I’m fascinated by how cultures handle the unavoidable daily needs of human beings; where did they sleep, how did they eat, and how did they pee. We’ll skip straight to the peeing, though where they slept and how they ate is also fascinating
The photograph comes from California, where they have a sense of humor. In Maine, in the 1950s, I was ushered to a little cabin which sported a wooden board with a hole in it over a very deep hole in the ground. Even today, friends maintain an Adirondack camp on a lake where they have no running water and no electricity, though they do have a big house. The outhouse is a twin holer with a smooth wooden board, much fancier than the one in Maine, situated on a hill above the lake, with a wide picture window and ample reading matter.
On a replica of an ancient ship in Roanoke, Virginia, I learned the meaning of the word “poop deck.” Very practical.
Older American homes had a water closet – I had one in my apartment in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though by the time I lived it had been converted to a cramped modernish bathroom. When it was a simple water closet, somebody had to remove the vessels and dump them somewhere, and that was the same for everyone from King Louis the XVI to the lowliest peasant. In the villages of Greece I was told that everyone had their favorite tree which they fertilized daily. The facilities in the ancient palace of Knossos on the island of Crete were stone benches with a steady stream of water flowing through a cleft in the stone. The water came from a source above the palace, so gravity kept it running all the time. There was no privacy, but there was good hygiene, even a couple of millennia b.c. It puzzled me that this simple engineering was not used elsewhere. We think we are so advanced, but it took us a few millennia to match the ancient Minoans for cleanliness.
In the British Court, the “Groom of the Stool” helped the king in this most intimate of functions. He obviously needed continuous and unimpeded access to the monarch, and was a powerful member of the Court.
In Vienna this year, my friends and I attended a concert in a gorgeous old church. Before the concert began I asked my Austrian friend where the bathroom was. “Churches don’t have bathrooms,” she said, “you only go there for mass, and that takes an hour.” “But what about choir practice and all the people who work here?” I asked. “There are toilets for them but in the back of the church.”
An usher told me, “There are toilets in the university across the street.” Where in the university? The performance was so exceptional that it was no problem.The Austrians must be evolving into a race with large bladders.
Broadway theatres were notorious for their paucity of toilets, with long lines causing many people to miss the opening of the second act. Now there are dozens of stalls, and I am wondering what people did in the old days. They must have felt the need to relieve themselves as frequently as modern people do, or have our bladders lost their mojo? Perhaps they carried little containers. The recent tv series about spies during the revolutionary war, Turn, had a party scene where servants stood at either side of a stairway in the hall with urinals in their hands. The guests would take a urinal and go find a corner somewhere to lift their skirts, or pull down their pants, to pee. I said to myself, “Aaaah, that’s how it was done” when the coiffed and gowned beauty, Mrs. Benedict Arnold, lifted her many skirts to relieve herself, then turned in the urinal to the servant in the hallway. I appreciated their including this scene.
There are fortress toilets everywhere – places where you need a key, or a password to get in. One such was at the MacDonald’s on the Graben in Vienna – baffled people wandered back and forth, sharing the secret – a pass code — to get in. One woman who had the code pulled me in behind her.
One public pissoir in Europe had a door that closed after every use to allow an automatic cleansing spray, followed by a noisy drying process. It only takes a minute. That was a good idea, but I was apprehensive about entering. What if I pressed the wrong button and got sprayed myself, or got caught inside – I couldn’t even figure out how to access the toilet – did I just step in, would the door close behind me automatically? A passing pedestrian explained it to me.
The bidet is one of mankind’s more compassionate inventions. I didn’t know what it was the first time I saw it and tinkered or a while without understanding its purpose. An American friend in Greece told me that the first time he saw one, he pooped in it, then he and the French ambassador stood at the door of the stall regarding his handiwork, trying to figure out how to remove it.
The bidet in Venice was a bowl with a faucet that ran like water in a sink. What good is that? It was excellent for washing one’s feet. The French kind has an upward-spreading spray which performs more efficiently. I understand that the cosmopolitan Jackie Kennedy insisted on having one installed in her New York apartment, though that may be a rumor.
In the Zurich airport, there is a sign “rest room” but behind the door is stairway, then another stairway. Three flights up is the toilet. This is a challenge for people with baggage; my husband and I went separately so one could stay behind to guard the luggage. I didn’t locate a handicap toilet, though surely there was one.
In the ladies room of the super luxurious restaurant, La Terrazza del Casino, in Madrid, you will find not only soft music and lovely décor, but also a toothbrush and toothpaste and a sweet little towel. I stole an extra toothbrush and toothpaste because they were cleverly designed – something you could pop into your purse. It is people like me who cause restaurants to discontinue such amenities.
We have advanced past the days in renaissance England where a person in a hurry would go into a tavern and find a dark corner in the basement to relieve himself. Imagine what those places smelled like. Imagine what the streets smelled like with horse poop on the cobblestones and human waste flowing in the streetside sewers.
Sometimes it is hard to figure out how to flush. Airplanes have a plaque you push and there is a little explosion of water. Europeans have round flushers, divided into two parts – two-thirds of the plaque is the place you push for large deposits, the smaller luna is for little stuff. In the mountains of Vermont I heard, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” There are chains to pull, handles to pull upward or push downward, buttons on various parts of the toilet, and I haven’t yet visited Japan, where there is a whole set of instructions to use the toilet, or so I am told.
The champion toilet name is “The Great Niagara,” the name of my toilet in Athens, Greece in the 1960s.
The award for the most beautiful rest room (Americans are so puritanical – they say “rest room” or “ladies/men’s room” or “bathroom,” as if anyone took a bath there. Elsewhere, they are inclined to say “toilet,” or “toilette” or whatever) goes to the restaurant Boulez in New York City. That restaurant is closed now, and I have deleted my photographs of the ladies room. It will live on in my imagination.