Have you ever met Madame Pipi? You can find her, middle-aged to elderly, usually with glasses and cardigan, outside most public toilets in Belgium, sitting at a table, waiting for you to put your 35, 40, or 50c on her little plate. You might also occasionally cross her path in France, where she goes by Dame Pipi. Why is she there, and why does she want the money?
The official line is that she’s there to maintain the toilets in a desired condition, which is funded by your contribution. Not that Madame Pipi has ever been observed doing anything of the sort, mind you.
I think she’s there simply because in Belgium they’re used to a little red tape, and extra payments for services, but with the benefit of a decent level of social protection once you’ve jumped through the requisite hoops. So why not pay a little to use the toilet too?
When I first heard the name Madame Pipi, I wondered if it was translated from the English pee pee. The sound is identical after all. The origin of pipi in French is unclear, but considering that French does feature the verb pisser, it’s quite plausible that it developed independently from the English pee pee.
Still, it’s a curious case of how what works in one language doesn’t work in another. Could you imagine calling toilet attendants Mrs. Pee Pee in English? It would be incredibly offensive. Yet somehow, Madame Pipi in French doesn’t sound so bad. And though plenty of people resent her (even to the extent that public urination isn’t an uncommon sight – 40c can be a lot to ask!), she’s a part of the scenery in Belgium, and I think she’d be missed if the position were done away with.
So if you’re visiting Belgium, always make sure to have some change on you, and maybe compliment Madame Pipi on her cardigan.