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My Toilet Tour of Europe

by Bebe Nicholson Jun 12, 2018

Where was Starbucks when I needed them? I could have used their new bathroom policy when I embarked on my toilet tour of Europe.

There are 868 Starbucks in the United Kingdom, 157 in Germany, and 28 in Greece. Had they thrown their bathroom doors wide open and enticed me with unfettered access and a fresh toilet paper roll, I would have located every Starbucks in Europe and mapped out my sightseeing strategy accordingly.

Instead, I plunged heedlessly into my travel adventure without an adequate plan.

As an American, I never thought much about bathrooms. Gotta go? Pull off the highway at the next McDonald’s. I’ve used bathrooms in Walgreens, Walmart, Target, Macy’s and Burger King, to name a few. I never thought to ask permission; just waltzed in, took care of business, and left.

So, arriving in Europe and discovering that toilets were a lot less ubiquitous and accessible was a culture shock.

“Every traveler has one or two great toilet stories. Foreign toilets can be traumatic, but they are one of those little things that can make travel so much more interesting than staying at home.” -Rick Steves

In Greece, I climbed a rocky hill to the Acropolis, consumed two glasses of wine, and wandered around Athens for a couple of hours when the need for a bathroom became urgent. I entered a cafe, headed for the back and was stopped midway by a frozen-faced waitress. Despite a language barrier, she got the point across that bathrooms were available only if I dined there.

By this time, things were getting desperate. I took the extreme measure of entering a clothing boutique and paying 17 Euros for a blouse I didn’t want in hopes of buying toilet privileges. It didn’t work. A tall, beautiful girl collected my Euros, then became as frozen-faced as the waitress and directed me to a public bathroom four blocks away; twelve blocks after I got lost trying to read Greek signs.

By the time I got to Italy, I had a UTI. Probably from holding it in during my 12-block Athens trek.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I got to be an expert at sauntering into a restaurant, acting like I was a paying customer, slipping into the bathroom, then hightailing it out before the Italian police force could be summoned.

Not only were public bathrooms as few and far between in Italy as they had been in Greece, but I had to pay to use them. Since payment was in Euros, and I didn’t always have on my glasses when I was on my way to the toilet, I’m sure from the overly enthusiastic thanks from some of the bathroom guardians, those men and women who sit outside taking your money, that I mistook a 1 EUR coin from a 50 cent coin more than once.

But what did I care? I had found a WC!

“Paying to use a public WC is a European custom that irks many Americans. But isn’t it really worth a few coins, considering the cost of water, maintenance, and cleanliness? And you’re probably in no state to argue, anyway.” -Rick Steves

With so few toilets available, you would think they would be more uniform. But in Europe, there are as many different flushing mechanisms as there are flavors of gelato.

You find pull strings instead of handles, buttons on top of the tank, pump toilets that require precision to get the job done, and toilets with flushing mechanisms so elusive that I never found them.

When I was on a German tour bus, a teenage girl disappeared into the toilet for upwards of an hour. Finally, her mother pounded on the door and the girl emerged, shame-faced, admitting she couldn’t figure out how to flush.

“In Great Britain, you’ll likely come across the “pump toilet,” with a flushing handle that doesn’t kick in unless you push it just right: too hard or too soft, and it won’t go. (Be decisive but not ruthless.)” -Rick Steves

But my worries are now over. All I need to do is plan my sightseeing so that a Starbucks is always only a few blocks away. Unless their open-to-all bathroom policy doesn’t apply in European stores. Then I’m back to square one. I’ll have to take Rick Steve’s advice and learn to be more “Euro-peein.”

This article was originally published on Medium and is republished here with permission.

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