Public toilets: A Dutch inconvenience
Going to a public toilet in The Netherlands is not like elsewhere. Amanda van Mulligen tries to find out why.
Most of us have been there. Fiddling around in pockets, purses and bags for a few loose coins, waiting in lines that seem endless, and searching the high street for a V&D or a MacDonald’s or running into the nearest café or restaurant.
Going to a public toilet in The Netherlands is not like elsewhere. You could take the ‘silver lining approach’ and say every visit is an adventure or a challenge. Alternatively you could take the ‘the glass is half empty approach’ and see it as a nuisance.
The strangest aspect of the public toilet process in Holland is paying everywhere you go. In shopping centres, department stores, service stations and bars there is a price tag on a visit to the porcelain potty. The Dutch take spending a penny quite literally and they have converted it to a minimum of 25 euro cents.
Outside public toilets you’ll find a chair and a table. A round white plate placed in the middle of the table, laden with a small selection of coins. Sometimes the plate has a partner-in-crime, a piece of cardboard displaying the exact price of a visit to the lavatory. A toiletjuffrouw takes her or his place on the chair, and ensures that all guests to the premises are paying ones. A toilet ‘bouncer’ if you like.
Toilet finance etiquette dictates that under normal circumstances you pay on exiting the bathroom area. Under extreme circumstances, such as big events commanding long queues, the toilet attendant(s) can no longer keep track of who has paid, and therefore may demand payment on entrance.
Parting with your hard-earned cents for a toilet visit should mean that the restroom area is clean and kept well-stocked with toilet paper, hand towels and liquid soap. Well, it seems not even paying for using the conveniences guarantees you good hygiene. The cleanliness of Dutch public toilets is not something to shout about but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
According to De Telegraaf, based on research done by Service Management (the professional publication for the cleaning industry in Holland), the toilets in The Netherlands are getting cleaner. In 2007, 21 percent of the 150 public toilets investigated could be classed as really clean. In 2006, this was only 12 percent.
Men’s facilities tend to be cleaner than women’s are, a result that may come as a surprise to anyone who has ever had the joy of walking past a men’s restroom. Only 15 percent of toilets in department stores, garden centres and DIY shops passed the cleanliness test. Top of the class were hospitals where nearly a third of the toilets were spick and span.
I’m a Brit, and the concept of paying for the toilet was alien when I moved to Holland in 2000. Now it is just irritating. My only recollection back home of paying to frequent the ladies is at a London mainline railway station, a highly automated process with coin-operated turnstiles. Imagine my consternation to find a person lurking outside every public bathroom in Holland, even in the bars where paying customers still have to delve into their purses for the pleasure of winding up in a cubicle with no toilet paper after a long wait in the queue.
To be fair, The Netherlands is not unique in asking for money for what can only be described as a bare necessity. Its neighbours do not fare much better in the toilet penny-pinching stakes. Some Belgian service stations have a scheme whereby you pay fifty cents to go through the toilet turnstiles. The fun however does not stop there. In return, not only can you use the facilities but you also receive a voucher for the same amount to use in the attached shop. Similar imaginative schemes are in use in Holland too. In the popular beach pavilion Parnassia in Overveen, the voucher you receive in return for fifty cents is redeemable against consumptions in the restaurant.
Clearly, others share my irritation. Amongst the Dutch partygoers themselves, the toilet toll is a great source of annoyance, particularly amongst the male population.
Second only to my frustration of paying for the toilet, is the fact that public conveniences in Holland are relatively hard to come by. I still have night terrors about loo hunting whilst I was pregnant with a bladder that could hold out for no more than ten minutes at a time. I remain of the opinion that all women living in Holland should receive a toilet fund from their health insurers - 25 cents every ten minutes sure adds up.
Again, I do not stand in isolation with my gripe. Linda, a Dutch national, states that aside from the toilets in the department stores she cannot recall ever seeing a public toilet in Holland.
Lars, also Dutch, commented, “The more travelling I do, the more I realise that the public toilet situation in the Netherlands is appalling. In other countries toilets are free, more widespread and they seem to understand that needing to use the toilet is part of human nature!”
Stichting De Ombudsman is an independent organisation that looks into judicial questions, amongst others in the area of consumer rights. In 2002, the Ombudsman concluded that a price clearly displayed in retailer’s toilets, deemed public areas, obliges a customer to pay to use the WC.
Two years later the same body concluded that café and restaurant owners could harge for the use of their toilet facilities, seen as private bathrooms, but that no one can force customers to hand money over for their use.
However let’s face it, not even half a euro will stand in your way if the need is great. The key as always is acceptance; pay up or cross your legs until you get home.
Reprinted with permission from The Writing Well.
Amanda van Mulligen, British born, has been living in The Netherlands since 2000 and owns The Writing Well. She writes about expat related issues, as well as travel articles and she provides a Dutch to English translation service. You can contact Amanda at email@example.com and read her blog at Letter From The Netherlands.
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