Agreed. This is an odd subject for an article – indelicate, even. But if you have traveled very far outside your immediate circle of comfort, you will also agree there are things you need to know as you leave home.
For the most part, you can travel across the entire United States and find the same stores, familiar names, consistent quality. With a few inconsequential variations, you can go into any mall, be it Santa Rosa, California or Baltimore, Maryland and find your favorite clothing store, that good-smelling candle shop, and the place with all the sports stuff. Not so in Europe. That holds true for its restroom facilities, as well.
However, before you can use one, you must first locate one. In Europe, this can be tricky. Sometimes you will get lucky and spot a clearly marked sign: "Toilette" or similar word, depending on what country you're in. But usually, no matter where you are in Europe, you just need to know two letters: WC. This stands for water closet. Once you find one, you're good to go, so to speak.
Bathrooms in Europe, whether in the hotel room or the train station, used to intimidate me. I would approach them with dread – not because of punishment, or lack thereof. In fact, I have found them to generally be quite clean. No, instead my trepidation rose from not knowing how to flush.
Go ahead and laugh – it is funny. I would stand at the toilet, eyes scouring the porcelain, darting to the wall, the floor, searching for some clue. Inevitably, each time the task would require a different procedure. Do I press, pull, stomp, flip, or simply do nothing? But fear ever gave into amusement and now, each time I use a European restroom, consider it an opportunity to play a twisted version of "Where's Waldo?"
Those Europeans! What a sense of humor! Maybe they are laughing behind hidden cameras that capture the frantic antics of unwary Americans. Maybe they are just smarter than us. Probably both. But I never fail to imagine what we must look like – those of us who are used to the single silver lever reassuringly placed on the side of the toilet's tank.
It sometimes takes me awhile, but I always find the elusive secret. I've successfully pulled strings hanging from overhead, press round buttons on the top of the tank, rolled round buttons on the top of the tank, pushed with all my strength on wide segments of the toilet top, flush (no pun intended) with its surface. I've used my foot to stomp, my toe to flick. Sometimes, to my delight, I've only had to simply stand up.
Then what about those bidets? My Italian cousins all have them in their homes, for gosh sake! What the heck it that all about? They were shocked to find that we backwards Americans not only do not have them, but do not want them. We do not even know how to use them! After attentively listening to my cousins' patient explanations, I still can not quite grasp how these contraptions could really do the trick. Once I spend several days at a Venetian hotel in a room containing one of these bidets. Silently it sat at the side of the armoire like some modern art sculpture waiting to be appreciated. Eying it suspiciously, I continued to trek to the shower and bathroom down the hall … one floor below.
And what's with Greece? On the wall next to every single toilet in the country, even in your hotel room, are signs clearly admonishing you NOT TO PUT TOILET PAPER IN THE TOILET! HUH? It appears that the delicate septic systems of Greece can not handle it. And in case you can not read Greek or English, the sign is accompanied by a little picture of a toilet and paper overlaid with a big red X so there is no mistaking the message. Instead, next each toilet you will find a small, lid-covered trash can for depositing all paper. And I do mean all. If you do not follow the rules, you will be even more embarrassed when the hotel proprietor has come to your room to plunge and mop.
Greek toilets notwithstanding, venturing out into the world of European public restrooms is even more exciting. Often, attendants are there to greet you, unsmiling as they dole out two or three squares of precious paper as you enter a stall, and expecting a coin or two as you leave. (I guess you'd be unsmiling too, if you had that job.)
Sometimes, you can not even get into a bathroom without paying first. A coin operated mechanism controls the flow … of visitors, that is. This sometimes presents a problem, especially if you're short on change and the bus you've been waiting for is just rounding the corner.
Of course, let's not forget to mention Amsterdam's clever solution to unwanted usage of its streets as a toilet facility. Through the city, especially on busy streets, you will find green metal cages (called pissoirs), where men can step in for a few moments, feet still visible to the world. Although not designed for a woman, I would hold out for a museum anyway, thank you.
Last, but not least, you can never really claim having had a true European bathroom adventure until you've experienced the infamous "Turkish toilet" – think two porcelain footprints on either side of a hole in the floor. I will leave the rest to your imagination. Yes, I have had this adventure.
But do not let all this dubious potty talk scare you off. In truth, European bathrooms are modern and clean and, if you know how to go about it, readily available. If nature calls, be it while perusing the crowded streets of Rome, or wandering a remote hill town, just look for a coffee bar. Entering with confidence and a smile, head towards the back until that WC sign appears above a door. You'll be home free. Then the only thing left to figure out is how to flush …