I blame this turbulent political season and the constant reminder that our political system is in the crapper, but I’ve been thinking a lot about toilets lately. I was 17 when I first realized that, like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two public toilets are alike. I was on a school trip to France – my first trip abroad – and, of all the amazing things for a 17-year-old to learn in a strange land, one of the most profound for me was the discovery of the wide variances between French and American toilets. From the bowl itself, to the style of flush, to the location of the handle, using a public toilet in France was frequently an adventure (clearly, I grew up in a pretty small town, but an adventure it was!). In my collection of photos from the trip, there were A LOT of photos of the many public toilets I used; including a self-sealing/cleaning variety on the streets of Paris and a rudimentary hole in the ground with two footholds, complete with an overhead shower-style flush (get out of the way!!!!!), at an old chateau. Twenty-two years later, some of my strongest memories from that trip are of those toilets.
But the toilet fascination didn’t end there. Six years later, when I was 23 years old, Mike got stationed in Germany and my appreciation for the public toilet – formerly just the French variety – expanded to include the many variations of European toilets we found in the many countries we were fortunate enough to visit. In Italy, my favorite restroom featured a sliding sink that alternated between being in the shower (if you happened to be using the toilet), or over the toilet, if you happened to be using the shower (I love practicality). In Germany, I encountered a metal toilet, with no lid or seat. It was the equivalent of a butt-sized metal mixing bowl, with exactly the same comfort level. In Poland, I was shocked by the human-staffed, pay toilet, where no one cares how badly you have to go if you don’t happen to have any money…no zlotys, no toilet! In Switzerland, there was a wood outhouse on the side of a mountain, with a view like no other toilet anywhere.
While my toilet experiences have been limited to North and Central America and Europe, Mike (that lucky bastard!) has also gotten to experience public toilets in many Asian countries, ranging from luxurious porcelain to less-than-luxurious holes in the sand. He implies I didn’t miss much, for whatever that’s worth, but I do hope to someday explore more public toilets in more foreign places.
My appreciation, if one wants to call it this, for public toilets in America exists for completely different reasons. In America, it’s almost always less about the physical toilet and more about the ambiance, and oftentimes the lack thereof. On a recent pit stop in West Virginia, it was the reading material on the wall of the bathroom (the ladies room, of course) that got my attention…an advertisement for a “treeing contest,” advising me to bring $5, along with my “guns, knives, bows, arrows, dogs and traps.” I had no idea what was being referred to but the picture of the raccoon on the flyer helped me put it all together. Though I completely oppose this practice that I know nothing about, I find it a fascinating social commentary that it was advertised in the ladies’ room. Recently, in the raccoon-friendly, chill area of upstate New York, I encountered the cleanest gas station bathroom EVER with this hopeful graffiti: “Everything will ALWAYS be alright.” I left that bathroom feeling so much better about the world than how I felt about the world after reading the treeing contest advertisement in West Virginia.
Occasionally, an American toilet will move me based on aesthetics or engineering. It was in Kansas that I first discovered the porta-trailer, which transforms the disgusting porta-potty experience to a whole new level of luxury. Imagine, if you will, walking into an air-conditioned room with several toilets, complete with a flushing mechanism and fresh smell, in private stalls, as well as a row of individual sinks with faucets with running water. But the “room” is a trailer on wheels – a glorified, souped-up, porta-potty on wheels. I still get a tear in my eye, remembering the magnificence of that first experience. It just goes to prove that ingenuity is alive and well in America.
I never gave much thought to the toilet before that first French adventure, but in the years since, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about toilets than most people. By no means am I bragging but, in my defense, after lots of travel, four pregnancies and four kids, I’ve seen A LOT of public toilets in a lot of places. Sometimes I think I might be on to some deeper sociological discovery exploring a culture’s level of toilet ingenuity and their level of overall success. But until I write that exhaustive study, I quietly relish in the occasional discovery of a unique toilet. After the trip to France, I wrote a note to my French teacher, thanking him for exposing me to the wider world, and to an amazingly wide world of public toilets. Who knew, 22 years later, this dubious relationship would continue?