Toilets and tourism

When my older sister visited Europe, she brought back samples of toilet paper from places she had visited. Our mother, always insistent on saving a few pennies wherever possible, only purchased generic or store brand toilet paper. But even the “no frills” stuff was the epitome of softness and comfort compared to what looked more like a piece of purple crepe paper.

When I later spent a year in Spain, and traveled around western Europe during Christmas break, I also picked up samples of toilet paper (and napkins, sugar packets, paper placemats from inexpensive restaurants, anything I thought would be of interest to my future Spanish students back in the States). Some were the crepe paper variety (our landlady in Valencia purchased blue rolls of the stuff, and left a note on the wall in the bathroom telling us it was not to be used for blowing our noses – as though my nose would like that texture any more than my bottom did). Others looked – and felt – more like the brown paper towels that are provided for drying our hands in the restrooms at my workplace.

I was rather disappointed that my students thought I was merely weird to have kept such souvenirs. (I didn’t even try to tell them about how you were supposed to tip an attendant to use a public restroom – sometimes it was the only way to obtain toilet paper – and the anxiety I felt in a new country about how much was expected.) Didn’t they have any curiosity about how people live in other cultures? To me, studying a language was the perfect avenue into learning about how people around the world are the same or different from us.

After all, what is more universal than our need to relieve ourselves, yet less often discussed? Food, houses, and clothing get lots of attention – books and magazines, critical reviews, shows and competitions, and awards. Sex can be a taboo topic in some settings, but there’s no lack of books, magazines, and movies dedicated to the subject. But unless you are in the plumbing business or involved in building or remodeling homes, or perhaps a cultural anthropologist, you probably don’t either read or talk about toilets much.

I was surprised, doing a google search on “toilet tourism,” that I got as many hits as I did. A blog called Toilet Tourism actually was my number one hit, though it hasn’t been updated in over a year, and the pictures I did see were only minor variations on the sort of public restrooms most of us are familiar with. A rather different sort of “toilet tourism” actually has more to do with sex than with restroom facilities – and is, I hope, old news kept alive only by the vast storage and search capacities of the internet.

But most of the hits, while they had to do with toilets and with tourists, were not about toilets as a tourist attraction in and of themselves. (Clean toilets are of course a plus for any tourist destination.) I had to switch my search to “famous toilets” to find the story I had seen highlighted today under Strange News at my ISP’s homepage.

The idea of going to see toilets because they were famous struck me as silly. I’ve never thought that a celebrity’s having visited a place or used an object made it any more interesting than those used by ordinary people. Just last week I had seen a news item (also under Strange News, which I often look at for amusement after reading the more important and usually disheartening national and world news) about the sale of John Lennon’s toilet for $14,740. (Actually it’s a very pretty piece of porcelain, much more suited to use as a planter than what it was made for.)

But the story that caught my attention today, and started me writing this post, was about a tour that I actually would be interesting in taking, if I happened to be a tourist in Berlin. I couldn’t imagine, initially, that there could be too many famous toilets in Berlin (after all, Hitler’s toilet is apparently in a New Jersey auto repair shop – if you didn’t read it yet, check out that link about John Lennon’s toilet). But this tour includes a history lesson “of the toilet’s development from biblical times to the present day” and visits to “toilets ranging from the oldest and most primitive to the newest and most technical.”

When I visited Switzerland as part of a study abroad program (we all started together for an orientation week plus some tourism, prior to going our separate ways to France, Spain, or Germany), we visited Château de Chillon. I remember very little of the castle, except for one detail – the toilets. Located on one of the higher stories, they were little more than holes in the stone floor, but they had the distinct advantage (compared to your typical outhouse) that they emptied into the lake far below. Hardly sanitary, but better than dumping it in the street. We did think that it would have been very cold to use that arrangement in the winter, though…

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One Response to Toilets and tourism

  1. modestypress says:

    Several years ago I read an interesting book that you might enjoy: Return to Laughter. It’s a novel in the form of a memoir of an American anthropologist living as the only white woman in an African village. As the author was an American anthropologist who lived in Nigeria, I suspect the novel is based on real experiences.

    When she first moves into the village and is directed to the bathroom facilities, she is puzzled. Eventually, she realized the custom was to squat rather than sit on a seat as Americans do.

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