Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Toilets of the world; coming of age in confusing comfort

Now, why should the whale thus insist upon having his spoutings out?
-Herman Melville

Traveling requires constant adaptation, although with most travel destinations eye-balling the western pocket, the greatest sacrifices are usually made on the other end. Go to any fancy hotel in Japan or the Middle East and you’ll find the facilities carefully honed to western needs. But even when an overseas assignment or Discovery Channel induced bravado leads the traveler onto cultures utterly other, differences may be navigated with proper excitement and usually are. That is, until nature calls and the locals appear to unload in contraptions vastly unfamiliar. Only very few globetrotters will gladly submit their privates to devices whose responses are impossibly to predict, especially since most toilets are located in private booths and a moment of repose can’t be invested in observing the locals going at it.

Urinal with lid in Ljubljana,
I was raised in the protective custody of a modest Dutch home where knowledge of private matters was mostly empirical. We had two toilets; one upstairs and one downstairs. They were identical pearly white bowls with a reservoir to lean against, and which emptied by pushing an elongated rectangular chrome button on the top. As far as I was concerned, that’s what a toilet looked like, and this conviction stayed with me until the summer in which I turned eight, when I came face to face with a urinal.

I had never heard of such a thing and when I opened the door of the stall and saw it, a rush of discovery overtook me. I carefully deposited my turd on the four drain holes in the bottom of the receptacle (not in the least alarmed by the absence of toilet paper) and turned around to see in what magical way my gift would be made to pass through them. When I pushed the flush button and the deposit only underwent a gurgling rinse, I discovered the true nature of the urinal. I’ll never know why the toilet lady looked at me the way she did when I made my way out of the toilet building, but at the time I believed it was because I had I JUST CRAPPED IN A URINAL written on my forehead.

The verb ’to crap,’ by the way, comes from Thomas Crapper, the leading manufacturer of the indoor, flushing toilet, also known as the crapper.

The next phase in my sanitary maturation came on a holiday in France, where I discovered the squat toilet. It took me a try or two to conclude that this particular design necessitated the complete removal of one’s pants, and spent the next three weeks trying to crap precisely in the hole. Tired of defeat, by the end of the holiday I was faithfully crapping in the Mediterranean.
French squat toilet

Many years later I had grown into a confident young man, serving her majesty’s merchant fleet as a maritime engineer. Disaster struck in the Japanese Sea, when the chief officer missed a turn, ran the ship aground, and had us towed to a shipyard in Kure for a repair that would take ten days. And for ten days we would have to crap in Japanese squat toilets.

The Japanese squat toilet differs from the French one by having a much greater area of impact. So great even that we were all quietly convinced we were doing something wrong. On top of that, every squat toilet requires the performer to maintain a certain degree of balance. The average Dutch sailor is the epitome of balance in all kinds of weathers, but in that toilet house in Kure I’ve heard the sodden thud of many a man slumping under the weight of habitual relaxation. I’ve also learned quite a few Dutch swearwords in that dry dock.

Japanese squat toilet

Two weeks later we were in Tokyo. After a dinner in the restaurant of a hotel that we had carefully selected on the merits of its promise to uphold western standards, I retired to the comfort room (known as restroom in the US, washroom in Canada) where I came face to face with a monstrosity that seemed to possess enough processor power to put a man on the moon. At some point during the delivery I casually decided to try out some of the functions and pushed a button. A voice full of urgency came from the speakers, but the message was in Japanese so I ignored it. A moment later I felt a jet of lukewarm water shoot up my rectum, while the seat began to turn with me on it, locked in uninterruptible pose and slowly reciting the Dutch swearwords I had recently acquired.

Symbols for toilets in Poland.
One means men, the other means women.
 The first half of this present decennium I found myself stranded it Poland. One thing I learned over there was that the Polish language is specifically designed to have people misunderstand each other. And nowhere is this desire to confuse as blatantly displayed as on the doors of toilets. Where every other culture in the world shows symbols that will at once remind any visitor of men and women, the Poles adorn their toilet doors with a triangle and a circle. One is for men and the other is for women but which symbol goes with which gender, nobody knows.

Having grown morose of maturing, whenever I am in Poland I now enter whichever door is closest, and if I see a woman in there I simply yell, “You’re in the wrong room, dummy!” That usually clears the confusion.

I also still crap in the Mediterranean when I’m in France.


  1. My Worst Toilet experience - Bergamot, Italy earlier this year! Portable Potty not covered properly! Not a nice view!!!!
    Also thought the toilets in Vatican Museum would at least have seats. Bathroom at the Colloseum tiny - again a container with toilets in it - difficult to turn around! Bathrooms in Dubai Mall Awesome - of course!
    Brilliant - really had a good laugh reading this! A bit concerned about sea life in the Mediterean! :0)

  2. i quite had a few travels in Asia and some parts of Europe and i'm lucky i didn't have any confusing experience about the WC yet.

  3. The worst toilets ever seen from me are the Turkish. Bliaaak. When You are traveling in turkey try to find Luxury Hotel with normal EU Toilets

  4. He he ... that's funny. That is thrue aboute the toilets in Turkey.


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