Understanding bathrooms in European hotels
Look, honey: Two toilets!
You may expect to find the most cultural difference in Europe in the museums and architecture, the way people talk and act, the food they eat, and the unstomachable national brands of liqueur they drink, but nowhere is culture shock greater than in the bathroom.
These mysterious and unfathomable ceramic shrines are a bundle of the unexpected and the entirely novel. It starts in a cheap pensione when you discover that the only bathroom is down the hall, coed, and is shared by everyone on the floor.
This bath is your bath, this bath is my bath
Among European hoteliers, it's a bit of a mystery why so many American travelers so strongly object to sharing a bathroom. From their point of view, they find it a bit odd that many of us feel we cannot sleep in a room unless there's a toilet right next to the bed.
Although more and more European hotels are installing bathrooms in every room, it is by no means standard. Either accept the shared bath principle or prepare to pay extra for a private bath in your room.
Is that the shower or a spigot?
The European concept of a shower is to stick a nozzle into the wall and a drain in the floor. Curtains are optional. In many cramped private baths, you may have to rescue the toilet paper and find it safe harbor outside the bathroom before turning on the shower and drenching the whole room.
Another fun European bathroom trick is the half tub, in which you sit rather than lie down, with a shower nozzle that has nowhere to hang. Your knees get very clean and the floor gets very wet.
The early bird gets the hot shower
Hot water may be available only once a day and not on demand—this is especially true of shared baths. Heating water is costly, and many smaller hotels only do it once daily, in the morning. Once that's used up, the luxury won't be available again until the next day.
When you check into the hotel, ask "When hot water?" Take your shower quickly, soap up without water, and try to be first in line to avoid inadvertent freezing.
In some countries, Britain in particular, you may have to turn the hot water on at a special mini-hot water heater either inside or just outside of the stall itself. Incidentally, the faucet marked "C" in romance-language countries (France, Italy, Spain) will be for hot water, not cold (which is chaud, caldo, and caliente, respectively). For cold water, turn the one marked "F" (froid, freddo, fria).
Is that a towel or a waffle?
Traditional European towels are flat, waffle-textured and singularly unabsorbant. Follow the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy's advice and carry your own of the terry-cloth or camping variety for just such an emergency (a hand towel is least bulky).
No, that's not an auxiliary toilet
That funny extra toilet that looks like a reclining urinal is called a bidet. Its water jets are intended to clean the bits of you that don't often get tanned, so to speak—much more thoroughly than toilet paper.
Your host will not appreciate it if you use the bidet as an auxiliary toilet.
Some tourists wash out clothes or store fruit or beer in there, but I just think about what the European guests use the thing for and do my laundry in the sink.
Just pretend those outlets don't exist
See the section on electricity for details on what is not safe to plug in your bathroom outlets (hint: everything).