Daily Archives: April 12, 2007

Liberty and Restrooms for All

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Common wisdom contends that there’s nothing like travel to make you truly appreciate home.I don’t know if that’s true in all respects, but there is one facet of life in the good old USA that I came to adore during my excursions across the pond, a feature of American culture that remains unequaled among the developing and developed countries of the world.

I speak, of course, of the availability of public restrooms.

I never knew how much I took the constant presence of restroom facilities for granted until I traveled abroad. In many places, public bathrooms just didn’t exist. And forget ducking into a restaurant or patisserie for quick relief—toilets in those places are reserved for patrons only. It is the height of rudeness to dash into someone’s business, avail yourself of the facilities, and dash back out. I can’t tell you how many uneaten pastries and unsipped cups of coffee I left in my wake as I crossed the European continent in search of a place to do my business.

There’s something about not knowing where or whether you’ll next be able to use the bathroom that makes you have to go all the time.

Nor do the rare accessible toilets always take the comforting and familiar white porcelain form to which I am accustomed. In many places, the “loo” is nothing more than a hole in the floor with a footplate on either side. Others are more of an outhouse-type structure. Trust me, though, when I say that by the time I found a place to potty, I usually did not care what it looked like. The majority of toilets for travelers seemed to be of the “pay and pee” variety, very similar to a public restroom in any large American venue, but with coin slots on the doors. I tried to keep a pocket full of jingling change with me at all times. Only once was I reduced to begging a stranger for a donation, which she promptly handed over with a sympathetic smile. I think she took one look at my crossed legs and panic-stricken face and decided it would be cheaper to help me out than to pay her dry-cleaning bill when I exploded.

Probably the most psychologically damaging public restrooms I encountered were in Paris. They consist of a sort of metal capsule with an electronic door. You put your francs in the slot, step through the door (which closes behind you), and do what you came to do as fast as humanly possible. Theoretically, these doors are timed to open automatically if you don’t emerge within fifteen minutes, but I swear that the one I used gave me a scant twenty seconds. I just barely managed to get my clothing rearranged over my delicate bits before the door slid noiselessly open and I was spot lit by the late afternoon sun in front of a crowd of grinning Parisians. Not my most poised moment as a suave and sophisticated world traveler.

I’d like to think that every sojourner to distant lands comes back with at least one good bathroom story. After all, the need to go is something we all share, no matter where we live. Fortunately, crossed legs and a panic-stricken face are easily translated into any language.