On my first trip as a tourist to Switzerland in the late 1980s the objects that impressed me just slightly less than the magnificent Swiss Alps were the self-cleaning, automatic sanitized seat cover-changing toilets. My friends and I stood watching for quite a moment. The warm individual terry cloth towels with which to dry our hands were also a nice touch. These toilets are still around (with advanced technological improvements since then) but there are fewer for the public and they are most often found in clinics and doctors’ offices.
Finding the toilets can be challenging even in a Western country where the word ‘toilet’ is fairly universal. Therefore, I am providing you with a “Swiss Potty Primer” to help make your visit to Switzerland potty stress-free.
In French speaking Switzerland, whatever you do, do NOT ask (in French or English): Where is the bathroom (“Ou est la salle de bain?”). You may find yourself and your urgent need in a room that contains only a bath tub or at most a tub and a sink. “Bain” is bathing in French and probably that is not what you had in mind. The question is: “Ou sont les toilettes? ” or “ Ou est le WC ? (pronounced VC)?
If you’re traveling around different linguistic areas of Switzerland, you can usually get by with just saying toilette or WC with a frantic look on your face. However, occasionally in the Italian speaking region, you may encounter some purists who will not tell you where the toilette is until you can come up with the Italian term, “gabinetto pubblico.”
Which door to go in?
In many parts of Switzerland there gender-neutral toilets but you will be happy that you found one at all. Another possibility is a restroom with 2 stalls perhaps one male and one female pictogram and you share the sink area. Oftentimes, there is just one door marked WC.
However, there are occasions when the doors are labeled and with 4 national languages, it’s best to be informed. Choices for men: Herren, Messieurs, Uomini. Choices for women: Damen, Dames, Signore.
How does it flush?
I know it sounds impossible but the Swiss are discrete. You will rarely find an obvious handle on the toilet itself. Sometimes it will be a part that’s flush with the lid that you can push down. Sometimes it’s a big plaque on the wall that you push on. You may also find some kind of floor piece to put your foot on and a tiny-almost- invisible button on the wall or the sink to push such as on the train. Or you may find nothing and go away remaining puzzled the rest of your life.
WHERE ARE THEY HIDING THEM?
Having been a pedestrian in Switzerland most of the time, I have scoped out the possibilities but many things have changed over the years. For example, I knew every 5 star hotel around and just walked in like I lived there. Today, however, with security that’s much more difficult. Forget McDonalds, they lock the door. Other cafés will not let you in unless you buy something. So if you have a cup of coffee to use the toilet, it eventually becomes counter-productive. Don’t count on service stations unless it is a huge complex out of town and there are only a few of those. But do not worry; you do not have to carry a port-a-potty.
Arriving in Switzerland
If you arrive by air, depending on the length of your flight, you probably have been avoiding the aircraft toilet. If you arrive via an EU country you do not have to go through customs so you can head straight to the toilet in the baggage claim area. Not coin operated. If you are taking a train at the airport to another Swiss destination and wait until to get to the Swiss Rail departures area, the toilets are coin-operated and the chances are not good if you’re coming in from Kansas City that you will have a 50 Swiss centime coin in your pocket.
But you could wait until you get on the train (perhaps?) which all have WCs. However, it’s tricky on a moving train, especially in Switzerland when it’s going around mountains and slanting into the curve.
Well, there’s always the train station when you arrive at your Swiss destination. Here you find deluxe hygienic facilities (even showers!) at the successfully operating (pay) toilet chain called McClean. They do not seem to have any qualms about using the internationally famous prefix.
This can be challenging. There are some (but few) large department stores that tuck away (free) toilets in hard to find areas. Large supermarkets like Migros usually have some (free). Some parking lots have toilettes but many have been closed sadly due to intravenous drug users. Some toilets have had special colored lights put in to prevent those visitors from seeing a vein. Therefore, if you find yourself in a toilet with strange colored lighting and you don’t recognize yourself in the mirror, it’s not an act of aestheticism and high design.
Large Metro stations have toilets and well, if you happen to be near the train station….McClean! Hospitals are also good places and always have excellent facilities and they are public places.
Unlike Paris, with its street commodes of many years, Switzerland does not have such things out on the curb.
However, one city, Lausanne put some rather avant-garde toilets in a redeveloped neighborhood called the Flon that have received a lot of curious visitors. On one model, “The Transparent Toilet”, the walls become opaque after you push the button (if you know that you are suppose to push the button or that there even is a button!) so it is not really transparent.
The other style is more for me. It’s covered in 1 way mirrors so no one can see in. But from the inside the view out is crystal clear and it appears that the entire neighborhood is watching you! Not an inducement to stay long.
TAKING A HIKE
Frankly to find an outdoor John hiking is actually rare. They are usually in conjunction with the Swiss Alpine Club Cabins and always on the edge of a cliff! So remember to take lots of Kleenex (and a flashlight if it’s dark!). And if you’re with a group of people and you wait back while they go ahead in order to relieve yourself (especially ladies), you will probably find yourself completely exposed in front of all of them as they come around the bend while following the switch-back trails.
THE SWISS WC AT HOME
More often than not, the toilet will be in a separate tiny room. There may be a sink also or you will go to the “bath” room to wash your hands. In French speaking Switzerland you will also see a number of homes and apartments with bidets. In my last apartment I had one in a bathroom that contained all facilities including the toilet. It was an excellent device for washing out lingerie. Now I have 2 very American like bathrooms including toilets; one with a shower and one larger one with a bathtub – so very unSwiss!
There are some amazing toilets and bidets on the market in Switzerland. Some very aesthetic high design (I defy you to find the handle to flush!) and some are very practical.
SWISS TAKE AWAY TOILET
We have seen the importance and innovative “concern” with the WC in Switzerland. In fact, it is so essential that some Swiss took their own with them during a scientific expedition to Greenland.
Follow me on Twitter for more about Switzerland.