While living in Canada there were two places I went only under duress: church and public toilets. With my move to Europe things have somewhat changed.
Since priests here rarely speak a language I understand, I can now enter a church without having to defend the holes in my nose or my faith.
And I enjoy sitting in the awesome stone cathedrals which are much less claustrophobic than the little wooden chapels of the Canadian prairies. Unfortunately, for as much as the churches are bigger and more beautiful, the opposite can be said for the public toilets on this continent.
Cramped, sticky, and confusing, the ultimate insult to using these penthouses of cholera is that you have to pay for them. This contradicts my belief that like love and happiness, toilets should be free. Besides finding spare change, there are three basic challenges to using toilets in Europe: reading gender signs, finding toilet paper, and flushing. The first two are for your own comfort, the last for the comfort of those who come after you.
Reading gender signs involves determining which washroom to go into if you want to use the toilet, and which washroom to go into if you want to be embarrassed.
An inability to understand the language in which the signs are written can lead to some interesting interactions with the natives. As a woman traveling through Europe I have noticed that the word for women frequently starts with a “D”. For example, in French it is “Dames”; in German “Damen”; in Italian “Donne”; and in Czech “Damy”.
Toilets may also be posted with little pictures of stick men and women, but these can sometimes be confusing. Arriving at one youth hostel, I was desperate to use the facilities. My backpack was squeezing my Sangria bloated bladder. The first washroom I found in the hostel had a picture of a thin person in a miniskirt outside the doorway. This pretty much matched my physical description so I proceeded to use the toilet.
Then, after unpacking, I took a long relaxing shower in the same washroom. At one point I did hear male voices, but I simply assumed they were coming from the hallway. After the shower I returned to my room with a green towel wrapped around my head, which I had to remove before I could understand the cause of my sister’s hysterical laughter: I had been in the men’s washroom.
Apparently the sign I saw was meant to be a skinny Scotsman in a kilt.
The second problem, finding toilet paper, is new to me, because in Canada trees out number people by about 100,000 to 1.
We make syrup from trees, we carve boats from trees, and when our American relatives come to visit we hide in the trees. So the idea of having no toilet paper is about as strange as running out of beer in the Czech Republic.
Fortunately there is one basic rule to surviving a train trip, a night in a youth hostel, or an evening out on the town: hoard toilet paper like a flat-chested girl on prom night. Go to the washroom early on and if there is any toilet paper to be had stuff sheets of it into pockets, purses, and money belts.
You’ll be grateful later on when your body realizes that sausage soaked in whipping cream doesn’t agree with it after all. On my trip across Europe by far the best place to find extra rolls of toilet paper was in the 1st class cars of German trains. It was, however, the scratchy recycled kind, proving that sometimes even the rich have it rough.
The softest toilet paper was in the Mussee des Belles Artes of Valencia. My sister and I may have fried our brains in the Spanish sun, but we decided that in order to fully enjoy these marshmallow rolls of pure decadence we would take turns wrapping each other up in it. Swaddled in ribbons of blue, my reflection was a cross between an Egyptian mummy and a Smurf.
Of all the three challenges to using toilets in Europe, flushing can be the most confusing. I am certain that in some small gray building there is some small gray bureaucrat who is employed by the European Union to invent new ways of flushing. I have rarely come upon two toilets that flush in quite the same manner. There are rusty chains, rotten strings, and chipped plungers to be pulled.
Silver disks set in the walls to be pushed, raised levers sticking out of the floor to be stepped on. Sometimes patience is the only requirement. There are toilets which flush automatically, perhaps set off by a tiny laser beam which detects you doing up your trousers.
The most inventive toilet I have seen to date was in the main Frankfurt railway station. The entertainment I got from using this brilliant contraption was well worth the 50 pfennings it cost. To flush the toilet it was not necessary to grab any sticky devices, in fact, there was absolutely no touching involved.
All you had to do was to wave your hand, in the manner of a magician or the queen, in front of a small yellow pad on the wall. It was kind of like casting a spell on the toilet:
-Wave, wave. Flush, flush. –
More fun than a hyperactive bidet, I do hope that no one tries to use this same technology to reinvent sex: Wave, wave. Wave, wave-
“Was it good for you dear?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize we were having sex, I thought you were practicing tai-chi. “
As a last resort there is one fool-proof way to manage using the toilets in Europe: drink lots, and then drink more. Drink like there is an aquarium of alcoholic fish in your belly, or just drink like a fish. Drink like beer bellies are back in fashion or drink because bell-bottoms are.
Then you will be too drunk to care about whether you’re in the men’s or women’s washroom. You will be too drunk to notice the lack of toilet paper. And you will be so drunk that when you grab the chain, the lever, or the wall to hold yourself up, you will automatically flush the toilet.
You could also always try a church, if the toilets inside are anything like the chapels you can expect vaulted ceilings, ornate handles, and velvet cushions. Just remember to light a candle afterwards.