Sunday, July 22, 2012

When you gotta go

Stay hydrated - but find the facilities!
 We're back in the United States after a trip through four European countries - Italy, Switzerland, France and Britain. And while travel is always a wonderful way to expand your horizon and encounter new cultures, some travelers are leery about the cultural changes they might the bathroom.

Directions to the public toilet in Venice near St. Marks.
 First off - terminology. Don't use euphemisms like "restroom" when inquiring. In Europe, there is no shame in asking for "the toilet" (la toilette en France). In Britain, one might inquire about "the ladies" because in many pubs, the gents and ladies rooms are in different locations.

Many of the tourist guides I read about Venice warned travelers that public toilets were scarce, charged a fee, and lacked toilet paper. Forewarned, I packed a little zipper pouch with Kleenex packages in my handbag. As it turned out, I never had to use it once. The toilets I encountered in Venice were consistently clean, free and well-stocked. The best places to go were museums, but every restaurant toilet I used was in fine shape.

My knees are in no shape to use squat toilets, so I was a little concerned about them while visiting historic sites. I'd encountered one in the medieval hill town of Vezelay on our 2009 trip, and opted to "hold it" until we found a cafe. But the only squat toilet we encountered this time was when [The Man I Love] looked for the facilities in the Venice train station.

Milano station - no toilets anywhere!
While waiting to change trains in Milano, I searched for the station toilets, and signs with arrows had me traipsing all over the station, up and down several sloping escalators, all in vain - I never found them. Never mind. The toilets on the high-speed trains were clean, private and easy to use.

I did get used to the European style toilet compartments with floor-to-ceiling walls - much more private than our American flimsy metal stalls. Often these are unisex, or else both mens' and womens' booths share the common lavatory. Although I've read about it, I never encountered a urinal in a shared space.

In France, the toilet is often located in a water closet not connected to the lavatory, which you have to go and seek out to wash your hands. This arrangement is even found in some hotel rooms - our 2009 hotel room was an intricate little jewel-box of a space with a tiny WC behind a sliding door. The bathroom with a sink and tub was across the room.

I was at first perplexed at some French tap-less lavatories, because I kept waving my hands beneath the faucet, thinking it motion-activated, to no avail. Then I found the foot-pedal on the floor that turned on the water. I ran into this arrangement at least three times in Paris.

While you'll frequently find the old-fashioned linen roller hand towels in France, there is not a single paper towel to be found in all of London. All the bathrooms there have blow hand dryers, even in the finest of restaurants - usually the high-tech new ones.

European flushing mechanisms with their dual push-buttons are different from common American ones, with the handle you depress, although in America now fashionable public toilets often have European fixtures, so most Americans will be familiar with them. It's nice to a have choice whether to use a lot of water or just enough to do the job.

The most rustic toilet facility I encountered was not at some crumbling 9th century lagoon island basilica, but rather at Franks Cafe in London - which is not surprising, since Franks Cafe is a temporary art installation on the roof of a parking garage.

Ramp leading to toilets at Franks
Here in a battery of rough wooden cubicles, you hover above a hole. Since it was under a canvas roof, open air, on a rainy evening I told myself not to speculate about the liquid on the floor or seat.

Communal handwashing sink at Franks
The communal handwashing sink was equally rustic. This was the only lavatory I found in Britain that didn't have a blow hand-dryer.

Complaints about European toilet facilities have been a staple of American travel literature for decades, but I found them to be fine, only a little unfamiliar in the details. I've never traveled to Asia, Africa or South America, so I'm curious whether the facilities there are similar.

What's your experience with toilets when traveling?


smalltownme said...

I've only traveled in Northern Europe. I first encountered the civilized floor to ceiling stalls in Sweden 10 years ago. Delightful.

The worst toilets I've encountered are American portapotties where I squat and bring my own TP, what can I say.

Frank says the toilets in Japan are "varied," from a porcelain hole in the ground which can flush, to an American style toilet at his home stay, to the ultrafancy hotel toilets which are heated and also spray.

Glennis said...

Heidi, we have a friend here in LA who installed the Japanese high-tech toilets in their home. It's hilarious to go visit them!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

When I meet you, I will tell the tale of using the mens' toilet in Germany. I was not alone!

There was one rest area in France with the stainless steel foot markings and the push button on the wall. Luckily, by then I had discovered that wearing a knee-length dress was the smartest way to travel when there was a possibility of squat toilets. (I don't think I could do it now.)

I don't mind outhouses but porta-potties at large events must truly be the worst of the worst!

Anonymous said...

I hate port port-a-potties. Mainly because people are such slobs and there usually is nowhere to clean your hands.

But the worse toilet I ever encountered was on an island tour in Haitti. We were on a cruise and we were spending a day on this island. It was beautiful and the people were so beautiful and so poor. My heart broke. Anyway we hiked to see the island and of course I was looking for a place to pee. I found it, a stone building marked with the international sign. I went into the dankest, darkest one hole outhouse I'd ever been in (I've been in many). I had to squat, which was difficult because I am only 5ft and the hole to squat over was raised with no seat. There was no paper or water, but there were bugs. I did my business and got out of there.
I never really complained about it though, because the people in that poor poor land survived so much worse every day. ALBUG

Susan B said...

I love the flush buttons on French toilettes. "You want ze Big Flush ou ze Petite Flush?"

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I'm always glad to get back to American plumbing- the water pressure in Europe tends to be pretty low. The Japanese toilets were a hoot- one of my brother's friends unplugged a toilet because the heated seat "made me lose the urge to go".

Some of the newer toilets here have a dual flush system to conserve water, but those are pretty rare.

ming said...

Worst was the Olympic Stadium in Athens. I think by day 5 of the 2004 Olympics the entire system was broken. We Americans (and apparently others) didn't know that in Greece you don't put toilet paper in the toilet but rather in the little waste baskets beside the toilets.

In China in 2008 there were a lot of squat toliets - but also a good many "western" ones - but with longer lines!