Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bathrooms of Europe--a traveler's tale

RHYS:  As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m currently on vacation in Europe. After several days in Poland, then Rome, then a cruise, I’m vegging out in the Perigord region of France, amid spectacular castles and prehistoric caves. Everything about the area is amazing, including the food (and the vin de noix—a wine made with green walnuts to which I’m becoming addicted).


However the one thing that always puzzles me about Europe is this:


We can stay in the most modern hotel and the bathroom doesn’t quite work. I have to confess that the bathroom here in Sarlat is the closest I’ve come to being efficent in a long while. It does have a shower screen on half of a very high bath into which one needs a stepladder to climb. BUT the shower is one of those free moving ones, attached above my head, and when I turn on the tap, even though it’s supposed to be running from the bath below, the water hits me straight in the face. And of course it’s cold to start with. And the screen only covers half the bath. Wash my hair and there is water everywhere.

But this is minor compared to the bath with no shower curtain in Rome and a shower one aims at various parts of the body, completely soaking the bathroom, OR a friend’s modern flat in Italy with a shower in the center of the room in a shallow basin that overflows instantly. OR the toilet last year in our hotel in Instanbul. No paper but instead a tap that one turned, producing a jet of cold water that, if not aimed correctly, shot past us and across the room!

Of course these are civilized compared to the toilets with two places to put the feet…. I remember one in rural France once that started to overflow on me as soon as I flushed, and I couldn’t get the door unlocked.  I had visions of drowning—not the way I wanted to go.

But the most unique bathroom so far was the cellar of a very old farmhouse we rented once in rural France. It was through the wine cellar (with dirt floor) ,down a flight of steps in a dungeon with fungus and ferns growing from the ceiling and again the shower was in a pit in the middle of the floor.  Needless to say, I didn’t shower as much as usual.

And then there are those scary geysers that creak and hiss and threaten to explode, the public loos supervised by an old woman or man who accompanies you and won’t go away until you tip them….

At least they all make me appreciate Motel 6!  So Reds, any foreign bathroom horror stories to share?


  1. Sorry . . . I haven’t any foreign bathroom horror stories to share, although I must admit to chuckling just a bit over yours . . . .
    I'd guess the spectacular castles, prehistoric caves, amazing food and wine might help to make up for the bathroom issues --- it really does sound like a lovely vacation . . . . .

  2. Oh, Rhys, I haven't been to Europe in nearly half a century, but from your description, little has changed. On my first trip there, I took an overnight train from Paris to Milan. Not only did the third class car's loo leave much to be desired, but I was traveling alone on an overcrowded train, and I knew better than to give up my seat, even for a few minutes.

    By the time I arrived in Milan, I really really needed to go. I found the ladies' room in the station, paid the attendant for a small piece of waxy toilet paper, and entered the fairly large room that had no toilet at all, just two footprints in front of a hole in the ground and two grab bars on the wall beside it. I was laughing so hard at how preposterous it was that I almost couldn't use it.

    Cut to Shanghai, China, in 2001. We were late getting in from Wuhan, and our guide was determined we would not miss a single element of the tour-- so instead of taking us straight to our hotel, we were taken directly to a school. The restroom available there had a long trough running under a row of cubicles. I wound up hanging from a cell door and swinging over the trough. The humor of the situation was not lost on me that time, either.

    I have been to elegant hotels in Europe and Asia, where there are full length doors on private toilet rooms and American style toilets and toilet paper-- but they have been few and far between. More common was that European toilet paper-- do they still use it?-- that was like crepe paper, and only tore lengthwise unless you used both hands. (A standard description of France in the Sixties was "the country where you can't tear the toilet paper, but the money falls apart in your hands.")

    The worst was the pensione in Venice where the toilet paper was a pile of torn-up magazine pages-- yes, the shiny ones).

    As a teen and in my twenties, I stayed in firetraps where the toilet and shower were down the hall, although my room would always have a sink and often a bidet. (I usually did my laundry in the bidet). I privately made fun of those older Americans who needed their own bathrooms attached to their rooms. Now I am that kind of traveler.

    Traveling through China, where toilet paper and soap were scarce to nonexistent (even when the toilets looked a lot like ours, as opposed to those troughs), I kept a flattened partial roll of toilet paper in one jacket pocket, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer in the other.

    I don't understand why the islands of the Caribbean (and good hotels on any continent) can provide American-style bathrooms (and accouterments) whereas China (and from your description, even today's Europe) cannot.

    The Chinese hotels we stayed in could just as easily have been Hiltons and Marriotts in the US. But restrooms in restaurants and tourist attractions left much to be desired. And we won't even talk about shipboard bathrooms. Suffice it to say that I'm not willing to accept another cruise even if it's free. Maybe even if you paid ME.

  3. Great stories Rhys and Ellen! It IS funny that Americans have the bathroom thing down pat--I guess we care more?

    Ellen, I'm definitely one of those tourists who wants her own bathroom now too!

    In Japan, there were usually choices of western style and eastern style toilets. There would be a long line of American ladies in front of the western stalls:)

  4. I confess I was worried when we went to China having heard about the squat toilets. So I wore skirts a lot and used them (carried around my own toilet paper). To no ill effect. For the most part they were clean. Except this one... which I'll spare you a description of (I REALLLY had to go).

    In Peru (and lots of Latin countries) it takes some getting used to that they want you to throw away not flush your used toilet paper. Apparently the plumbing can't handle paper.

    Actually some American toilets don't thrill me these days - those smart toilets that flush while you're sitting on them. Or don't...ever.

  5. Yup, that's the travelling rule: ALWAYS carry TP or tissues in your backpack or purse. ALWAYS have some small change to tip the attendant.

    From my canoing experience, I'm pretty good at using the bushes when I have to, no matter how meagre the cover might be.

  6. I had the hole in the floor experience in Jordan, at one of the smaller tourist attractions. There WAS a "normal" toilet, too, with a long line of people waiting to use it.

    In Jordan, Israel, and Italy (all on the same 1978 trip, sponsored by a local church) most of the toilet paper was that crepe type. It was purple, too. One of the older ladies on our trip wore white sandals most of the time. They would periodically get dusty, and then she would wipe them off with whatever she had handy. One time it was the purple crepe paper. Her sandals turned purple. She wondered "what is this doing to our bottoms?"

  7. Apparently, that throwing of used TP into a basket next to the toilet-- rather than into the toilet itself-- can be a big thing in Chinese homes. My former sister in law wrote that the year she lived there, she was always having to pull the paper out of the toilet to put it into the basket because "old habits die hard."

    And I have another bathroom tale-- when I lived in Florence during college, I would try to do everything at once during my morning time in the bathroom-- including washing out yesterday's underwear. Alas, the first time I did that, soap bubbles suddenly started coming up out of a valve in the floor. While everyone else in the house fumed in a line outside the bathroom door, I was trying desperately to make the room stop looking like a bubble machine.

    And then there was the male friend from the same school I was attending who had no idea what a bidet was. He decided it must be a urinal, and after using it, turned the handle-- and of course, it fired back at him, straight up into the air. The revenge of the urinal?

  8. You ladies are too funny. Thanks for the chuckle.

    I'm not a world traveler - farthest I've ever gotten was St. Croix and they had American-style bathrooms there. Not always the cleanest, but regular bathrooms.

    I'm still at the point where I don't need my own bathroom (ah, the communal bathrooms of my college years), but I'm not sure I could use a hole in the ground. Maybe if I was really desperate.

  9. Oh, and my sister tells the story of a visit to the home of her Arab-Israeli roommate from Hebrew University, for some festival, where not only was the bathroom the hole in the floor style, but the goat that was going to be the next day's dinner was tethered in there.

  10. Mary Sutton--I think your goat story wins!

  11. Having been to Europe, Australia, South America and Africa in the last ten years, I feel somewhat qualified to speak to this. I've also begun taking photos of toilets and bathrooms I've encountered. It's amazing, the vast differences, even inside each country.

    When we were getting ready to go to Tanzania I had two worries: what to do about my hair (I know, so vain), and how to manage pit toilets/peeing in the middle of nowhere. The hair was easy: my stylist cut it off, and I never had a worry about it for the entire two weeks we were there. (And got compliments on the flight home, after two travel days without access to hair dryer, shampoo, or styling tools of any kind).

    But the toilet issue was largely unfounded. Every tented camp we went to had the most unbelievably luxurious bathrooms, inside the tents, with running hot water, real toilets, and even mirrors. Some of them even had more than a flap between the bathroom and the bedroom. It was pretty amazing. A couple of times we had to stop at toilets in the middle of nowhere, and only had to hover over the seat or a hole a couple of times. Peeing behind the vehicle (girls at the back, boys at the front) was also no big deal. Our female travel companion and I became "pee buddies", with lots of laughing.

    The most interesting toilet I ever encountered was in Paris at the Flea Market. It was a pay toilet, and had an automatic light (which went out while I was in there, causing mild panic), and a toilet seat that recovered itself the instant one stood up. Which was more than a little freaky in the dark.

    Peru was scary because of the toilet paper in the can thing. No wonder so many people get sick from diarrhea. Sanitation has a ways to go in places like that. The middle of the Serengeti was more advanced, oddly.

    I always carry extra tissues, no matter where I am in the world, including here in town. You never know when the toilet roll will be empty.

  12. Oh, and the funniest toilet room of all: a McDonald's in Normandy, which had an adult-sized toilet, and right next to it a tiny, child-sized one. I am going to post a photo on my Facebook page, if you want to see it.

  13. Oh, no no no. It's just--I'm sorry, I am not adventurous when it comes ot bathrooms.

    The toilets that flush themselves? WHY do they do it when THEY want to do it? It terrifies me every time.\\And those automatic plastic things that you're supposed to push the green button and they put a new layer? How much did THOSE cost?

    ANd I can never figure out which way those flappy and unmanageable pieces of protective tissue are supposed to go.

  14. I cannot tell you how many times I've been soaked by the self-flushing toilets, especially at airports. And Costco. I suppose it's better than the alternative...

    And, oh, do I remember the horrible waxed toilet paper in the UK and Europe! I haven't seen that in a few years, thank goodness.

    Having traveled a lot in Mexico in childhood and my teens, and Europe in my twenties, I've used everything from the two-footer to the hole in the dirt floor in the shed. And learned always, always, to carry a pack of tissues.

    Most interesting recent toilet--there is a boutique hotel I like to stay in in London sometimes when I have a night or two when I'm not in a flat. Lovely place, but the bathrooms are so tiny that the toilet is literally half under the sink...

    Oh, and once, traveling somewhere in the north of England with ex-husband and my parents, we stayed in a "farmhouse" B&B. Ex-hubby and I were escorted across the stable yard to the barn addition, up some stairs, and into a fairly nice room. But no toilet. Chamber pot under the bed. Really.

  15. I traveled to Europe once, and the descriptions reminded me of some of the things we experienced while there, too. Pretty funny.

  16. When in Ireland and in Scotland more recently, we stayed in B&Bs. We usually had to ask how the showers work. I swear each was different. Then to add insult to injury we each had to put on our reading glasses to peer at the controls and make sure we were doing it right. Who showers with their glasses on?
    My husband travels in Colombia quite a bit for business. It cracks him up that he will stay at a nice hotel with flat screen TV and all the accoutrements and the bathroom shower will be a pipe sticking out of the wall. Strictly cold water.

  17. FYI, I can't find the photo of the two different sized toilets, so if you are my Facebook friend and was watching for it, you aren't being left out.

    If automatic toilets terrify you, Hank, just think how little tiny kids feel! And their poor, harried mothers.

  18. I, too, have been faced with the hole in the ground but they had quite considerately marked the spots where one's feet were to be placed.

    I've also used the Chinese trough. Out of curiosity, I followed it outside to see where it went. It emptied straight into the ocean.

    In Europe, it seems the bathrooms are seldom heated and the windows are always open, no matter how much snow is on the ground. I used to think my grandfather did that on purpose to speed up our bathroom use. Nobody wanted to linger there!

  19. As a European I am going to have to come back and defend my beautiful continent! I cannot deny that taking a shower or using a toilet in many areas in my part of the world can be 'an experience.' But please remember, most of our plumbing issues stem from the very thing that American's love about our cities. i.e the buildings are OLD.
    Europe is not a theme park. I would take the charm of a city like Rome or Istanbul over reliable hot and cold water every time and I hope the average American does too. We can't always have everything.
    Written in the spirit of clasped hands across the water......!

  20. I lived in Ireland off and on for a while and while the toilets never caused me problems, the showers gave me rampant anxiety. The entire idea of the immersion baffled my spoiled American mind.

    "There's no hot water."

    "You have to turn on the immersion."

    "What's an immersion?"

    "It makes the hot water."

    "Oh, okay. Where is it."

    "In the hot press."

    "What's a hot press?"

    "That closet in the hallway where we keep the towels."

    "Why is it called a hot press."

    "Stop asking so many questions and go turn on the immersion."

    "But... how?"

    My first shower back in the States was about 45 minutes.

  21. No mention of unisex bathrooms?

    When my moderate priced tour group stopped in a town in the Tyrol mountains between Switzerland and Italy, there was a gas station with a cafetria, few shops and restrooms. Some of the Americans in my group had never been to Europe before. I have. They were surprised that both ladies and gentlemen used the same restroom!

    There were stalls so there was privacy for us all.

    I did my homework before travelling to Europe. I was prepared for surprises. Most of the places had what I thought were nice bathrooms. One hotel in Paris had small shower area, toilet and bidet. It had enough space for One person, which was fine with me. Yes, there was the hand shower and for me, I could direct the water where I wanted it to go.

    In Austria, Germany, Swtizerland and Italy, the bathrooms were nice. We did encounter a "hole in the ground" restroom in Tuscany at san germino (sp?). Luckily, I did not have to go.

    Not a big fan of Rome with the air pollution, though I have to say I was impressed by the hotel's green efforts. In order to turn on the lights or electricity, you installed your hotel card into a slot.

    For my first two trips to England, though I stayed in nice B&Bs, we had to walk down the hall to use the toilet. I brought a hand towel with me so I could use the sink in my room and wash my underarms.

    At this point, we need to try to conserve water because of the drought warnings on the West Coast of the USA.

  22. If we're going to be serious about this, one of the planks in my platform when I ran for City Council 40+ years ago was to institute low flow toilets in all new construction, so that by this century, most would be, and we could then address those that had been grandfathered. Around then, I was at a party with Gaylord Nelson (founder of Earth Day) and a good friend of his who was a major plumbing contractor, and I asked about this. The plumbing contractor told us that "Sanitary engineers are only concerned with getting the waste out of your house, not with what happens to it afterward." Not the kind of comment one forgets.

    Now that all newly installed toilets in the US are low-flow (and function quite well at this), we've seen that almost anything can be retrofitted. But those automatic flushes are overkill-- they are to keep people from masking sound by flushing while going. It would be more efficient to install a kind of white-noise fan in each cell instead, and let the user control when and if to flush. Just sayin'

    I don't think a lot of this is thought through, but if you want an interesting lesson in history (and the future) visit the Kohler factory's history of plumbing exhibit (including their "Great wall of china"-- floor to ceiling toilets in all hues) at Kohler, Wisconsin. It's fascinating.

    Now back to your previously scheduled humorous posting.

  23. As someone who has recurring bathroom nightmares, such as toilets are all full and won't flush and I have to go or I can't find a bathroom (lots of variations), having a decent bathroom is top on my list of travel requirements. I don't do shared bathrooms either. Camping is off my list--no bathrooms. I guess you could (and probably are) say that I am a bit OCD about bathrooms. Maybe it stems from the frequent visits we made to my aunt, who had an outhouse that was accessed through the garden, where snakes resided, and the facility itself was dark inside with probable spiders. I hope to travel to England and Scotland in the next few years, so I guess I'll have to check on bathrooms along with the accommodations.

  24. Not only was it a bad idea to sleep at a truckstop on the autobahn, it was impossible to aim anything so that it landed in the tiny hole in the floor. If it dropped where you aimed, it was luck. Just luck.

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. I just had to add to Ellen Kozak's mention of the Kohler History of Plumbing exhibit in Kohler, Wis. The Great Wall of Potties is the most popular photo op in the whole building--it gets smashed to smithereens in my book, The Escape Diaries, by the way--I couldn't resist it as a setting. And the world's most beautiful bathroom is in the Kohler Art Center in the nearby city of Sheboygan.

  27. really informative blog. thank you for sharing this blog. harneymfg