Our Culture Shock Contest has generated its fair share of humorous stories. But many of them have relied on that bastion of porcelain bowl silliness: the toilet. From Italy to Portugal and beyond, we’ve heard about holes in the ground, sandpaper as wipes, pay-to-pee loo’s and other shocking first-world tales of toilet woe. We were glad to see that many travelers got a kick out of such conditions rather than a complaint. Besides, aren’t these experiences all part of why we travel?
Remember, we invite you to share your own stories of culture clash in our Culture Shock Contest. (In the bathroom and otherwise.)
We start with Stephanie Capello from New York, who found that the Holy Roman Empire might have begun with Caesar tinkling in a hole in the Forum.
“Had to pee in a small bar in a small town in Italy! Went into their bathroom to discover NO toilet or anything that even resembled a seat! Just a hole in the floor to squat over! Needless to say, I held it in until I got back on the tour bus!”
Michelle Taube and her husband decided to stay with a local while in Portugal. The room was small but adequate. Unfortunately, they forgot to look at the bathroom, which required knowledge of antiquated plumbing techniques.
“My husband and I lived in London for a month while I was finishing graduate school. After our stint in London, we traveled on the continent for a month. We took a train to Lisbon and then down to the south part of the country for some beach time. Several people were at the rail station with signs advertising rooms for rent. We were a little skeptical, but one lady told us that she rented a room in her house to tourists. She was very nice and we decided to follow her to her house.
The room was small, but clean, so we decided to take it. Unfortunately, we didn’t look at the bathroom. Not only didn’t the toilet flush, but the shower was ice cold. We didn’t speak any Portuguese and our host didn’t speak any English, but we managed to convey the problem to her. To flush the toilet, we had to fill a bucket with water from the shower and dump it into the bowl, and to take a hot shower, we had to light a match, turn on the gas, and let the water heat before getting in.
Our host was so friendly, that we easily forgave the inconveniences and now we have a story that we will always remember!”
Sandy Schuetz of New Mexico is fascinated with toilets around the world. (It happens.) He was disappointed upon returning to Europe and finding bathrooms had been upgraded from their 70’s dilapidated splendor.
“Traveling through Northern Europe, I became fascinated by the different toilets (yes toilets) I found in different towns and countries. I sometimes had trouble finding the “flush” handle. Chains hanging from the ceiling, buttons on the floor, buttons on the top of the tank, were only part of the challenge. The toilet paper ranged from very soft to very coarse with – I could swear – splinters in them. I always wanted to go back and take photos and write a book for my friends of my “bathroom adventures”. That was in 1976. I returned in 2008 and times – and toilets – had changed. Sigh.
The toilet paper story is almost as popular as the ubiquitous hole in the ground. Read on, fellow travelers. Tread lightly. And always – carry tissues.”
Barbara Ostmann of Missouri recalls her first trip to Europe 40 years ago, when the paper was as rough as you’ll find today.
“My first Eurail Pass was a two-month Student Pass back in 1971. It was my first trip to Europe and I put a lot of miles on that pass! One of the most surprising things back then was the variety of types of toilet paper I found throughout my travels. From almost waxed paper in England to thick, rough, scratchy versions throughout the Continent, the toilet paper was a far cry from super-soft Charmin! That was before email and Facebook, back in the day when people actually wrote letters. I sent squares of toilet paper types from all over Europe home to my parents in my frequent letters. Seems hilarious now, but it was so eye-opening back then!
Stevin Azo Michels of New York had been warned ahead of time – about the paper and the hole. And yet, he was still surprised!
“I had been warned about the fact that some European toilets offered toilet paper in sheets, rather than the rolls Americans are used to, and that the texture would be something akin to light grade sandpaper, but I was not prepared for my first visit to a Parisian toilet. Thinking I was in a cosmopolitan part of the world, the aforementioned advice did not concern me. I entered my first toilet in France a brick room with a window whole open to the outside world, which meant it was freezing, NO toilet paper, and worse still NO toilet! Instead I found a large hole in the floor with 2 well worn feet marks. Realizing quickly this was a squat situation, I decided I could wait. Until I got back home if necessary!! P.S. If you encounter a bathroom with 2 toilets, that one is NOT a drinking fountain!
Sometimes, you have to pay to play. Or to pee. Or even go on a wild goose chase to find a bathroom.”
Margaret Schumacher of Ohio paid the dues, when she finally found a place to, well…go.
“For me a trip to the bathroom is, well, always a trip! In Berlin, Germany, I was surprised at the fee in the central train station was a shock. I have not seen a pay toilet in the U.S. since I was a child. However, the bathrooms were attended and SPOTLESS. Well worth the fee. In Amsterdam, the Netherlands, it is not uncommon to go up and down several flights of stairs, a kitchen or two and perhaps a storage room to find the restroom. Plan ahead for the walk, In Florence, Italy, merchants are not required to provide bathrooms a fact which required me to limit my vino while walking about. McDonald’s always have them (even at Check-Point-Charlie in Berlin) though many are unisex.”
Rachel Baron, our own Culture Maven, was culturally shocked on her first trip to Paris. Desperate to use the facilities after downing two Café au Lait’s to go with a Pan Chocolat, she and a friend scrambled high and low for a public toilet. But now they were out of francs.
“We’d just spend our last money on breakfast, and with no ATM in sight, we set off to find one. But we needed to go to the bathroom. We were relieved upon seeing something that looked like an outhouse. We immediately went to open the door when an old woman, roughly 80 years or so, started yelling at us in French! Of course, we had no idea what she was saying. Luckily, a local came to our assistance. “She wants two francs from each of you.” Our pockets were empty. We turned into the “ugly Americans” we swore we’d not be. Screaming at the old woman, begging her in English to let us go. Then she kicked me in the shin. My friend and I found a tree in Parc Monceau and did what came naturally! “
Even the most seasoned travelers can’t believe the differences between the bathrooms at home and overseas. The entry came in by Kimberly Brody from Florida.
“Upon pondering the biggest culture shocks I experienced on my visits to Europe and its many beautiful cities, I (somewhat sadly) realized that almost each culture shock, without doubt, came from the bathrooms and the normal apparatus you usually find within one- whether you call it a watercloset, restroom, loo, latrine, lavatory, commode, or washroom.
I’ve been to Europe a few times, but during graduate school I studied abroad for a semester in London and lived there for six months. Aside from many cities in Britain, we did a lot of traveling to the Continent on the weekends. It wasn’t until I was actually living in Europe, rather than visiting, that the restroom culture shocks became so very apparent (previously they’d seemed like one-off events.)
Without a doubt, the biggest culture shock I experienced occurred during a weekend trip to Amsterdam. Nothing prepared me for my run-in with the Dutch toilet. Nothing could have prepared me for this, even if it had been described in detail before I came face to face with one of these fascinating commodes. In the image included (found on the internet by someone kind enough to post an image of one unused, as I didn’t think to take my own photo, though in hindsight realized I should have since these toilets are hard to describe to an average American) you can see the toilet is designed mainly of only a very large shelf and lacks water.
After you’ve done your business on the dry shelf and flush, the water is ejected at a high rate and rinses everything into the hole, where it disappears. This process, which may have been invented to conserve water, can be very odiferous.
On a similar subject, I was also quite shocked to find that I had to pay to use the restroom in many places, such as in a train station in London. I’d come off the train after a long journey where I had not utilized the facilities on the train (and perhaps missed an altogether different culture shock,) but needless to say, with another 45 minute trip to my flat I had to scrounge up the pence to use the public loo. After that I always made sure to carry spare change in my pockets.
So while I can probably name a dozen other culture shocks I experienced during my journeys across the great cities of Europe that involve food, local custom, or any number of other things, it is the bathrooms and the toilets that outnumber the others by a far margin when it comes to things that shocked this average American.”
These were just the tip of the stories about restrooms that we received. Believe us when we say we were “flush” with excitement while reading them.