‘Où sont les toilettes?’ Not an earth-shattering statement in the scheme of things. But pretty damned useful and important when you’re on the prowl for the amenities after a post-sale lunch in the 7th floor Terrace Restaurant of Paris’s Galeries Lafayette. The back end of this level of the department store is a maze of corridors and on this occasion populated exclusively by a stone-faced, female version of Jabba the Hutt guarding les toilettes des femmes.
I have long been a dedicated disciple of the ‘Always Follow the Plumbing Line’ school of thought when it has come to finding the loo in a restaurant.
There is simple logic behind the thinking. The average restaurant or café dwells in the structure of a building like a hermit crab that has sought and found a new shell. With the exception of restaurants in office blocks and newly developed shopping strips the basic plumbing will be located in close proximity to each other. If the kitchen is at the back then so will the toilets. If it’s an open, theatre kitchen facing into the dining room, then follow the plumbing line to the left, right or behind it. Putting in a totally new set of pipes independent of the kitchen is a costly and illogical proposition.
But eateries in multi-story buildings follow a different code – albeit a code of building practice. Modern high rises install the building services like plumbing and electricals down the lift well. Remember the last time you arrived at someone’s office and asked reception for appropriate ‘directions’? Invariably you were directed to retrace your steps to conveniences adjacent to where you had emerged from the lift. While the same can apply in hotel complexes, it is not necessarily the norm. By virtue of the building being a hive of bedrooms with their own ensuites, plumbing lines run through the building like the veins of the human circulatory system which means the toot can be anywhere.
If you throw into the mix an historic building combined with a heritage rating and various building expansions, then spending a penny in these establishments can present a confounding directional teaser.
Faced with the same needs in a shopping strip development, you are invariably presented with a key and directions that may take you outside the restaurant. Generally, the ‘follow the plumbing line’ still applies if you can visualize where you last saw the kitchen when you commenced your expedition. Often some kind of bulky object is attached to the key to remind you to return it. Frequently these objects will have a misguided culinary theme, like a giant spoon. In my view, spoons and toilets present mixed messages. But let’s not do a Seinfeld and over-think the questionable hygiene of the whole unsanitary notion of what ostensibly is a dunny relay baton.
Then when you get there, or almost get there – there can be the all-too clever signage that makes it a challenge to differentiate the boy’s from the girl’s, not helped if you’re several sheets to the wind.
Asking où sont les toilettes? in France is correct in every sense, even to the spelling should you need to write it. But beware of using the colloquial, it can have uncomfortable repercussions. My asking for the ‘benjo’, in the sanctified environment of the former Suntory restaurant, brought giggles and blushes from the traditionally-dressed, front-of-house women. Although a word my Japanese scholar sister would mutter when excusing herself at her home, its literal translation is: house of shit. Uttering it publicly with innocent confidence put me well and truly in it.