Every Toilet, An Adventure // Caroline Mays
You need to go to the restroom. In Europe, this alone is an adventure.
You will need to sit down for this.
London, UK – St. Pancras Station
You both got up early to walk the few blocks to Saint Pancras station. Once you get your Eurostar tickets, you have plenty of time before the train leaves. You wander the sunny station and sit down at Carluccio’s for breakfast. While you love pasta, that early in the morning, what you really crave is eggs with Earl Grey and cream. The two of you hold hands as you wait, enjoying the beautiful station and the unhurried breakfast before a train ride. The blue sky behind the glass and steel ceiling reminds you of a window-pane blouse. You admire the station’s white-arch designs on the red brick surrounding you. These are the moments that still make travel feel luxurious.
After a leisurely breakfast, you ask the waiter for directions to the “ladies’ room,” forgetting that you’re in Europe. The waiter pauses briefly, then nods and points you in the right direction. The toilets are three separate, unisex rooms with a large “WC” sign on each. You shut the door, turn towards the toilet and laugh. Above a clean, white toilet, the restaurant has posted a sign:
Please don’t flush
nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish
down this toilet.
You are in a vintage train car, built in 1915, en route from Montreux, Switzerland, up the mountain to Broc and Gruyere. While Montreux is on east side of the stunning shores of Lake Geneva, Broc and Gruyere are Medieval mountain villages. This train car, pulled by a modern engine, will take you up into the alps to visit the Cailler chocolate factory and the Gruyere cheese factory. You pass gorgeous green meadows, charming houses, tiny villages, and Swiss Chalets as you climb the goose-neck rails above the still, gray lake, obscured around the edges by the fog.
That morning, you took an early 7:30 a.m. train from Lausanne. You have always heard of Milano as being a fashion capital, but Lausanne is just as chic. It reminds you of a colder version of Monaco, as it is full of thin, blonde women and clean-cut men wearing sleek coats and spending fortunes on hair salons. No joke: there are coiffures every block in Lausanne, and you have yet to get your hair cut, because 80 Euros is quite a sum for a simple trim. You are not sure if walking around Lausanne makes you feel glamorous by association, or un-glamorous by comparison. Either way, it’s a city that is just as beautiful and charming as any in Italy—your favorite European country—and being Swiss, it is, of course, extremely organized. Trains run exactly on time. Employees always know exactly what you need or who else you can ask in order to find it. Toilets always have seats. At least, that’s how it is in the 21st Century.
The ornate Belle Epoque train car you sit in boasts cushioned seats and intricate detailing. The car attendants offer you croissants and hot chocolate in small paper cups. You sip the chocolate and take photos of the mountains and lake between the trees, around the rolling clouds of fog. After forty-five minutes, you get up to use the toilette.
The restroom itself is also vintage. You shut the wooden door behind you, and latch it. The old-fashioned lamp looks like it could belong on the wall in a beautiful old hotel like the Mission Inn or Chateau Marmont.
Yes—the toilet does have a seat. You tip the cover up.
Through the bowl, the train tracks whiz by.
You shut the cover.
Outside, you have passed pristine meadows and quaint houses with flower gardens. Any toilet paper you let go of above the bowl will go flying out underneath the train and about the countryside. You look around the room. They can’t be serious. The idea of littering is bad enough, but you will not litter used toilet paper. Not in this meadow. Luckily, your search turns up a small trash can under the sink.
You turn back to the toilet, tip the lid again and strip off two short lengths of paper to balance on the seat. As you touch the paper to the seat, you feel the air blowing out of the toilet bowl and realize that this is futile. The strips don’t stay on the seat for even a split second. Instead, you turn and squat over the seat. You try to ignore the steady gusts of cold air directed at your bum. Relax, you tell yourself.
You finish and zip up your pants. You shut the lid, lean over, and pick up the toilet paper on the floor. You bunch it up and push it into the trash can. Thankfully, there is running water in this restroom.
But it is out of soap.
You are finally back in your hotel after a long day out. You close the door and turn toward the toilet. The toilet is at the end of a very narrow bathroom. Lifting up your arms, you find that your elbows could touch each wall. The toilet at the end is not facing outwards, toward the tile, but sideways, toward the wall with toilet paper dispensers on it. You scoot in between the bowl and the wall with toilet paper dispensers. If you were much larger, this scooting would not work so well. When you sit down, your knees are three inches away from the wall, and the two toilet paper rolls jut out into your space, presenting themselves as would a headrest on a massage chair. You rest your forehead against them and consider sitting sideways next time.
Venice, Italy – La Zucca, on the edge of San Polo sestiere
You are remembering how difficult it can be to find shops and restaurants in Italy when the maps don’t include all the side streets and some establishments are listed only by the nearby campo. You are in Venice in the fall. You just arrived yesterday from Milan, and while Milan was very warm, Venice is strikingly chilly. The two of you have been wandering around the southern bank of the main canal, around Palazzo Mocenigo, for the last forty-five minutes. You are searching for La Zucca, an upscale vegetarian-friendly restaurant. This restaurant does happen to have an exact address—Santa Croce, 1762—but when your husband checked Google Maps yesterday, only the surrounding main streets were listed. The pin for La Zucca was stuck in the middle of an unmarked gray area.
The street map you bought at a cigar shop in Santa Lucia Stazione isn’t any more detailed, so once you found the general neighborhood, you’ve been asking shop owners every two blocks—“Buonasera, mi scusi, where is La Zucca ristorante? Santa Croce 1762? Per favore?”
As is typical in Italy, each shop owner confidently instructs us:
“Yes, of course! Go straight. Two streets,”
“La Zucca? 10 minutes walking, that way,”
“Left on next street, then right for five minutes.”
Each is equally sure of himself or herself; each is equally as misguided.
Finally, miraculously, you stumble upon Santa Croce and Osteria La Zucca, which shares a side with a small canal. The outside, with a small awning and chairs and tables on the street, looks like a traditional Italian osteria. Inside, however, it’s vibe is modern farm-to-table chic. The booths and tables are plain and un-clothed. The walls are made of thin slats, arranged diagonally, which harken to crates of fruits and vegetables. La Zucca’s logo is a sketch of a pumpkin, and inside, against the diagonal slats, small frames have been hung which feature squash-themed artwork.
The guests themselves look almost San Franciscan, rather than chic Italian. This restaurant, though not strictly vegetarian, certainly attracts a few from the hippie and hiking crowds. There are many North Face jackets and hiking boots mixed in with slacks and button-downs. The atmosphere feels decidedly more comfortable, welcoming, and less image-conscious than other eateries near St. Mark’s Square.
You sit in a booth near the kitchen, your back against a wine rack on the wall. Across from you, your spouse smiles at the menu. You order four smallish dishes to share: all squash-based and flavorful. Your husband talks again of the difficult vegetarian days, before chefs embraced the idea of cooking without meat as a challenge to master.
“Vegetarian food used to be so bland,” he says. “It took several years for chefs to realize that cutting out meat doesn’t mean butter, cheese, spices, and chili peppers are also out.”
You talk; you sip your water. Out the window on your left side, the dark water slips slowly down a small canal. A man in a coat paddles into view.
You excuse yourself and ask about the bagno.
The waitress points to a nearby wall. It has a huge, wide sliding door that’s almost invisible when not in use—like a secret passageway in a Bond movie or Nancy Drew novel. You take the handle and slide it open and shut behind you. It feels like entering a garage or storage unit.
The toilet bowl is wide—practically as wide as the door, and has no seat cover. You rip off some toilet paper and then lean lightly against the thin, sharp edge of the squared-off bowl. The porcelain gapes open behind you as the hood of a huge jacket, and you are thankful that you already took care of the other kind of business back at the hotel bathroom, where it was possible to sit for a few moments without drowning in the toilet water.
Venice, Italy – Doges Palace in St. Mark’s Square
You two have planned to spend the day in Saint Mark’s Square. You were just in Milan, where it was warm and sunny, but after a three-hour ride east, it has become overcast and quite chilly. You wander through St. Mark’s Basilica, looking up, up at the golden mosaics. You wander through the transept chapels and up the stairs to the mezzanine museum level to get a closer look at the biblical depictions, statues, columns, molding. Here, for preservation purposes, are kept the original four gilt copper horses created in the 3rd Century, and plundered from Constantinople in the 13th Century. Outside, you walk around the loggia, a balcony, looking up at the Byzantine domes and the bronze replicas of the four horses.
For lunch after the basilica, you stop into Caffé Florian, founded in 1720—the oldest coffeehouse in Italy. You two share a grilled vegetable sandwich, a dessert that was frozen, which you would not have ordered if you had realized that—as it was 45-50 degrees outside—and the Casanova: a delicious cup of hot chocolate with mint crème on the bottom. You have been telling everyone—that is, everyone who hasn’t already noticed—that your husband’s last name is a Frenchified version of Casanonva. This tickles everybody.
The café is filled with tourists sitting on the bench seats and eating at the small, bolted-down oval marble tables. Caffé Florian’s warm, opulent walls and ceiling are decorated with classical paintings, mirrors, and ornate gold designs; there is no bare space. Ladies in flowing robes look down on you over the bundles of flowers they carry. Others sit suspended in clouds. In the Chinese and Oriental rooms, Chinese men and couples pose together in front of trees and landscapes. Every inch of the walls and ceiling is completely covered with gilt-edge paneled glass, which protects the artwork and sparkles in the sunlight. You can see your reflection almost anywhere, and it reminds you of the beautiful decadence of the Versailles Hall of Mirrors. Outside, a small orchestra plays classical music, which is easily heard through the open windows.
Later in the afternoon, you walk across to the Doge’s Palace, whose state room ceilings look like so many thick, gold-framed paintings fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. It makes Caffe Florian’s decor look positively minimalistic. Next, you walk across the Bridge of Sighs and wander through the dungeons, imagining which one held Giacomo Casanova before his escape.
Back near the entrance to the palace, you find the signs for the bagnos. The palace is closing soon, and you end up following a group of a few other people towards the bathroom and in through the doorway, which then splits into two sides for men and women.
But a short-haired, older blonde custodian whirls around barking “Esci! Esci!” and shakes her broom at you.
You and the others scramble out of the restroom. The custodian blockades the doorway in her white uniform and continues pointing and chewing out the group in Italian.
The man who was in front of you yells back.
Everything is angry Italian and all you can understand is the “stupido” thrown back and forth. Finally, the yelling stops and you wonder who won. The custodian glowers at you all in the hallway, points at one person, jerks her thumb behind her, then puts her palm up in your faces to prevent any others from following. When someone leaves the restroom, turning sideways to quickly slip by her, the custodian points at the next person in front of you and then puts her hand up in your face again.
When it’s your turn, you close the door to the stall and find a toilet with an actual toilet seat, which is so worth getting screamed at in Italian or any language.
Italy, Florence – Boboli Gardens
Behind the Pitti Palace, one of your favorite museums, lay the Boboli Gardens. “Sprawl” is one of your favorite words to use to describe gardens, but it absolutely does not apply here. There is nothing unkempt, uneven, natural, or organic about the layout of this garden. Italian gardens of the 16th Century were carefully measured. The paths are all straight and often narrow, and always lined with buzz-cut bushes. While the garden extends forever—for a half mile in one direction—the maze of its high shrubs and the similarity of its walkways can sometimes induce feelings of claustrophobia.
This is not a flower garden, you were surprised to find the first time. Instead, when you exit the Pitti Palace courtyard, a huge green amphitheater welcomes you. Statues line the rounded, sloped pathways on either side, and at the top there is a large pond and fountain. From here, you can continue south, down the hill, through the shaded walkways, looking for the other sculptures, ponds, and fountains that will eventually come into view.
If you follow the gardens all the way down the hill, you may exit far to the south of the Arno, where the old city gate once stood. You’re looking forward to seeing Firenze’s old fortress walls. But first, a stop in the bagno at the wrought-iron gate that opens onto Via Guicciardini—one of the main streets.
An attendant at the gate gestures towards the small yellow building with the bathroom. It is a single. Your husband is a gentleman, but you shoo him in first because he had been on the lookout earlier than you had been.
The sun shines through the green leaves above you and casts fun patterns and shadows on the concrete. This section of the garden, with trees, and small vines, and a thin gate, feels more delicate and natural than the rest of the garden. There are fewer right-angles here.
“No toilet paper,” your husband announces when he opens the dirty, tan door.
No problem, there are three napkins saved in your pocket for such situations. It is Italy, after all.
Once you shut the door, you are confronted with what is, you will soon realize, a monstrosity.
It is a regular toilet, seat-less of course—C’est Italy! Italy! Italy!—and filthy.
You still haven’t seen an real issue and, of course, decide to squat over it so that none of your skin touches anything in the bathroom. You step in front of the toilet. Something doesn’t seem right. Still clothed, you look back and simulate a squat. Nope.
This toilet, this thing is elevated, stacked on small pedestal about 10 inches high. You’re tall, but this still makes it impossible to squat over it without touching the bowl, which you will certainly never do.
For a moment, you tell yourself you’ll stand on the pedestal, too, so that you will also gain 10 inches. But this pedestal, this home-made, redneck square pedestal only just surrounds the base of the toilet. Two tiny tile corners extend pass the round porcelain, but there isn’t enough surface area for you to balance on.
It’s a silly thing to do, but you glance around to confirm that there’s no paper. Then you turn back to the toilet and look at it from different angles, measure it against your leg. The edge of the bowl is well above your knee. It’s too high to use without clambering up on top of it, and the yellow stains and various streaks around the bowl are far too repulsive to overcome. You press your toes against the tile corner of the platform just to confirm that there is no grip. There’s no way to balance on only two toes.
You open the door and walk back out into the beautiful garden.
“No luck,” you say. “I guarantee you, there are no women tending this garden.”
Inside the hotel bathroom, there are several handles for the disabled in the shower and around the toilet. Very practical, for Europe.
However, when you sit down on the toilet, you find that the handle protrudes a half-a-foot out from the tile wall at shoulder-height. Because of this, you sit down, with your left arm draped over the handicapped handle, your knees and torso cockeyed, listing to the left. It’s your hotel, though, so there is soap and water.
Milano-Rho -- World’s Fair, Italy
You and your spouse walk down the street, heading towards the nearest Metro Station, which in twenty minutes will get you to the World’s Fair in Rho-Milan, on the edge of the city.
You pass several cafes, most not yet opened for lunch, and two huge, beautiful churches. You find the metro and walk down the stairs to the three biglietteria machines. You huddle at the first one, reading the instructions and instructional cartoons. It does not appear to take credit or debit cards. Sometimes there are separate machines for cash and cards, so that makes sense. You move one over and start working through the screens. You select two one-way tickets to Rho-Milan and dip your card. And dip your card. And dip your card—
Okay, fine, you will just use cash. You were just at the ATM yesterday afternoon, so you each have notes twenties. When you look at the instructional cartoons on the machines, you see they indicate that the machine only takes one, five, and ten euro notes. You find one five euro note between the two of you, which is just enough to cover the trip. You slide it into the feeder, but the machine won’t take it. You turn it around, flip it over, but still the machine rejects it.
The third machine is dead. Kaput—er, rotto. Not even a light behind the screen.
You both head back upstairs to the street. It’s an odd hour—not quite lunchtime. A few cafes are open, but they don’t have takeaway service and you don’t plan to sit. There aren’t many shops around, either. Finally, you find a waiter willing to trade you five coins for the bill. You thank him and make your way back towards the station.
Underground, you find the one machine that works and proceed to stuff it with the coins you just spent 20 minutes looking for. The machine happily processes the coins and ejects your tickets for you. Next to you, at the other machines, a French family has stopped a short, stout woman with a very tight ponytail. The French family gesticulates in exasperation at the biglieterra machines. The stout woman replies to them a number of times before she finally shrugs: “C’est Itali!” she says.
You laugh and find your way through the dim station to the trains.
You never know what to expect when it comes to bathrooms on trains—“not much” is the most accurate prediction. Even Trenitalia’s bagnos can be a disaster.
On the way to Rho-Milano, you walk to the bathroom and open the door. The floor and cupboards and sink are all wet, glistening in the sunlight that peeks through the opaque plastic window covering. Wet from the what? It almost looks like it’s been hosed down—with water, you hope, although it doesn’t seem to have made anything any cleaner. You lock the door behind you and look for a hook for your purse. There isn’t one. It’s a rugged, scratched-up, cheap purse from Target, but you’re still not going to set it down in the mystery fluid covering everything in sight. After all, you have to take it back to your seat and hold it the rest of the day—can’t flush it down the toilet.
You swing your purse in front of you and pull the toilet seat down. It pops back up again. You pull the toilet seat down again and hold it, test it—it’s on a spring and pops back up as soon as you let go. With one hand, you hold the seat down, and rip off jagged pieces of thin TP with the other. As you lay them on the seat, they float off because of the air blowing up through the innards of the toilet.
You sigh. You reposition your purse to keep it out of the way of your hands and out of the way of any nasty surfaces.
On the left side, you try again to press a folded strip of TP down. You hold it there and hold the seat itself down. On the right side, you manage to rip off a long piece with one hand and hold it down on the right side so the breeze doesn’t move it.
Perfect. It is all set up.
Except—you are facing the seat, holding it at ten and two like a steering wheel, and your pants are still zipped.
Caroline Mays brings Californian sunshine, bright colors, bomb tacos, sick mma moves, & a love of writing to initially-reluctant community college students in SoCal and New York. She has stories published and upcoming in Inlandia and Linden Avenue, and has trained in Shorin-Ryu for the last 16 years. She teaches Lethal Moves for Ladies: self-defense, classes for professional women.