Flushing My Way Through Europe

On the little differences that make travel such an adventure.
Potty humor never gets old.
How I became a professional travel writer. No, really.

toilet Not actually in Europe (this one is in southern Utah), but perhaps my favorite picture of a toilet.
An Austrian/German toilet
An Austrian/German toilet.

One of my first orders of business once I got to England was to investigate the toilet situation, and I discovered something that for me was incredibly exciting: British toilets look and work just like American ones!

This may not sound exciting to you, but let me explain.

European toilets are mostly all variations on the standard kind of sit-down bowl-type. The few that are not consist primarily of a modern version of the two-bricks-to-stand-on-and-a-hole-in-the-floor model made popular by constipated Turks.

Actually, I have no idea if the Turks have anything to do with "Turkish toilets," but if they do they have gained my undying enmity.

The modern, European/Turkish toilet is found primarily in train stations. This makes it vitally important that you use the facilities on the train before you pull into the station.

How these toilets got me my job

Originally just an entry from my journal turned into a letter home to amuse my parents, this later became the first travel piece I ever got paid for—$50 from my college's alternative weekly newspaper.

Against all odds (and sense of good taste), they asked for another "funny travel story" the following month, started calling me a "columnist," and kept paying me.

I have been a professional travel writer ever since.

(Also: look for the cameo by my upstairs neighbor, who—again against all odds and, after you read this, possibily sense of good taste—is now my wife.)

These "toilets" range from the traditional two bricks flanking a dark and unthinkably horrible hole to shiny ceramic cubicles with two molded, foot-sized platforms. These are made to look like the bottoms of sneakers jutting up from the floor, as if some poor guy offended the local mafia and was encased upside down in ceramic and sent to "sleep with the..." nevermind.

But getting back to bowl-type toilets, to understand the joyous rapture I felt upon my first, uh, interaction with the British toilets you must follow me on a voyage of discovery in ceramic shrines scattered throughout the major cities as I flushed my way through Europe.

In Italian toilets, the hole in the bottom of the toilet bowl is small and situated in the middle, with just the tiniest little bit of water in it. The water tank is perched on the wall, way way up near the ceiling. It hovers there over you and makes menacing gurgle noises every now and then, as if to let you know that it could fall and crush you any time it wished, resulting in one of the Top Ten Obituaries You Really Don't Want. The flush is usually a metal push button located somewhere on a wall.

Notice I say "a" wall. This is because there does not seem to be any real effort to include it on the same wall as the toilet. In my apartment at Medaglie D'Oro, for example, it was located on the same wall as the shower. As a matter of fact, it was located inside the shower stall itself.

An Austrian/German toilet
A European "Turkish toilet".

In Frances' apartment, which was directly above mine and therefore virtually identical, the flush was right next to the toilet. But could they have made it that simple and easy in my room? Oh, no! They had to make me climb into the bathtub every time I wanted to flush.

In Austria and much of Germany, the hole in the bowl is right up near the front, again with very little water. However, the rest of the "bowl," rather than bowl-shaped, is a large platform, slightly depressed in the middle, forming a ceramic plateau a good six inches above the hole.

The sole function of this plateau, I gathered, was to hold and display your waste. This is important because you need something to contemplate while you search for the flushing mechanism.

This is sometimes a very difficult, sometimes impossible, task because the flushes are designed to blend in with the rest of the toilet unit, which itself is very aerodynamic, although the reason why escapes my logic.

Why in the world would you need an aerodynamic toilet? Hey, if I ever find myself airborne and sitting on the john at the same time, I am going to be worried about a heck of a lot more important things than whether I am getting good airspeed due to the toilet's design.

One time, after a good half a minute of searching, I discovered that I had to push the whole cover of the tank down to flush. Once I actually had to give up, dumbfounded, and leave my pee on display for the next guy to deal with. I hope he met with better success than I did.

Then there are the kind of toilets that make you really begin to believe in a higher power in the Universe, and it is obviously not an entirely benevolent one. I speak of the incredibly powerful, and somewhat sinister, ferry toilets.

All European ferries are equipped with NASA-developed Super Suction Toilets. After years of research, and with the help of a laser link through the Hubble Space Miracle, scientists have managed to form a conduit directly from ferry toilet stalls to a nearby black hole.

Once you are done doing whatever it was that brought you into the bathroom stall, you look around for a way to flush. If you have had the kind of experience I have with European toilets, this is a task performed with not just a bit of trepidation.

You notice a large, rubber half-sphere embedded in the wall and decide to press it in, fully expecting a normal flushing experience to ensue. It squishes, and you wait.

For a moment, nothing happens. You begin to get nervous and wonder if maybe you pushed the wrong thing.

Then, there is a faint... stirring of the air.

It is followed by a sound like the tide rushing in at eighteen thousand miles per hour. All of a sudden the tiny bit of water (and whatever you just added to it) simply disappears, instantaneously.

It has been beamed through the black hole, you see. A sort of Intergalactic Soil Pipe. At this very moment, your waste is materializing over the heads of some poor unsuspecting alien on a distant planet.

Actually, it is nothing that complicated. The toilet's contents are merely sucked, at supersonic speed, through the bottom of the bowl. They are immediately followed by your breath, your belt if you forgot to buckle, any loose change you may have, the toupee of the guy in the stall next to you, several small children in the area, everything not bolted down to the deck of the ship, and indeed, much of the Western hemisphere.

Ferry toilets are quite an experience that I highly recommend... to the stout of heart. One suggestion though: Before you flush, make sure to get a good hold on something stable. Like Brazil.

Note: This was written in 1993, before the low-flow revolution really took hold in the U.S., and before low-cost airlines replaced ferries for most European travelers. Even observational humor has a sell-by date.

At any rate, British toilets are comfortably familiar. They have a luxuriously deep, nicely rounded bowl with the hole located at the back of it. The bowl contains plenty of water, a cozy amount just more than half filled.

Best of all, there is a lever-type flush handle near the top of the front of the tank, which sits serenely and properly right in back of the bowl.

It's the little things like this that make you feel at home in a foreign place.

Assuming you survive the ferry ride over.

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in February 1995.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.