By Bob Schwabach
Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer
I felt the need soon after I entered the bathroom downstairs from the restaurant in Malaga, Spain.
There were all sorts of guide books to Europe–far too many guide books, in fact. But not one of them dealt with a basic problem certain to be encountered by every single traveler, young or old, of whatever nationality. I tentatively decided to call it “Where To Go In Europe” — in homage to a previous, mere local, guide book of two decades ago: “Where To Go In London.”
This was a superbly practical book, giving directions, hours of availability, and a rating to every public bathroom of any note in the London area. I remember that the public room in Victoria Station were given three-and-a-half pissoirs, and drew the rave comment: “A veritable symphony of public hygiene.” (Though I understand from more recent visitors that Victoria Station has definitely gone downhill since then, and it is now questionable whether it is even worth rating.)
There was a time for all these musings, and much more, because when I entered the stall of the bathroom downstairs from the restaurant in Malaga, in southern Spain, the handle came off in my hand.
Now this bathroom was in most ways no different from an ordinary American public bathroom, and in my proposed guide of “Where To Go In Europe” it would not rate so much as a single pissoir, nor even a paper towel epaulet.
It did have some peculiarities, however. The walls of the stall were tiled concrete and went floor to ceiling. The door was louvered steel and had no more than a six-inch air gap top and bottom — and it had clicked solidly shut when the handle came off in my hand.
Time passed. It was not a popular bathroom.
I ruminated on what a large field had been uncovered here. Most Americans on the first trip abroad have already been prepared, from hearing the tales of earlier travelers, for the open-air sidewalk toilets that are found all over Paris and most other cities in western Europe. These are surrounded by a
circular shield which obscures the user from about the knees to the chest. Thoughtfully it permits those inside to continue conversations with friends outside and even strike up new ones with chance passers-by.
But few Americans are prepared for a similar outdoor toilet found all over Italy. These are just the same as the French ones except the circular shield has been omitted and the whole is open to public view.
They are many of them an ancient and venerable affairs and the Italians call them Vespasianos, after the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who ordered them built.
It seems Vespasian had come on hard times tax-wise, a problem common to many governments in many times, and hit on the idea of building public toilets and charging a penny for their use. The toilets were put up completely unshielded so the tax collector could readily observe when they were being used or not.
The tax was a total failure as the wily Italians proved adept at clutching their togas tight about them and claiming that, in fact, they had been doing nothing more than standing there and staring at this thing trying to figure out what it was. For Vespasian–Lord of the Earth, Favored of the Sun,
General of all the Legions — it is the only thing history remembers him for.
In the Cafe Catalonia in the Casbah in Tangiers I first encountered a much more interesting toilet of a general design that is found, with local modifications, in a semi-circular belt that stretches across North Africa, through Turkey, and into Europe by way of Greece, Yugoslavia and Romania– the route of the Ottoman conquerors.
This is a structure much like a shower stall, with a floor of bare concrete containing a drain and two low platforms in the shape of feet. In some variations the footprint treadles are sunken instead of raised.
Considerable athletic prowess is required to operate these toilets successfully. Two handgrips are attached to the wall and one, if one is a man, lowers the trousers and clutches them between the knees while leaning backward holiding onto the handgrips. The tricky part comes when you’re finished and ready to leave.
The flush, you see, is overhead. That is, the water to flush the whole affair comes from a point directly over your head.
The pants are pulled up and fastened or clutched with one hand as best one can. Still holding on with the other hand, you reach up and pull the overhead flush. You then must move very quickly, because the water will come down immediately. The hand released from the flush darts forward and grasps the door handle, throwing the door open while the other arm simultaneously pulls hard on the offside handgrip so as to catapault oneself forward into the room and out of the way before the water comes down. You soon get the hang of it. I would sit in this cafe with friends and occasionally, when the conversation lagged, we would turn our chairs slightly and watch the various gentlemen of different nationalities rocket across the room as they left the toilet.
Pinwheeling and turning, executing neat box steps, and brief piouettes, some still clutching their pants, some not, each seemed to have his own individual style. I remember seeing an English lady drop her chin into her fruit cup once as a French dentist came out and right past her table as if shot out of a gun.
I was moving on to the consideration of German and Scandinavian toilets when someone entered the bathroom downstairs from the restaurant in Malaga, in the Province of Malaga, in the sunny south of Spain.
I hammered on the door and stated my position in three languages.
The man spoke only Spanish and mine was unfortunately insufficient to explain the complete complexities of the problem. The phrase book didn’t seem to cover the situation. Fortunately I had a pen and paper and asked him to take it to the head waiter. It said, quite simply:
“HELP! THERE IS AN AMERICAN IN YOUR BATHROOM.”
Finally a small group arrived whose number I could not accurately determine since they kept shifting their feet. They tried the outside handle. It turned but did not engage the catch. They suggested I replace my handle in the socket and try it. I did so again and as before, it also turned but did not engage the catch. Everyone left.
Time passed. After a week or two some people came back and this time they had brought with them an English girl, the only customer in the place who could speak English and also fluent Spanish. “They have sent a locksmith,” she said.
“It is a thing devoutly to be desired,” I said.
“You’re American, aren’t you,” she said.
“You’re English, aren’t you,” I said.
“How did you ever get yourself into such a fix.”
“Well, is there anything I can do for you?”
I thought about this for a minute. I had gone down to the bathroom just after ordering dinner and had been absent what by now must be a considerable time.
“Yes,” I said. “Could you please tell the waitress to hold the soup.”