Madame Pipi

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.

18 thoughts on “Madame Pipi

  1. I don’t know how widespread she is in Germany, but there was certainly one in the roadhouse I remember. I put a Euro or two in the bowl and said ‘Danke schön’. She replied with a full German sentence. I could have smiled and kept walking, but decided to say ‘Ummm … I don’t speak German’. She said ‘Oooh, you pronounce so well I think you speak German!’. This was about a week after singing Mahler’s 8th Symphony in Symphony Hall Birmingham and the Albert Hall London. While ‘Danke schön’ is not in the symphony, we’d had German pronunciation surgically implanted in us. (It’s probably worn off a bit by now. I haven’t sung a large-scale work in German since then.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Do these women legitimately work for the government or are they elderly, cardiganned panhandlers? We don’t have anything like that in Canada–I can’t imagine paying to use a public toilet!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think they’re more of the panhandling variety. Now that I think about it, any actual public government buildings I’ve been in have signs asking for a contribution, but no-one there specifically to collect it. Most Madames Pipis are in places like shopping centres where they’re presumably hired by management. Who probably don’t really want them, but have to for the sake of tradition!

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  3. I seem to remember these attendants as a child living and travelling through Europe, I think we’ve also come across them at some Mexican public toilets! You always seem to bring back lovely memories through your posts, thank you for this!

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  4. Whereas here in Germany, cinemas and pubs often have an African woman sitting with a little saucer near the toilets, hoping for some coins of the realm or at least 50 cents.

    Whether they actually clean the toilets, I’m not so sure…

    Liked by 1 person

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