Paris’s dogs (or, you could say, their owners, who are supposed to pick up after them).

No matter, what, though, he’s bound to slip up. Stepping in dog poop is sort of a rite of passage for Parisians. We’ve all done it, at least once. While researching an article for a website I contribute to, I even learned that it’s apparently good luck, at least if you step in the poop with your left foot.

There is another unpleasant thing every Parisian has probably stepped in: pee.

Over time, the vespasiennes fell into disfavor and were torn down — all except the one on the boulevard Arago, a monument to another era. In recent decades, the city has realized that people do still have to pee (or do other things) and installed those automatic public toilets I mentioned. Most of them are handicap-accessible, so they’re considered a triumph of democracy — everyone should be able to use them, not just men strolling by in need of a wee.

The system isn’t perfect, though. Using an automatic toilet in Paris is a gamble, since they’re often either in cleaning mode (this takes about 20 agonizing-yet-necessary minutes) or simply not working.

So what do you do if you have to pee (or do something else) in Paris today, where there’s only one vespasienne and not very trustworthy automatic toilets? You might be able to slip into a restaurant, bar, or café, but many of these make you pay to use the toilet, no matter how good your excuse (yes, even a toddler on the brink of an accident). The bathroom doors often require a jeton (token) that you have to ask the barman for. More modern places, like many of the McDonald’s here, give you a door code on the receipt with your order. Even big supermarkets don’t have in-house bathrooms — instead, you have to leave the store to find one in the shopping complex…and pay a few centimes for your trouble. It’s worse at train stations, where using the toilet usually costs at least a euro, too bad if you’re stuck there because of a delayed train.

So, is it any wonder why some people don’t bother with any of it, and instead just go against a building? It’s like how they say there were so few places to relieve oneself in the immense palace of Versailles that the nobility lingering in its halls would just squat down on the marble floors.

It seems that even the French Revolution can’t change certain old ways.

Recently, though, the City of Paris has started a revolution in terms of toilets. Called the uritrottoir (a portmanteau of the French words for “urine” and “sidewalk”), these modern-looking red boxes let users pee onto a pile of straw. The urine goes into the base of the box, where, as in ancient times, its components will be broken down and put to use (then, it was often dye; now, it’s fertilizer). And it’s all crowned by a lovely display of flowers at the top. Voilà!

Sort of….

The uritrottoir reflects some current trends in Paris: ecology and trying to put gardens just about everywhere. I stand with both beliefs. But that’s about all that makes sense to me when it comes to this “innovation”. Because, as anyone who’s seen a uritrottoir, whether in person or in the news segments it’s inspired around the world, can tell, it’s…not very private.

Vespasiennes let people see users’ feet and, depending on the height of the barrier wall, maybe even their heads. But the essentials were covered. As the sign attached to it unabashedly illustrates, the uritrottoir, on the other hand, doesn’t provide any kind of coverage at all.

The only way a man could be discreet about using it would be to press up close against it, and even then, I’m not sure that the very slight overhanging barriers would completely cover everything.

Some critics have asked, “Do we really want to encourage people to brandish their genitalia on the streets?” Other critics have taken issue with the placement of a few of the five currently installed uritrottoirs — some are close to, or in front of, schools.

However you feel about these complaints, another thing people have a problem with is, why can uritrottoirs only be used by adult men who are able to stand? What about the rest of us who need to pee? This has sparked a conversation about the culture here, and how we don’t expect the average man to hold it when he has to go, whereas the rest of us have to do that all the time. Think about it: It’s probably more shocking to you to imagine a woman squatting and peeing on the street, than a dude. If not, bravo.

Because there are so few of them for now, not all Parisians are as familiar with uritrottoirs as our 19th century compatriots were with vespasiennes. I hadn’t seen one in person until a few weeks ago, when I was out with a friend in the center of town.

Normally when you take an evening stroll to the Île Saint-Louis, one of the most expensive areas in the city, it’s to enjoy its quiet, stately buildings, take in the interesting and costly items for sale in shop windows, or have something to eat at a café. But we headed there because my friend knew it was home to one of the uritrottoirs.

And there it was, along a beautiful stretch of stone wall overlooking the Seine. A man approached it…and took out his phone and snapped a picture. I saw several more people do the same thing. While the uritrottoir can’t be used by everyone in Paris, it can be gawked at by all.

Very much including me.

But the most stunning moment of my first time seeing a uritrottoir came when, as I took in the beautiful view around us, including a crowd enjoying the summer evening on the bank just across the river, a large tourist boat came languidly gliding past.

The view from the uritrottoir.

Its passengers wouldn’t see anything as you used the uritrottoir, but you’d know what you were doing as you looked at them, maybe as you happened to cross someone’s starry, Paris-enamored gaze. Would you freeze up? I feel like I would.

There’s nothing funny about the city’s efforts to make Parisian sidewalks less gross. But instead of going with something new, why not harken back to history? I say, let’s reboot the vespasiennes! Make them ecological and accessible to everyone! Or at the very least, would a small barrier wall between the user of a uritrottoir and the rest of the world be such a revolutionary concept?