Monday, August 02, 2010

Paris public bathrooms: not for libertarians

One thing I'm sure every tourist appreciates in a big city are public bathrooms. Paris "can haz" them, and they are even free. Truthfully, the one and only time I really wanted to use one, there was an ungodly line -- so long it was more worthwhile to find a restaurant, buy something to eat, and use their restroom. But that was in a tourist-heavy part of Paris. In the neighborhood where we lived, public toilets stood free, available, and welcoming. That is, if this cryptic sign can be said to be welcoming:

A free, automated public bathroom on a Paris street A sign on a free public bathroom on a Paris street

As you see, English language instructions say "A recorded message can be activated by pushing the button [...]" Message, huh? What kind of messages would I want to entertain me in a bathroom? Quick news? Horoscopes? A crash course in conversational French?

As one can guess from French and Spanish language directions, the mysterious "message" is just instructions on how to use the toilet. And you don't even have to activate them -- they turn themselves on, and there is no escaping them. I didn't go to one of those bathrooms, but Ray did, and throughout his visit the facility talked to him in a concerned female voice of a French nanny state.

I'm saying this tongue-in-cheek of course, but libertarians might want to avoid these facilities. ;-) The bathroom knows better than you what you should do inside, and in what order. Everything is automated. The toilet flushes itself. The soap dispenser automatically deposits a pre-measured dollop of soap on your hands. Then the water faucet turns on, runs for a predetermined number of seconds, and shuts off. Then the hand dryer starts, also to shut off after a certain number of seconds. If you need more soap or water, too bad: you won't get it until the whole cycle is over. Then you can restart it. But there are no manual overrides to let you return to a previous step, to skip a step, or to use more or less soap or water than you are allotted.

It can be annoying if your bathroom "use case" is one the designers haven't thought of -- for example if you, like Ray, go into the bathroom to wipe dog poop off your shoe. Not only he had to wait through several soap-wash-dry cycles to clean off his shoes, but all the while the bathroom was talking to him in a stern voice -- apparently scolding him for not using the facility the right way.

More pictures from my trip to Paris are in my photo gallery.

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