|The bathrooms of Europe are retarded. The level of retardation varies in severity from country to country and from bathroom device to bathroom device. In Germany for example, it is the porcelain Goddess herself who is demented. My toilet, as do many in Germany, is designed with a kind of a shelf onto which yesterdays repast falls. The olfactory assault thereby produced is at least an order of magnitude greater than that of American toilets, in which aspiring fertilizer is immediately submerged in water. This "continental shelf" forces one to sit In Fragrante Delicto until the mornings business is completed. Another major disadvantage is that this German design also mandates per use cleaning.
Germans, being raised with such preposterous contraptions, do not seem to understand these problems. In pointing out the obvious design defects of Teutonic toilets, I am generally subjected to reactions ranging between mild puzzlement and stern condescension. A more or less standard response is, "but this design allows you to see how healthy you are". The Germans seem to believe strongly that there is a direct correlation between formation, color and consistency, and overall good health. While there may be a modicum of truth in this, taking it as the definitive indicator of a persons clinical state seems to me to be as outmoded as leeches and phrenology. I believe that this aspect of Germanic thought, as do so many, stems from the medieval period. Surely this attitude developed as a standard during the dark ages, when physicians were more or less shamans who as often as not were reduced to hoping for miracles. To give the effect of sober and reasoned analysis to their quackery, medieval physicians took to examining any and all bodily products so as to utilize all the diagnostic opportunities possible at a point in time where there were simply not that many available. Thus great moment would be made of slight variations in bodily expulsions. As a clever and observant people, the Germans took note of this diagnostic technique and began to believe it was important, which it undoubtedly was in the era of worms. However, the sixties are now long behind us, and I personally expect more exacting if more excruciating analytical methods from physicians than the cursory examination of my "night soil". It seems apparent however that the preoccupation with scatology has steeped itself into the German collective unconscious.
This postulate is best confirmed through language, which Heidegger (himself a German) teaches us is the key to a national soul. All languages with which I am acquainted (except French) have a word that is used as a general amplifier. This word can be used as a noun, verb, adverb or adjective. Such a word will reflect, at least to some degree, the neuroses that preoccupy the national spirit. Such a word reflects a cultural imperative; it demonstrates an attitude or something of real value and importance to a people. In the English language, this chosen word is a coarse description of the primary biological function (ironically it is a word of Germanic derivation). In the German language, the chosen word describes a tertiary biological function performed while seated in the smallest room in the house.
Another common reaction to complaints about Teutonic toilets is that we Americans are all puritanical, and as such, are overly squeamish about dealing with any form of bodily issue. I can only say in our defense, that this is a question of aesthetics. While we are absolutely fascinated by certain biological and bodily aspects, this fascination does not extend to dung. If this makes us puritans, well, so be it. All in all, the preceding analysis does cause one to wonder about what the Germans are up to at night when the shades are drawn; but I digress.
As perverse as all of the foregoing may sound, it is nothing compared to my Italian experience. My adventure in Italian ceramic gymnastics occurred in Turin. Turin sits in the shadow of the Italian Alps. It is a quite beautiful city, or rather would be were it not for the constant pall of smog that hangs over it like pond scum.
Italian hospitality extends to the business world and is wonderful. Italians themselves are an almost invariably charming people who know the difference between work and fun and who understand that both are prerequisites to a full and happy life. They know how to work, they know how to eat, and they know how to laugh. They do not know how to build a bathroom. After every morning business meeting in Italy, we were invariably invited for lunch at a local fashionable restaurant. Northern Italian food represents one of the world's four great cuisines and I always looked forward to such opportunities. After one particularly satisfying repast, I felt nature tug at my drawstring.
Having found my way to the lavatorium, I was confused by the absence of any recognizable porcelain or ceramic fixtures save a sink. Closer examination revealed a flush valve mounted on the wall, but the normally attendant "thunder mug" was notably absent. In knitting my brows, my eyes wandered to the floor. There, unbelievably, was a hole. No, I thought, this cannot be, I am in one of Turin's more esteemed culinary establishments and I am supposed to relieve myself into an enameled Boy Scout latrine? My mounting suspicions were confirmed when I noticed that there were two foot shaped reliefs carved into the floor approximately eighteen inches forward of the hole. I shrugged and consoled myself with the age old "When in ..." adage.
I attempted to use the accommodations in line with design intent, which meant that I attempted to put my feet in the reliefs before proceeding with the business at hand. "My," I thought, "are all Italians so pigeon-toed?" This thought had barely occurred to me when an understanding of the full, multi-purpose design utility of this device burst upon my conscious mind. I decided to test my theory as to the second aspect of the design, which my total incredulity prevented me from fully accepting.
Sure enough, by putting your back to the wall and your feet in the stirrups, so to say, this hole could also be utilized for a completely different set of alimentary functions. This would, of course, have to occur in front of anyone unfortunate enough to come in to wash their hands or comb their hair during the proceedings, as there was absolutely no delineating feature such as a wall or door to assure privacy.
I washed my hands using the only familiar
item in the entire range of bathroom accoutrements and returned
to my table, amazed.
continent holds no monopoly in porcelain depravities however,
as my next surprising moment occurred in Northern Ireland.
The plant were I was working is in Londonderry, or Derry depending
upon your religious or political point of view, and sits on
the western side of the river Foyle. It is smack on the edge
of the Bogside where the famous "Bloody Sunday"
massacre occurred. The western side of the river, is overwhelmingly
Catholic. Being an American Catholic of Irish extraction I
do not suffer from quite the same social handicaps as do my
British colleagues, and after several visits I found myself
invited out to an Irish pub with several of my Irish Catholic
associates. They regaled me with stories of their experiences
during "the troubles". Living in Northern Ireland
during the late seventies seems to have been roughly equivalent
to experiencing a simultaneous combination of the 1967 Detroit
riots and the Kent State massacre.
After my forth or fifth pint of Guinness
which, by the way, really is better in Ireland, the predictable
occurred and I inquired my way to the facilities. On passing
through the indicated door, I immediately felt the soft crush
of gravel beneath my feet. This, I thought, was unique. I
next noticed a rough trough at the bottom of a brick wall
with water running through it and transporting the contents
to a drain at the end of the wall. Clear enough. While engaged
in the process of purging the excess salts and toxins from
my body, a soft drizzle falling on my head and shoulders became
distinctly discernable. I glanced upwards to try to discover
the source of my discomfiture to find I was outside, in what
amounted to the backyard.
While we are on the subject of the
United Kingdom, I would like to point out another howling
lapse in modernity that one invariably encounters on trips
there. The U.K. has never figured out the integrated faucet.
It matters not where you go in the four nations or how new
or recently renovated the building, every bathroom sink has
both a hot water tap and a cold water tap. This means that
you must fill the sink with water to regulate the temperature
while washing up, and are forced to either scald or freeze
your hands respectively to rinse them. I realize its a little
thing, but c'mon Britain, the rest of the civilized world
has been using integrated faucets since the 50's.
Spain and Portugal have properly constructed bathrooms with
all the modern amenities. What is lacking here is the training
required to use them properly. It is like giving an aborigine
a computer. Combine ignorance with what is apparently chronic
dysentery and the result can be unnerving. I am terrified
of Iberian bathrooms. I have only seen one thing worse in
my life, and that was in a Standard station on US 23 in Ohio.
One small recommendation if you are traveling to Mediterranean
countries, BYOTP. The stuff they have there reminds me of
the Cut-Rite brand wax paper my mom used to wrap my sandwiches
in when I was a kid. It works about as well too.
Finally we have France; France and her bidets. The bidet is
at best an aid for those people fundamentally incapable of
wiping their own backsides properly. At worst it is an ersatz
for proper bathing, which may explain the odor in a Parisian
elevator in August. The French themselves coyly protest that
the bidet is useful in keeping their best bits ready for action
at the drop of a hat, so to speak, in the best Gallic manner.
I personally believe my alternative theory to be more accurate.
I believe that the French are simply afraid of water. This
may explain the joke often told in Germany:
Q: Where do you hide your money if you want to make sure that
a French thief will not find it
A: Under the soap
A Reader Replies
From: "sabin bokus"
Subject: Answer to Lenane's European Toilets Conundrum
Having spent years in Europe, mostly in Hamburg,
Germany, I can say with confidence (in reference to Dean Lenane's
European Toilet Assignment) that the underlying explanation
for the "shelf" feature in german toilets is the
need to look for lost change. The truth of this statement
is borne out by the last lines of Mr. Lenane's piece which
suggest that the Germans have the need to hide their money.