Saturday, January 28, 2006

There is, no doubt, any number of blogs written by expatriats and college kids studying abroad devoted to explaining the quirky mannerisms and cultural oddities (complete with pics) of their adopted countries. Here at dotde, however, we like to push the limits of such blogging by going where other bloggers fear to tread. Namely, the German bathroom.

To begin with, "bathroom" and "toilet" are not interchangeable in German the way they are in English. For example, you've just flown into München from JFK airport and naturally your first stop is the famous Hofbrauhaus. After a hearty German meal and three Maße, you waddle over to the nearest waiter and test out your German skills by asking "Entschuldigung, wo ist das Badezimmer?" ("excuse me, where is the bathroom?"). The waiter will most likely stare at you with mild amusement while you begin to do a little dance as the three Maße in your lower abdominal region make their presence known. After a few moments, though, he'll respond in perfect English "down the hall, first door on the left." In fact, he has politely ignored the fact that you've just asked where the bath room is, as though you feel a need to take a shower before returning to your table to order another round of beer.

So, lesson 1: Always ask for "die Toilette" or "das WC" (water closet).

Lesson 2: A tiny cave to youself.

I can't speak for men's bathrooms (perhaps J! might like to give you the details) but Germans have taken "water closet" literally. Stalls here are, in fact, tiny, tiled closets. No cheap metal partitions held together by dilapidated screws, no looking under the stall door to check and see if it is occupied, and no passing toilet paper under the partition. There are no partitions. There are just individual rooms and floor to ceiling doors. If you were accidentally locked in, they'd have to bring in a wrecking ball to get you out again.

Lesson 3: You use, you pay.

By "public restroom," I really mean "bathrooms that anyone can use if they have 50 Euro cents." Most toilets in Germany (and elsewhere in Europe) require that you pay to use them and the fee varies from 20 Euro cents to a whole Euro. Typically, pay toilets have an attendant on staff who cleans the restroom, keeps it stocked, etc. For example, the Hofbrauhaus in München has a woman who stands near the sinks and after you leave the stall, she darts in and spritzes the whole place with antiseptic cleaner. This is a bit unnerving, but after your third Maß you don't really notice anymore. You also don't notice that you've given her a 2 Euro coin instead of the 20 Euro cents you meant to, but this is a minor detail.

There are some exceptions to the pay restrooms--most restaurants do not require you to pay. And, of course, bathroom use at McDonald's is generally free (provided you have a receipt). Some bathrooms do not have an attendant but you still have to pay to get in. These restrooms will often have a turnstile at the door, as though you are entering an amusement park or high security bank.

Lesson 4: Big flush or little flush?

It used to be, in Europe, that public restrooms were a bit of a rarity. Well, public restrooms as we Americans are familiar with. Many women's bathrooms, for example, used the old "squat" method and basins were few and far between. This has changed and in most places in Europe toilets are very common (particularly places where tourists are likely to visit). In Germany, however, the toilet has progressed so far as to give you a number of choices, turning the restroom into a daily experience of self-determination. Instead of the outdated one-size-flush fits all, many German toilets come with two buttons, one large and one small. I leave it to your vivid imaginations to come up with the reason for this, but I will say that the buttons are typically tastefully designed. My university, for example, employs a triangular structure, with the small button at the tip of the triangle. The restrooms at the train station, however, go for more of a lopsided Venn diagram approach.

Lesson 5: Clean up after yourself.

Every single public restroom I've used in Germany comes equipped with a toilet brush. A WC with twelve separate toilet stalls will have twelve toilet brushes.

They aren't there for decoration.

Lesson 6: Smoking is not prohibited.

In fact, it is somewhat encouraged. That's right, for those of you who are serious chain smokers, who accidentally lit a cigarette before recognizing another, more urgent need, or who simply like to multi-task, then Germany is the place for you! Many bathroom stalls come specially equipped with an ashtray built into the wall, within easy reach.

Also, one final note. I have yet to see that ubiquitous bathroom sign, "All employees must wash their hands before returning to work." Either German employees have tidier habits than American workers or, more likely, they haven't yet been convinced that the sign makes it physically impossible for employees to leave the bathroom without washing their hands first.

Update: J!'s father thoughtfully brought the following picture to my attention, as evidence that J! should not be allowed, under any circumstances, to add his $.02 to any discussion concerning the use of WCs (or trees).


Anonymous Tracy J. said...

I found that if you just don't make eye contact, you can march straight through to the bathrooms at ALEX. ;-)

But an essay on German toilets with no mention of the poo-shelf?!?

- Tracy
American student in Mainz 2001/2002

4:13 AM

Blogger d said...

well, I didn't want to give away all Europe's secrets.

Good to know about ALEX. Really, tour guides should include a section on each town of where you can use the bathroom for free (or, where you can intimidate your way into not paying). I would find this very useful.

7:00 PM

Blogger j said...

Woah there, Tracy. I think you and your link have it all wrong. German toilets are meant to be ridden cowboy style, facing them "flushing reins"--all the controls within plain sight. Didn't you wonder why all the bathroom graffiti was always behind you?

It's not a "poo shelf" per se, but just a little device to stop the splashing from cowpoke #1.

6:07 PM

Blogger d said...

hmm . . . there was a line around here somewhere but, . . oh, no, it's already been crossed.

That said, if you'd like to donate an cowboy hat to dotde, J! has graciously agreed to photographically document how one rides a toilet "cowboy style."

6:27 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home