The Global Politics of Parisian Public Toilets

The pretty-much localized Parisian institution of “Madame Pipî” is about to go global and it’s not a pretty site.  You would know who Madame Pipi is if you have ever used a public toilet in one of Paris’s mandatory monuments such as Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame or Etoile or in one of the main train stations like Gare de Nord, Gare de Lyon, etc.  They are the ladies who take your 50 centimes and give you a toilet token.

Madame Pipi at work.
Madame Pipi at work.

They clean and manage the city’s public toilet facilities.  In doing so, they represent a veritable French institution that dates back to the late 19th century.  Their thankless job is not an easy one – they work long hours in dark (and sometimes smelly) places; handle all sorts of strange clients. They are paid minimum wage and, obviously, their job is not a pleasant one.  But it’s a job they want to keep.  And eleven of these ladies are taking their case to court.

The court the cleaning agents solicited in September 2015 is France’s Prud’Homme, which is the Labor Relations Board.

The Sacre Cœur cleaning agents protesting the loss of their jobs.
The Sacre Cœur cleaning agents protesting the loss of their jobs.

This all started in July of this year when their old employer, “STEM”, a sanitation company, lost its municipal contract to “2theloo”, a Dutch firm. The women are demanding the salary they have lost since July and the restitution of their old jobs.  The French Labor Laws do state that if a company is bought by another company, the new boss is obliged to keep the old employees.  When the city of Paris awarded the sanitary facilities contract to the Dutch company “2theloo”, they hoped that would happen.  However, this new boss says that “2theloo” is not a cleaning company (as was the case with STEM), therefore, this law does not apply. The new guy in town says that “2theloo” is a concept store.

I thought that branding a toilet cleaning company as a “concept store” was a new concept in and of itself until I did a little research.  The marketing angle of “2theloo” is that they want your public bathroom experience to be better and more memorable than your private toilet usage at home.  They have themes for different bathrooms.

Now here's an interesting concept - relieving yourself with Bambi watches.
Now here’s an interesting concept – relieving yourself with Bambi watches.

They have fluorescent-colored toilet paper.  They charge more.  They sell toilet-related goodies (did I say that?) and need their employees to speak English, something that is not in “Madame Pipi’s” job description at the present time.

“2theloo” has an interesting slogan – “bigger, better, bolder”. Their toilets are more spacious, soundproof (now that’s a plus) and 100% non-touch (not quite sure what they mean by that). They even offer a make-up area. “2theloo” is selling a bathroom experience and Madame Pipi was only selling necessary physical relief that needed to be sanitary and

Just a sample of what you can buy at the concept store -- glow-in-the-dark toilet paper.
Just a sample of what you can buy at the concept store — glow-in-the-dark toilet paper.

efficient but not necessarily pleasant.  That approach has worked for a couple of centuries but that’s simply not the case anymore.  The keeping-people-employed concept has indeed changed.

I have not yet sampled the “2theloo” bathroom experience out of solidarity for these women and their ongoing trial.  The former STEM cleaning agents lost the first round in September but are appealing and should have their second court date shortly.  The city of Paris says they will offer them other employment within the municipality but that has yet to be formalized.  In the meantime, they are out of work even though they were doing their job.

With the demise of Madame Pipi, Paris will lose its unique, personal approach to the public toilet experience.  “2theloo” will replace the historic touch with a commercial, heartless one. “2theloo” might be bigger, better, bolder. But it just won’t be Parisian.  And that’s a global shame.

Pigalle – The Legendary Parisian Playground

My own version of a “Paris by Night” tour always includes a stroll around Pigalle, the most intriguing area of the French capital. I take my tourist friends there for a good, inexpensive meal on one of the side streets; a visit to the bistro on rue Lepic where the movie “Amelie” was filmed; or a jazz concert in an authentic two-hundred-year-old acoustically perfect “cave”. We stop for the obligatory photo session in front of the Moulin Rouge. We do not pay the exorbitant entrance fee. We take a seat on one of the sidewalk terraces nearby and I give my tourists a decadent history lesson about the most famously infamous cabaret in the world. Now this lesson is for you.

More than a hundred years ago, the Pigalle area, and especially the Moulin Rouge was a living movie, filled with amazing characters from all walks of life and social circles. The Moulin Rouge (literally translated as Red Mill) was built in 1889 by Joseph Oller

Joseph Oller, one of the driving forces behind "La Belle Epoque".
Joseph Oller, one of the driving forces behind “La Belle Epoque”.

and Charles Zidler. By the way, Joseph Oller was also the inventor of “pari mutuel”, which is basically bookmaking.   He built the racetracks at Maisons-Laffitte and Alma and his betting structure was the predecessor of today’s French state-controlled betting system, the PMU, or Pari Mutuel Urbain – but that’s another story.

Anyway, when betting became illegal, Joseph concentrated on developing music halls and theatres, investing in the Moulin Rouge and other well-known venues such as the Olympia and Salle Pleyel, which still exist today. The Moulin Rouge became the temple of music and dance, the home of the French Can-Can and THE place to go for an evening of daring dancing and risqué relaxation. It was immoral maybe, especially for the beginning of the 20th century, but the Moulin Rouge exuded a joie de vivre that was no less than euphoric.

French can can
And yes, they Can….Can!

The army of young ladies who performed there were skilled, free-wheeling, flexible artists – almost acrobatic in their approach to the Can-Can – jumping and splitting as easily as giant rubber bands. They were gaily provocative, waving their white skirts in the air and showing their clingy underwear, a bit of skin and black garters. All of this was quite shocking at the time and a bit comic when you think of the topless, practically nude dancers who work there today.

There were many loyal customers of the Moulin Rouge. The most famous one, the French artist, Toulouse Lautrec, had his own table. He never paid for anything and immortalized the ambiance and clientele of the Moulin Rouge with his sketches and paintings. He was inspired by a couple of legendary Moulin Rouge dancers – Jane Avril (who was known for being discreet and nimble) and Louise Weber, nicknamed “La Goulue” who could take off a man’s hat with her foot while dancing!

The dancer "La Goulue" getting ready to do her famous hat trick as depicted in this famous Toulouse Lautrec lithograph.
The dancer “La Goulue” getting ready to do her famous hat trick as depicted in this famous Toulouse Lautrec lithograph.

The Moulin Rouge had its ups and downs; closed from time to time; burnt down in 1921 but was rebuilt soon after. It was known as “Pig Alley” right after WWII, when it was the epicentre of the Parisian red light district. It is just a tourist business now, without the energetic “joie de vivre” that was there at its origin. People are bus loaded in for the show at eye-boggling numbers. Each revue runs for 10 – 12 years and costs between 7 to 9 million euros to produce. The present revue is called “Féerie” which translates to “Extravaganza”. The next Moulin Rouge review will start just before Christmas 2015. The new show will be called “Flash”. For some unknown reason, every Moulin Rouge show begins with a “F” (no comment here).

There are other daring establishments to visit in Pigalle – things like erotic supermarkets and raunchy peep shows. I recently (and for the first time, really) went to the Musée de l’Erotisme on the Boulevard de Clichy. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was surprised at how boring it was. The place itself was more like a gallery of phallic carvings and religious artwork from India, Japan and Africa – interesting but not really exciting. No “joie de vivre” there, just a historical account of fertility symbols and erotic skeletons. There were some exquisite relics but, frankly, the Louvre is a better buy for the money.

Pigalle, where the adults come out to play.
Pigalle, where the adults come out to play.

The real fun in Pigalle lies in just walking around with an open mind (and your wallet safely out of pickpocket reach). Imagine what it was like over a hundred of years ago with bawdy laughter, music, dance, wine-tinged camaraderie and no tourist buses. Imagine Pigalle as a Parisian playground, an adult amusement park, the first of its kind and the only one worthy of becoming a legend.


Tasting Tips for the French Wine Connoisseur Wannabe

ad.foire aux vins
This is the event that French parents look forward to once the kids are back in school in September.

Now that parents have depleted their school supply budget and the kids are safely back in their respective institutions, the Parisians are ready to party. The first sign of this is the hype for the traditional “Foire aux Vins”, or “Wine Fair” which starts in mid-September and lasts for two weeks. There are wine tastings everywhere – private homes (beats a Tupperware party), supermarket retailers, wine store chains and farmers’ markets (my favorite). A wine consumer really gets to consume before they buy at this time of year. It could be overwhelming for those of you who aren’t used to the many facets of wine. So, here are some tips for the wine-tasting neophyte.

  1. Look before you leap – Take a good look at the wine you have poured into that glass; observe and enjoy its color. Look beyond the usual suspects of red, white or pink. Is it ruby, maroon, purple or brownish? For white wines, is it pale, yellow, golden, straw-colored? Is it opaque, cloudy, translucent?
  2. Tilt and Swirl – Tilt your glass slightly and give that wine a gentle swirl. Look for traces of sediment, which is a sign of an aged wine. Older reds might have more of an orangey tinge on the outside as you swirl; older whites would be darker. The swirling aerates the wine, which will release its aroma. The secret of the perfect swirl? Be gentle and don’t stand near anyone who is wearing white.
  3. Smell and Sigh – Well, maybe, just smell. The aroma of the wine will conjure up fruity memories of raspberry, blackberry, gooseberry or black currant. You might also smell vanilla, oak or citrus. Enjoy it – smell once, smell twice. Your nose will
    Get that nose in there — smelling is believing!


  4. Taste and Savour – Now, taste the wine, really taste it. Remember, you drink water but you taste wine. So, take your time. If the wine doesn’t stay long enough in your mouth, you cannot appreciate its magnitude. Sip it first, letting the wine spread across your tongue. Swish it from front to back and side to side before finally swallowing. Let its acidity, tannin and depth explode in your mouth. And let it linger.
  5. After-taste – Once you have imbibed the wine, it’s time to pay attention to how long it lingers. Can you still taste it on the back of your mouth or throat? Is the taste sweet, acidic? Like butter, fruit, flower or oak? Do you like it? Do you want more?
  6. Discover your preferences – There is no wine that satisfies everyone’s palate so it’s to time to pay attention to yours. Know what you like. Tastes can vary from fruit, leather, wood, spices, nuts, vanilla or any combination of these. Pick your favorite flavour from the wonderful range of options.
  7. Write and remember – I can’t tell you how many times I have tasted
    One needs to jog their oenological memory - especially during the French Wine Fair.
    One needs to jog their oenological memory – especially during the French Wine Fair.

    a wonderful wine only to forget its name the morning after. So, keep a paper and pen handy when you embark on your wine-tasting adventure and write down the ones that you liked and want to buy again and again.

  8. Buy It – The Wine Fair in France in September is a great time to buy – in wine store chains or even in huge supermarkets such as Carrefour or Auchan.
    Just buy it already -- lots of it!
    Just buy it already — lots of it!

    At a supermarket, you might not be able to taste everything you would like to so here’s a little hint. Buy a bottle that you think would be a good bargain; drink it the same day. If you like it, go back and get a case or two before they all sell out. Have a party or get a wine cellar. Whatever you do, enjoy it. Wine and dine your lover, family or friends – or yourself. You know you’re worth it!

Monetizing a Smile and Driving a Parisian Taxi at the Same Time

I have discovered that the Parisians are changing their attitude about service industries – the recent Parisian taxi drivers versus Uber Pop clash being a prime example. But others will come. The French client is demanding that the people who they pay dearly to drive them in, out and around this beautiful city of Paris should actually be nice. Believe me, this is a game changer.

This smile will become very common as taxi drivers "adjust" to client demand.
This smile will become very common as taxi drivers “adjust” to client demand.

I have been alternating between using official Parisian taxis and Uber-driven vehicles since the conflict began. I have French taxi driver friends and I can understand their frustration at having to pay a hefty fee (it could reach as much as 100,000 dollars) and suddenly having to compete with chauffeurs who have paid nothing for the privilege of transporting clients in France. It’s not fair but hey, what is?

Before Uber came along, the cab drivers upheld their sterling reputation of being grouchy, unavailable and super-selective on whom they put in their cab (I’ve seen them refuse babies…and allow dogs). Almost every Parisian I know has a nasty cab story to tell. Some chauffeurs don’t have change for a fifty euro bill but do not accept credit cards. They add on charges for suitcases and early pick-up times. They come ten minutes earlier than their appointed time; start the meter and charge you extra for being on time.

Parisian taxis blocking the road in one of several "Uber Go Home" demonstrations.
Parisian taxis blocking the road in one of several demonstrations.

They go on strike fairly often, holding the customers hostage. Trying to find a cab in Paris in the rain is tantamount to waiting for hell to freeze over. The client was not “king” of the road when it came to taxis. The drivers made all the choices. Take it or leave it. Their government-backed monopoly gave them wings. Ah, but in the commercial sky of free enterprise, those wings are flapping out of control.

Taxi services will change in France because the attitude of the consumer is changing. Thanks to the likes of Uber, LeCab and other private vehicle start-ups, the French now have choices. And they are finding that having a smiling driver is a good thing. There is no longer any reason to “put up” with bad service. Now, they can leave it and get something better in its place. If I were a French taxi driver, I would read the writing on the wall really quickly – and make a uturn into the waiting arms of Uber or any other private transportation company. If you can’t beat them, join them.

I took an Uber a couple of weeks ago and was surprised to hear the chauffeur’s story. He is a bona fide Parisian taxi driver but he’s young and internet savvy and figured it out before his colleagues did. He has put his French taxi license up for sale and, in the meantime, he’s driving for Uber. He likes how easy it is – says he has more freedom over his life and he actually enjoys meeting his clients and making sure they are satisfied with his service. I was amazed – a French person wanting to provide good customer service is as rare as a three-euro bill here. But this new attitude will multiply. It has to or the French taxi drivers will just go out of business. Pure and simple.

I am looking forward to this impending change in attitude in taxi drivers.

We lile Parisian taxis but we're gonna love them when they start being nice!
We like Parisian taxis but we’re gonna love them when they start being nice!

It’ll be a lot more fun when the Frenchman taking me for a ride has a smile on his face. It doesn’t matter if he’s driving for Uber or for Parisian taxis. He will be nice because he finally understood that being nice has its advantages – the biggest of which will be his pay check. He will be smiling all the way to the bank.

France – A Nation on Vacation

There is a Parisian phenomenon that happens every August which I have grown to really appreciate. Paris, this huge, bustling city, full of traffic, pollution, cranky commuters and noise turns into a classy ghost town. The Parisians have all headed south where they are sure to find the sun and, consequently, leave their city in the hands of happy tourists – and me. It’s heaven.

This exodus, of course, is their annual summer vacation, a holiday break as sacred as Christmas. It is not only obligatory to take off 4 – 5 weeks in the summer; it is also obligatory to leave. Any Parisian worth his salt takes off somewhere.

Head south if you want to find Parisians -- here's where they are.
Head south if you want to find Parisians — here’s where they are.

The ones who stay (and really, there are not that many) enjoy free parking in the city streets (since the meter maids also go on holiday), little traffic and urban serenity (now, doesn’t that sound like an oxymoron!). The ones who leave do so with a smile on their face and absolutely no guilt in their hearts. They are doing what every red-blooded Frenchman has to do – they are, pure and simply, obeying the law – with a passion.

French law guarantees a minimum of 5 weeks vacation, usually starting from the first day of your new job. Then, you can add to that twelve annual legal holidays. Also, pack on a couple of weeks due to the 35-hour work week, with no overtime allowed, and you can easily spend two out of twelve months on holiday. The average number of vacation days in France is 38. The days are not cumulative, so you “use them or lose them” at the end of each year and the French definitely choose the first option. Oh, and did I mention that these are PAID vacation days?

Here's a sign you will see on many shop windows in Paris -- "Closed for Vacation".  It's the law!
Here’s a sign you will see on many shop windows in Paris — “Closed for Vacation”. It’s the law!

The French do not feel privileged to have all this paid, free time off. They accept it as their legal right and support the opinion that they work better because of the break. According to my friend Marie-Claire, you need at least 4 weeks to really “recharge your batteries”. She explained that during the first week, you are still working “in your head” and you only start to relax during the second and third week. And during the fourth week, you mentally prepare for going back to work. So, from her perspective, her 4-week holiday is only 2 weeks long. I like her math skills.

This Vacation Attitude has always delighted and fascinated me at the same time. At a recent office coffee break conversation, I was once again telling my colleagues how lucky they were to even envisage taking such a long break in the summer, something unthinkable in the United States. One of them asked me why that is – why don’t Americans LIKE vacation? It struck me as a bizarre question.

“Of course we like vacations,” I answered him. “We just don’t have them, never did have them, and we would probably feel guilty if we ever did have them.”

“So you prefer to work 24/7 – that’s your choice,” Philippe answered in his quip French way.

He also continued to explain how the French vacation period is good for the nation’s economy. People are practically forced to spend money. Some companies even give their employees more money for their vacation period – something to help with the extra expenses that are incurred – you know, like for snorkelling gear, apartment rentals, mojitos on the beach, stuff like that. Local commerce needs that – a one week holiday just wouldn’t be enough. A long vacation period is a win-win situation for the whole country.

I told Philippe I wasn’t completely certain about his vacation attitude logic but I would think about it and we could discuss it further the next day.

“Ah, not tomorrow,” he said. “I’m going on vacation. I’m going to rest and relax for the good of my job and for the good of my country. It is my duty.”

Et voila – Philippe taking his well-deserved French vacation.

So, in the month of August, millions of Frenchmen are off to sea and sun, to the mountains, to their family’s country home in Normandy or even to the top of the Empire State Building. And Paris becomes an abandoned, sprawling metropolis, the deserted capital of a Nation on Vacation.