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Toilets of the World

Updated on May 14, 2016
Believe it or not: a stand-up open-air pissoir for women, in fashionable pink and gray, developed by the Dutch
Believe it or not: a stand-up open-air pissoir for women, in fashionable pink and gray, developed by the Dutch

Think relieving yourself is always a relief? Well, as world travelers can attest, not all comfort stations are comfortable, and not all water closets are in a closet. Follow along as I lead you through strange loos of the world.

If, like many Americans, you've never ranged much beyond the continental United States, then you might be surprised, even shocked, at foreign approaches to accommodating that most basic yet private of human functions. For, despite the occasional rank port-a-potty, when we think of toilets, many of us picture American Standard — that typical brand of white porcelain throne fronting a taller flush tank and convenient chrome flip-flush handle within easy reach — as, well, the American standard. Yet that standard may not extend very far beyond our nation's borders.

In fact, toilets of the world vary remarkably. Whether toilets, johns, cans, powder rooms, restrooms, bagnios, comfort stations, water closets, W.C.s, altar rooms, chambers, toilettes, reading rooms, commodes, lavatories, ladies' rooms, washrooms, pissoirs, privies, necessities, conveniences, little boys' rooms, potties, outhouses, heads, baths, pots, loos, throne rooms, or poet's corners, they can be uniquely different wherever you go to go, and not just in name. While we at home most often encounter cast porcelain or vitreous china, those probably do not even prevail worldwide as materials of choice. Feeling the urge on foreign soil, one may instead encounter fixtures of tin, painted steel, copper, lead, cast iron, cast concrete, cut stone, tile, plastic, glass, baked earth, and — yes— even finely carved and painted wood. (Indeed, why not elevate the necessary functions to ritual?

As one ranges all about the map, one finds that the shape and size and arrangement of essential commode components also tend to range all about the map. French pissoirs, or public urinals, for example, are often placed in plain view on busy street corners for the convenience of pisser passersby. (How chauvinistic that there is no suitable counterpart primarily for female use.) At times, we may encounter our expected throne-tank-flush valve arrangement; at other times, the tank may be overhead, and the flush valve may be replaced by a wooden handle on pull-cord or -chain. Elsewhere, the tank may be hidden flush behind a wall, leaving but a lone push-button to signify and initiate flush activation. In more rustic restrooms, the tank disappears completely, of course, giving way to either the mere intermittent sluicing of water from a remote source, or more olfactorily disturbing, a caustic chemical reagent lying in wait. Splinters in one's posterior are a serious threat in primitive outhouses. The most modern of restrooms do away with push-buttons and handles entirely, activating toilet, urinal, faucet and dryer alike via infrared sensor and motion detector.

In many Eastern lands, the throne itself disappears, leaving in its absence simply a suitably sized hole in the floor, located easily by its dank emanations. Sometimes, as a navigational aid similar to the bombardier's cross-hair sight, two patterned or textured footprints are helpfully positioned, one either side of the hole, to aid the errant aim, and, possibly, improve one's traction while in mid-dump. (In more high-falutin' facilities, there may even be a padded cushion affixed to the wall a foot or so beyond the hole, as a lumbar comfort to those assuming the stooler's squat.) The hole-in-the-floor facility is so prevalent in some regions, that, upon entering a Westernized restroom in an Eastern hotel or restaurant, you may be confronted by a previous patron's dirty footprints positioned at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock on the toilet seat dial.

Urinals seems to lend themselves particularly to the creative passions of designers and craftsmen. Some stand as full-height cut stone sentinels, at attention in alignment along a restroom wall. Some are compact curlicued copper cradles nesting just above knee height, testing one's aim and accuracy. Some have considerate separating screen walls to afford a modicum of privates privacy; others are but linear troughs where one (and one's micturating mates) are left to let it all hang out. There are even those of extremely odd (some might say demented) radial-daisy design, where one is compelled to face opposed performers all aiming for the same central cistern or drain. And, as a prime example of rampant exhibitionism (and voyeurism), a club men's room was once constructed with all urinals arranged in series against a half-opaque, half-transparent wall, such that club patrons could easily view the upper bodies of every male as they performed the necessary duty.

We Americans also tend to group lavatory functions by gender. Not so the rest of the world, where space and facilities and funds may not be as abundant. It is quite common to encounter unisex restrooms, and not just singletons either. In multi-fixture multi-gender facilities, the washroom and toilet room functions are typically separated. A large common washroom of sinks, counters, mirrors, towel and soap dispensers, dryers, etc., is available to men and women, boys and girls. From that common washroom, one may then access one or more unisex toilet rooms housing the necessary toilet fixture(s) and accessories. These are usually housed in near- or full-height partitions, if not in fact fully separate rooms. Quite often such an arrangement is accompanied by and overseen by a uniformed attendant, ever ready with a warm towel, hand cleaner or scent, as well as to insure that each toilet room greets each patron in the proper state of cleanliness. It is considered good form to tip such an attendant, sometimes quite generously. Often the tip is mandatory; consider it a fee to pee. Americans traveling abroad are wisely advised to always have several dollars' worth of foreign currency or coin on hand at all times for restroom fees and tips, as charges may range as high as the equivalent of $5 US per 'transaction'. As a result, in some countries the position of toilet-room attendant is respected and desired, as it can be very well compensated.

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