Bonjour, monsieur," she said sweetly, as she mopped around my feet. "Oh this is so uncomfortable," I thought to myself as I stood at the urinal and replied, "Bonjour, madam." I love France, but one thing that I will not miss when I leave is having women in the men's restroom.
The public restrooms in Strasbourg are magnificent. Usually underground, they are warm in the winter and cool in the summer and are kept sparkling clean by two or three attendants, usually women, with a tip jar as you exit. The attendants are always friendly, but for an American it is a little disconcerting to be greeted so cheerfully when entering a public toilet.
As I waited for the flow to begin again, I considered the controversy in the United States swirling now over allowing people to choose which bathroom is more comfortable for them regardless of their equipment. The whole thing is ridiculous to Europeans.
To them, having to use the restroom is a necessary bodily function and is not a remarkable event. Everyone has to go.
The restroom in which I wait is under Place Kleber (Named for a Napoleonic general from Strasbourg), and while there is a men's and a women's separate toilet, a glass partition separates them. Women can clearly see the men standing at the urinals, and the men can see the women moving about, adjusting makeup, washing hands, and combing hair as well as entering and exiting the individual stalls. As I stood at the urinal, I glanced around to make sure you could see into the women's side, and sure enough you can. There was my neighbor who cheerily gave me a smile and a wave and set me back on my task at hand, so to speak.
I had been so long at the urinal now that it seemed to me that the attendants were getting suspicious or worse—laughing at an old man having trouble with his business. My mind drifted back to the night before when we had gone to a happy hour with some French friends at a trendy little restaurant near the University called "Chez Mon Ex" (At My Ex's Place). I don't know the story, but it is a play on the familiar tale of getting along with an ex-wife. On the walls are written reasons why he (whoever he is) is not currently with his ex. A lighthearted spoof.
We had been talking about the transgender/bathroom issue in the U.S. when one of the French women with me spoke up and said, "You do realize that here at Chez Mon Ex there are no women's restrooms." I told her that I didn't think that could be true as I had been in there and seen a men's bathroom so surely there must be a women's.
I excused myself and headed to the restrooms. They were downstairs as is usual in this part of the world. A tight circular stair led to a small space with some closets, electrical boxes and a sink with a hand dryer, and a urinal was over to the right in a little alcove. Directly in front of me were three toilet stalls. The one on the far right, closest to the alcove, had the figure of a man with the label "Hommes" (Men) on it.
But the other two stalls had no markings. "Ha!" I thought, they are continuing the joke down here. I laughed to myself, causing the woman adjusting her makeup at the mirror to start and probably wonder what all the fuss in America was about. Even Donald Trump called the bathroom fury a non-starter, and don't we have more important things to worry about? I think that perhaps we Americans take inconsequential things too seriously; perhaps we should focus on what is important.
Richard Coupe is a longtime resident of Mississippi and occasional contributor to the Jackson Free Press. He is currently a Fulbright Research Scholar at the University of Strasbourg and lives in Strasbourg, France, with his wife, Anne, and their youngest daughter, Denver.