Delve into the weird world of Dutch toilets, from the pay-to-pee phenomenon to the good (or bad) inspection shelf.
You’re in a new country and just getting acclimated to the language, the culture and your new surroundings. Naturally, you’re gonna have to go. Whether you’re at home, in public or someone’s guest, you can only cross your legs and squeeze for so long. But have you been introduced to the quirks of Dutch toilets?
It seems simple enough: go to the nearest toilet, do your thing and leave (after washing your hands, of course). However, if you’ve had the pleasure of spending time in the Netherlands, you’ll know that nothing there comes easily!
A league of their own: Dutch bathrooms
The Dutch bathroom is the smallest room known to man. I’m talking the kind of size that would make an elf claustrophobic. There is just barely room to turn around and sit down. But before you awkwardly try to find a way to sit comfortably, take a look at your surroundings. It won’t take long.
You will observe four things unique to Dutch toilets. (If you are planning to take the Samenwonen test as part of your inburgering, you will need to know this):
- The lack of windows or any other form of ventilation.
- An air freshener in the toilet to compensate for the lack of air (you will more than likely find spray air freshener in addition to the one in the toilet bowl, just in case).
- The omnipresent birthday calendar – Why not put birthday reminders in the room you undoubtedly spend the most time in? Just make sure you include everyone: the Dutch have been known to go to the bathroom for the sole purpose of making sure their natal day is included in your calendar.
- The inspection shelf (more on this later).
The Dutch believe it is good to have options, and this ideal even applies to ways of flushing the loo.
You’ll need to be familiar with:
- a chain, rope, or string;
- the button on the top or side of the toilet;
- the push panel on the wall behind the toilet (one for flushing no. 1 and one for flushing no. 2);
- the foot pedal.
And those are just the most frequent. Even the tanks get fancy: some above the toilet, others behind, and the occasional hidden tank.
Where’s the potty?
Believe it or not, there is such a thing in the Netherlands as the Dutch Toilet Organization (DTO). The DTO has two main goals: to provide more accessible public toilets in the Netherlands and to make clean toilets available to third-world countries. For the sake of staying on topic, let’s just focus here on number one. The DTO generously promises to fund inspections on existing public WCs. Moreover, it will provide a soapbox for policymakers, manufacturers, marketers, individuals, and other interested parties.
Their intentions are definitely in the right place. With every person visiting the restroom an average of five times a day, the need for more public restrooms is very real. Or at least, according to DTO founder and Delft University of Technology associate professor Dr. Johan FM Molenbroek.
As it stands, many of the few public restrooms in the Netherlands are the infamous pay-to-pee variety. In my experience living in Utrecht, I have found very few restrooms for which this is the case. According to nine-year expat and published author Amanda van Mulligan, that is because of entrepreneurialism. She lists shopping centers, department stores, service stations, and bars as culprits in charging for nature’s call.
How much do Dutch public toilets cost?
Typically, such places charge €0.50, which you are expected to pay to the toiletjuffrouw before using the facilities. Sometimes, the fees are higher. (I’ve only seen up to a €0.50 charge, but have heard of places that actually expect you to pay a €1 entry fee.)
The state of restrooms, however, will lead one to question where this money is going. It’s clearly not going towards cleanliness or keeping materials such as toilet paper, paper towels, or soap in stock. Yet things are looking up, according to a survey done by Service Management. Results showed a 9% increase in the number of toilets that could be classified as clean between 2006 and 2007.
For the cleanest potties, head for the hospital.
Dutch public urinals: on show
For the brave, there are other options that don’t involve a fee. Public urinals are popular in the low lands, especially during festivals, parades, and fairs. The odd, hulking, four-sided booth-like plastic structures contain a small urinal — one for each of the four compartments — placed at just the right height. If you like your privacy, however, this is definitely not for you. There is nothing to shield you from passers-by.
At this point, you’re probably thinking how wildly unfair it is that men have this option (should they be brave enough), while women do not. That is not quite true. Thanks to Dutch inventor Moon Zijp, ladies are now also able to make use of public urinals or wherever else, for that matter.
The device that makes it all possible is called P-Mate (plastuit). Or, more appropriately as they are referred to in the UK, the She-Pee. (For pictures, you can search their commercial websites). The funnel-like contraption allows women to wee while standing up without revealing anything.
Public toilets in the Netherlands
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 centers, 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.
Pay on exiting the bathroom
Outside Dutch public toilets, you’ll find a chair and a table. A round white plate is 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. 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. Therefore may demand payment at the 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 a Dutch toilet guarantees you good hygiene. The cleanliness of Dutch public toilets is not something to shout about. Just one in four toilets is properly cleaned. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
A messy business
According to research done by Service Management, toilets have reportedly been getting cleaner in the Netherlands. This is a professional publication for the cleaning industry in Holland. In their last report (2016), only 27% of the 150 public toilets investigated were classed as really clean, down from 38% the year before. But it is still a big improvement from earlier years; in 2006 it was only 12%.
Women’s facilities tend to be cleaner than men’s ( a result that may not surprise anyone who has ever walked past a men’s restroom). Only 16% of toilets in public buildings (e.g., stations and sports centers), passed the test. Less than 30% of toilets in department stores, garden centers, and DIY shops were considered clean. Top of the class were hospitality and hospitals where around a third of the toilets were spick and span.
Now, what’s the shelf thing all about?
The most shocking thing for many an expat upon their first trip to a WC in the Netherlands is what is commonly known as the ‘inspection shelf’. Thanks to Dutch toilet design, you are given the opportunity to examine your expelled matter before sending it to the sewer. While it is an appalling view, it is also a practical one. Many diseases and health issues can be detected by examining stool samples. Just as we determine if we are drinking enough water by looking at the color of our urine, we can see other diet needs and surpluses by taking a peek.
The system of having a flat surface in the toilet bowl comes from the Germans. In France, toilets have more of a triangle shape, enabling waste to go immediately out of sight. American toilets have the same idea but contain a higher level of water so things float. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who specializes in ideology and materialism, points out that each society seems to have its own system and each feels its system is best.
The flachspeuler (German for ‘flat-flusher’, i.e., the shelf design) may not be the most pleasant of toilet models, but it does have its advantages. Besides the opportunity to do a health check, the design and flushing system of these toilets saves water. Plus, they save you from being splashed with toilet water with each deposit,
The biggest problem with the shelf design? Once you’re ready to say, “Tot ziens!” to your latest triumph, it’s not always so quick to leave. Even if you do succeed in getting everything down in one flush, traces left behind are frequent. To avoid having to clean up after yourself with a toilet brush (if they have one), put down a soft bedding of toilet paper before you start. The toilet paper carries everything away without a trace.