From the past and Deep Things, I revert to something more contemporary and lighthearted. Both my mom and the great Cheri Crystal have, on separate occasions, spoken of writing the trials of a North American traveler in search of what Canadians call washrooms.
Before I go on, I'll address the question of whether it is appropriate to write about "loos" at all. The human need to eliminate is not really something we want to read or talk about. Yet it is a necessary part of life, at least as much as food or sex. Based on a lot of what gets published or posted nowadays, people want to read endlessly about the human body in other positions. Without going into gory details, may I just point out that in the absence of a toilet, the Westerner accustomed to such gets gradually uncomfortable. Given long enough discomfort, it becomes difficult to focus on anything else--the sights of Berlin or the scintillating conversation of one's fellow travelers.
Erma Bombeck, the American humorist, once wrote a column on the subject of European pay toilets: "Your kidneys are destroyed for a lousy dime!" The fact is, women, and in particular North American women, are up a certain creek when traveling on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Europeans, it seems, do not require toilets, or do not require them very often, so it doesn't occur to them to make them available to other people except for a fee. Heaven help you if you don't have 30 p and, well, have to.
I say "women" because men, not to cast aspersions on any of them individually, don't seem to require toilets at all. I base this observation both on the fact that I have never seen a line for the men's room in any country in the world (have you?) but also on the equation of any convenient public place, like the stairs to my local train station, with a urinal. It's not nice for the rest of us, but sometimes I envy those guys.
Because it is not enough for a woman finally to find a washroom, and scrape up the money to pay for it. She then has to stand in a "queue" while the lucky woman who got there first, and is currently occupying the toilet, crimps her eyelashes, finishes the book she was reading, and blow drys her hair. Public toilets are generally so disgusting that I, personally, would never spend a second inside that I didn't have to, but I find I'm alone in this preference. All a woman has to do is get in the bathroom ahead of other women and it's screw you, sister, I'm in this for myself. Time to count every coin in my purse in case of another toilet somewhere else!
There are, of course, exceptions. There are bathrooms so nice you don't have to hold your breath while you wash your hands, like most of the ones on board the ship we were on recently. All credit for these go to the cleaners, and I really mean this, because I worked as a cleaner once. People in general leave public bathrooms in a state that defies belief--unless you, too, have had the misfortune to work as a cleaner, you would not believe it either. It's a common human failing not to give a stuff about the mess we leave behind unless we are the ones who have to clean it up. See pollution, etc.
The one good thing about being in desperate enough need is that you don't really care what state the bathroom is in. Just get in, get out, move on. We were in Padua, Italy, and most of the people traveling with us were spending their entire free time standing in a line at the cathedral of St. Anthony--the toilet line, not the line to view the saint's tomb or receive communion. I made a mad dash to a café to buy a bottle of water, which would have continued the cycle of needing the bathroom had it not been so dehydrating outdoors, and then found the ladies' room. (Despite my somewhat butch appearance, this was a perfectly safe thing to do on the continent. I've never been confronted as a dangerous male at the door of a ladies' room outside Anglo-America--but that's another column.)
There was no line. I was greatly relieved, no less so upon my discovery that this toilet was a Turkish-style hole in the floor. It helps to have learned (from years in the public schools) never to sit down.
I could not suppress a smug smile when I, very rapidly, emerged to find a small cluster of women behind me, all totally flummoxed about what to do. They gave up and did not form a line.
Oh yeah. Always, wherever you go in the world, always carry tissues with you. And small change. Someday you'll thank me for this.