Asking the question, “Where is the bathroom?” anywhere in Europe will get you a look, and maybe an eye roll, that says, “Here’s another tourist.” The reason for the disgust was explained to me like this: If you want to take a bath, ask for the bathroom; if you want to take a rest, ask for a restroom; but if you need to pee, ask for a toilet.
As Americans, we have tried to cover up bodily functions by giving a nice name to the place where we relieve ourselves. In most of Europe, the place is called a toilet (Netherlands, Belgium) or toilette (France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland).
You may have heard horror stories about foreign bathrooms. European bathrooms are similar to those in America, with a couple of exceptions.
In Germany and a few other places, most public toilets, including some in restaurants, charge for use. Americans have nicknamed the practice, “pay to pee.” When using a bathroom at a rest stop along the highway, users get a coupon that can be used at the snack bar, so they get part of the fee back. These pay toilets usually have an attendant that collects the money and may check it make sure it is clean before you are allowed to go in.
Bathrooms in smaller restaurants are often shared between men and women. The main room includes a sink and urinal, in addition to a couple of stalls. It is not uncommon for men and women to be in the bathroom at the same time. A woman could by washing her hands while a man uses the urinal. Again, this goes back to the difference in attitude. In most museums and larger restaurants there are separate men’s and women’s bathrooms.
Occasionally, toilet seats are not installed, so you have the option of squatting or sitting on the rim. Most of the time there are seats, but proper etiquette in many areas dictates that the seat be left in the “up” position. I still have a problem doing this.
And about toilet paper…Most public toilets are supplied, but as in the States, sometimes you find the bathroom is out. Carrying a pack of travel tissues is a good idea.
So, where do you find toilets? Museums and most tourist attractions have them. In churches or cathedrals they may be a little more difficult to find. Restaurants often have toilets in the basement or on an upper floor. Small stores may not have public toilets, but department stores and shopping centers usually do. Airports and train stations have toilets, although, in the latter, they may be in an out of the way place.
The best way to find a bathroom? Just ask:
Wo ist die Toilette, bitte? (voh ist dee twah-LET-uh, BIT-tuh?) – German
Ou sont les toilettes, s’il vous plaît? (ooh sohn ley twah-leht, seel vooh pleh?) – French
Waar is het toilet, alsjeblieft? (vaar is het tvaa-let, als-yer-bleeft)) – Dutch
If you have a medical problem where you might need a toilet urgently and are unsure of the pronunciation, write the phrase on a card and carry it with you. If you try to read it while showing the card to a clerk or wait staff, you should have no trouble. Europeans are much more comfortable talking about bodily functions that Americans are, so there is no need to be embarrassed.