In the summer of 2012, my wife, Stacey, and I traveled to Europe for a 19-day vacation. We planned and executed the trip ourselves, and Wyandotte’s own was outstanding in helping us book our transportation and lodging needs. The following is a real story from that trip…well, however real a story can be based on my memories and travel journal entries.
I waited in front of the closed door. The slot above the door handle was red. I had left my wife sleeping comfortably in her seat; I had been able to minimize my movement when making my way to the bathroom. The water and coffee the train attendants had served me had worked their way through my body quickly enough that I would both ingest and jettison them on this train.
Pressure built and I became impatient. I wondered what was taking the person inside so long. Universal bathroom etiquette, I always thought, was if there’s only one unisex bathroom available, you must rush your business. Apparently the W.C.’s current occupant did not live by the same code.
To pass time, I wondered if it was a man or a woman inside. I guessed a man. Then I wondered what nationality this man was, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to verify upon this person exiting. Gender I’d get right nine times out of ten I hoped. Nationality based solely on looks would prove trickier. I would at least need them to talk to pick up a different language or an accent. I didn’t count on any type of communication, but I humored myself to keep my mind off the discomfort below my waistline.
There was a good chance he was Italian, being that this train was travelling from Switzerland to Italy. But then again, he could be Swiss. Also a good chance he was American or Japanese on this train for the same reason I was.
I went with the odds and decided the person inside the bathroom was an Italian male. I still, however, had plenty of time to debate the issue.
As I moved past the gender and nationality guessing game, I wondered how long this person had been in the bathroom before I left my seat. I hadn’t seen anyone enter. The possibility of no one being in there crossed my mind. Maybe the door was locked because the toilet was out of service. Maybe there was someone in there and that person required medical attention. I became physically and emotionally uncomfortable.
The slot above the door handle finally went from red to green. My emotional distress subsided, and I found comfort in knowing my physical discomfort wasn’t far behind it.
The door opened and a stocky, middle-aged man walked out. He was wearing a dull Hawaiian shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and sandals. At the sight of his bucket hat I wondered if this train would wind up in Naples instead of Napoli. His outfit flaunted stars and stripes. His face flashed panic and frustration.
He looked at me as if he wanted to cry but not because he was sad. His concerned eyes were filled with sorrow like he was a veterinarian coming out to tell me he put my cat to sleep. He held his arms out to the side, elbows bent, and shrugged his shoulders. He spoke, sort of. He was trying to communicate with me, but his words were inaudible, single-syllable noises.
“English?” I asked.
I was getting more information from his body language. He pointed to the toilet and finally spoke an intelligible word: “No.”
He then mumbled, “Sorry.” His accent was undetectable, but at this moment I realized the problem. He was embarrassed.
The practice of using a restroom in Europe can be a confusing, uncomfortable experience for Americans who are used to consistency. In America, the only thing we worry about in public restrooms is cleanliness. If a bathroom is up to our standards, we don’t have to worry about anything else. The only questionable part of using a public restroom is how we dry our hands: paper towels, blow dryers, turbo jet blow dryers, your own pants, or those reusable revolving towels- which, by the way, are not up to my standard of cleanliness.
There are just as many different types of toilets in Europe as there are languages, and just because you’re familiar with one doesn’t mean you’ll understand another. Two toilets in the same hotel can even be completely different. We take the knowledge of flushing a toilet for granted. A toilet can have the handle on the back, which is what we are used to, but that is very uncommon. It can also have a button on the tank, sometimes the button can be on the wall above the toilet. Even the button functions can be different: sometimes the toilet will continue to flush until you push it again. Some toilets have two buttons: a big one and a small one to use depending on what needs to be flushed. Sometimes the toilet tank is high above the toilet and a chain hangs down from that in which you pull to flush. Other toilets have foot pedals on the ground next to the toilet. Not uncommon, sometimes there is no toilet at all, just a simple hole in the floor.
The man on the train was ashamed. He’d done his business but didn’t know how to outsource. He mumbled “sorry” one last time and returned to his seat, leaving me with his problem.
I held my breath and slowly peaked inside. I squinted my eyes like I was watching a horror film, ready to fully close them at the first site of a grotesque creature making a surprise jump from the swamp. Between my eyelids, I noticed the toilet was down. I felt reassured and opened my eyes. The man who was here before me may not have been technologically advanced, but at least he was courteous.
I looked around the bathroom. There were no flushers above the toilet and no foot pedals on floor. The man’s apologetic look was etched in the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t hold out much longer, but I dared not open that lid. A stranger left me a stinker of a puzzle that I did not feel obligated to solve. I decided to go to the next train car and try my luck there.
As I swung around to leave the bathroom, I noticed a small red button nowhere near the toilet on the opposite wall about two feet above the floor. There were no words or pictures on or around it. This must be the flusher. I leaned in to push it but hesitated. It was too small and out of place to be a flusher. Could it be an emergency button? What if it calls a train attendant and who thinks I’m the one who left my scrap? What if by pushing the button I bring the train to a screeching halt?
This was nonsense. I pushed the button.
A loud suction came from the depths of the toilet and it flushed. I was relieved so I pushed it again. Then I relieved myself.
As I was washing my hands, I wondered if the man did too. Perhaps he had forgotten in the midst of his hunt for a flusher. His bathroom ritual was thrown off. He panicked, apologized, and then scurried away in humiliation. It was a dreadful experience for him and I could only feel empathy. I happened to find the oddly placed flusher by chance. I could have easily been the terrified American tourist stuck in a bathroom while another traveler stood on the other side of my only exit.