Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bathroom break

One of the things I love most about travel and the main reason I wanted to get my kids to Spain is the way it broadens your understanding of the whole human race. If you always stay in one place, it’s easy to think that there’s only one way of doing things: the way you’ve always done them. But once you travel to a foreign country, you get to see that in other parts of the world, there are millions of people who eat totally different foods (and are accustomed to a totally different olive oil to potato ratio), they swim in a different language sea, they have different attitudes about public transportation or footwear or the amount of major appliances you can miniaturize and squeeze into a kitchen the size of an average pantry back home. In other words, there’s more than one way to flush a toilet.

And that’s literally what we learned in Spain. I saw so many different ways to flush a toilet on our trip it became a running joke. Each time we’d stay somewhere new or have to ask a waiter for directions to “Los Servicios” I’d play "Okay friends, how do you flush this toilet?’” I began taking my camera in with me to public restrooms. I can only assume this caused a fair amount of confusion to people in the stalls next to me. Can you imagine it? The flush followed by a short pause and then a sudden flash of light.

Yes, I became somewhat of a toilet tourist, a restroom reporter, a john junkie.

So here’s one of the recuerdos I brought home from Spain: my little collection of toilet photos. I'm just being realistic. While traveling, it seems we spent an inordinate amount of time searching for bathrooms, waiting in line for bathrooms, using bathrooms, and then talking about the odd discoveries we made in said bathrooms. It seemed appropriate to chronicle that part of the experience.

Here's a fairly standard little number from the Madrid Airport. The flusher is the large button half-way up the wall, which--when nearly every other toilet you've ever flushed in your life has a fairly innocuous little lever on the side of the tank--seemed ultra fancy and dramatic (does it summon airport security? will an alarm sound? am I launching a nuclear weapon?).

This one's from our apartment in Madrid. The flusher is a button you push on the top of the tank, which makes it easy to find. But take a look at a detail shot...

...the mystery being: what exactly is the difference between a "sun flush" and a "moon flush?"

Just when you get complacent and start thinking, "Hey, I can handle this one because I have cleverly deduced there's a button on the back of the tank" you find that the button simply will NOT be pushed. You press it multiple times and nothing happens. You're feeling like a stupid tourist, helpless in the bathroom, completely flummoxed by a plumbing fixture, wishing there were such a thing as a World-Wide Toilet Translation Phone App. You're about to call for backup when you think to pull on the knob instead of pushing it and thankfully discover that all it takes is a gentle upward tug to do the job. Sheesh. You have failed another IQ test.

This may have been the fanciest flusher I saw. Another "launcher" on the wall in a restaurant near Madrid's Plaza Mayor. But this time there are two rectangle panels and as far as my highly professional journalistic sleuthing could determine (i.e. multiple flushings) both panels seemed to accomplish the same thing. I still haven't figured this one out. Clearly I was not the only confused one because in the empty stall next to mine, one of the rectangles was permanently indented and water was swooshing down the drain, spinning furiously in some kind of eternal flush mode .

I encountered this no-nonsense, utilitarian job at the Reina Sophia art museum, a rather appropriate setting considering the fixture's totally post-modern exposure of the sign/signifier relationship. Here's the plumbing that takes you from flusher to things in need of flushing. No need to wrap things up in the illusion of detachment.

Okay, this one is from the Palacio Real and yes, I know we've seen the missile launcher variety before, but I wonder if you're noticing a trend here... Have you seen how every bathroom comes equipped with a huge garbage can? These are not your discrete letter-boxes attached to the side of the stall wall for your occasional convenience. No m'am, they are heavy-duty, tight-lidded garbage cans large enough to swallow small children. And if you think you've guessed their purpose you're only half right because they're not just in the ladies' bathrooms.

The large garbage can phenomenon led to no small amount of conjecture on our part, especially when we encountered signs like this one that--in addition to indicating that any use of the toilet is explicitly banned--seemed to strengthen our suspicions that we were not supposed to be flushing anything, including toilet paper, down the pipes.

Ahem. Moving on...

While playing "How do you flush this toilet?" I encountered a few truly baffling challenges such as this one. It took me several minutes to finally decide that the only recourse was to plunge my hand into the tank and pull on random pieces of plastic until flushing resulted. Much handwashing ensued.

At our Pension in Barcelona, it took a full-scale search around the toilet and up and down the walls to discover the pull chain hanging from the ceiling (we had to train Gabie to step up on the toilet to reach it). Also, you know you're in Spain when the bathroom is so narrow that you have to turn sideways and inhale to squeeze your way down to the toilet, BUT naturally there's room for a bidet.
In Granada, outside the lovely monastery we visited, there's a bathroom where for the first time, the mystery was not how to flush the toilet. Instead, the mystery was...can you find it?...where on earth have they hidden the toilet paper? In fact, not only was there no toilet paper, there was no dispenser on which to ever hang toilet paper. To get toilet paper, you had to buy it from the tiny, scowling, wrinkled old lady whom you passed on the way into the bathroom and only fully appreciated on your way out. Thankfully, I always enter bathrooms fully prepared (just the basics: extra tissue, pen and paper for taking notes, camera equipment...) so I didn't have to pay the lady for toilet paper. But I really, really wish I had plucked up the courage to ask if I could pay her to pose for a picture. She was a true cultural gem.

Thus ends our tour of Spanish toilets. And again, my point was that it's refreshing to see that sometimes there are a hundred different ways to accomplish a task and none of them are wrong and all of them get the job done eventually. I think my kids learned this lesson in Spain. They learned to open their minds to new ideas, learned to welcome different perspectives, learned to be a little less ethnocentric. They learned that we're all unique and not everything has to be done the American way.

Thank goodness.


Klutzmom said...

So glad to see another Spain episode.
It brought back lots of memories. One of our "favorites" in a campground near Versailles, France was the stall with a square on the floor with a hole in the middle and two places outlined for your feet to go. We learned the hard way that if you pulled the flush chain before you stepped off and squeezed between the square and the door, the water swirled up around your feet before it swished down the hole. Maybe it was designed as a combination footbath/toilet.

Allysha said...

This is hilarious! And so European.

In France, on my mission, the goal was to know where the free toilets were...(usually at a McDonalds).

theclan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LaughingElk said...

Perhaps your mystery two-button toilets are "dual flush" toilets that use different amounts of water depending on...uh...what you are flushing.

I've heard of these being used in Australia, perhaps they are spreading.

Maybe the reason the buttons aren't labled is the manufacturer could not come up with a pair of tasteful icons that would convey their use in a non language-specific way.

Or maybe they were just being artsy.

Michemily said...

I have lived in Germany for 3 years. We have toilets like that too. The bigger button is for "number two" and the smaller is for "number one." The buttons that tilt are so you can stop the water early to save water. Every time I'm in America I'm surprised because there is so much water in the toilets and you can't control how much water gets flushed. It seems like a waste to me.

Daniel said...

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edj said...

How funny. We just moved back to the US and I'm used to all the toilets you just described so well and yet it took me days to remember that here, the little lever on the side is where it's at. Sigh...
And Arab toilets never (ok rarely) have TP. Bring your own or drip dry. Another reason to wear pantiliners when traveling. Am I really about to share that? Can I be anonymous?

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