Paris, May 8 (Reuters): Ask any tourist to describe a Paris cafe toilet and prepare for a toe-curling account of the horrors of squatting over an impossibly small hole in the floor of a squalid, cupboard-sized cubicle.
The smell and the fear of splashes, the lack of soap or towel, the timer light that leaves you in darkness after a minute and the indignation of having to pay for the ordeal has left its mark on generations of visitors to France.
Not surprising then, that a handful of imaginative young designers decided to take the matter in hand.
Using custom-built steel fittings and everything from cheeky peepholes to live goldfish, some of Paris’s oldest public loos have been transformed into havens of wacky chic that have the city’s trendiest cafe-goers queuing up to spend a penny.
“I want people to say ‘wow’ when they walk into the toilet and talk about it for weeks afterwards,” said Xavier Denamur, who has bought five Paris cafes and spent a fortune jazzing up jaded bathrooms with pristine steel and offbeat trimmings.
“Paris toilets have a reputation among foreigners for being disgusting, when really they should be at least as clean as the kitchen. They’re also the one place that’s truly private, so there’s scope to have some fun with them too,” he said.
First-timers to the toilets in the trendy Etoile Manquante (Missing Star) cafe generally come out looking shocked.
Shafts of light flood down like starlight from holes in the ceiling of a dimly-lit restroom where everything, from the walls to a minimalist toilet bowl and sink, is crafted from steel.
In a window between male and female cubicles — the view cut off by a lit-up screen showing an apartment block by night — a model train chugs from one side to the other.
“I wasn’t sure if this was the washroom when I first came in. I thought I’d gone in the wrong door,” said American tourist Stacey, 26.
“It’s not exactly what you expect in Paris.”
The calm is broken by panic as you glimpse yourself on a TV screen, caught by a camera hidden behind the mirror. Many freeze with horror at the thought that diners may have seen them on screen, fixing their hair, or worse.
“It’s all a big game,” said Denamur, whose first experiment was a sci-fi space capsule bathroom in the endearingly quaint, wood-furnished Au Petit Fer a Cheval (Little Horseshoe) cafe.
“I love this deco. And it’s clean,” said 23-year-old student Louis. “Most Paris toilets are revolting so I like coming here.”
At La Chaise au Plafond (Chair on the Ceiling), those who give in to curiosity and squint through the half-dozen tiny peepholes into the next-door toilet are rewarded with strange images of cows grazing in fluorescent, lime-green fields.
Up the street, Les Philosophes has profound rhetorical questions written on the mirrors and a virtual library inside what seems to be a real window into the next cubicle. It’s not.
Competitors across Paris are catching on.
Cafe-goers now flock to the slick Cafe du Tresor, where the sight of goldfish swimming in the transparent cistern causes consternation among the uninitiated.
“People think the fish will be flushed down the toilet when they pull the chain. Some are so scared they come out without flushing and ask us what they should do,” a waitress said.
The fish are safe from currents, swimming in a tank within the tank — but are stolen by souvenir hunters every week.
Blushes are common at the arty l’Autre Cafe where you wash your hands and find yourself brushing those of an anonymous stranger, thanks to the washbasin built into the dividing wall and shared between the ladies’ and gents’.
At a bar in the Bastille area, men relieve themselves in a large bathtub with drainage holes in the corners.
Blushes aside, trendy toilets are a welcome change from the hole-in-the-ground loos. Defenders of the so-called Turkish toilets say they are more hygienic than sit-down ones.