When I escorted my first group of graduate students on a European tour over two decades ago I prepared myself as well as I could for what I anticipated would be the inevitable questions about Europe’s cities and urban life. After all, my charges were students of urban planning and this was their opportunity to see at first hand some of the world’s greatest cities. I imagined long and intense conversations in café’s about Amsterdam’s canals, the Wren churches of London, Haussmann’s re-planning of Paris in the 1870s, and the comparative urbanism of Europe and America
I did not study up on comparative toilets. But it was toilets, it turned out, that became the most popular topic of conversation. The students were awed by the great architecture, marveled at the systems of mass transportation, and engaged by the vibrant street life. But they were obsessed with Europe’s toilets, their design, flushing mechanisms, their different approaches to defecatory necessities. They were also concerned with where to find them when they needed them.
People who travel a good deal usually have some rules of travel that they abide by. Never carry your passport out with you/Always carry your passport out with; Don’t drink the water anywhere/Don’t become dehydrated; Never get on a train with British soccer fans/Never offer a joint to a Turkish border guard/ Etc.. There are all sorts of rules, most of them derived from experience; so they don’t have to be universal or consistent.
Still, every traveler feels his or her rule or rules would benefit everyone, and so I have one to submit for universal adoption: Rule No. 1: NEVER PASS UP A TOILET. I can give you a lot of specific instances of the failure to observe Rule No. 1, but you don’t want to hear about them.
One can learn the value of the rule on one’s own, but I happened to learn it as a package tour escort. A tour escort learns soon enough: you can be up on the history, the architecture, the museums and the best restaurants and such of each place you visit, but your clients may revere you most when you can come up with a temple of convenience when their bladders and bowels have been pushed to their limits. A woman on one of my European tours who must have possessed a bladder the size of a hazelnut didn’t let me out of her sight for three weeks. I “saved her life” (if not her dignity as well) on more than one occasion with my indispensable knowledge of the locations of rare public restrooms and ladies rooms in Metro stations, restaurants, museums, at historical sites, etc.
In group travel, with often long trips on motor coaches, there may be long intervals between rest stops with restrooms. An experienced tour leader develops a sense of when a group might require “comfort”. However, carrying out this responsibility with some delicacy and decorum is sometimes a matter of attitude, as I learned from one of my European counterparts.
Several years ago I was waiting near the entrance of the Academia in Florence, while members of my group surveyed its marble treasures. The museum contains many Michelangelo sculptures. Among these are the so-called “captives,” or unfinished pieces in which the great sculptor’s subjects appear to be “trapped” in the blocks of marble from which he never got around to giving them “release” (Mike’s metaphor, not mine). The Academia also contains as its main attraction Michelangelo’s colossal “David,” which is finished, in complete anatomical detail. “David” occupies the prime location, in a rotunda the end of a hall where good light and the opportunity to circumnavigate the 16-foot statue affords vantages from which tourists of both genders may focus their cameras in lustful frames on the oversized private parts of the young Hebrew hero who now outsizes Goliath.
On this occasion another American tour group of about forty people—all wearing identical yellow blazers with the appliquéd logo of a national real estate company on the breast pocket—de-bussed a block away. Their female Italian guide marched them to the front door of the museum like a kindergarten class on a day trip. She then collected them inside the entrance and, in a volume that echoed off the walls and sculptures, and pointing like a Roman traffic cop with hand-chop motions, intoned: “David this way; Captives that way; PeePee that way.”
The majority marched off in the direction of the third choice. But it occurred to me that some of them might have believed that they were about to view some outsized male genitalia in Carrera marble, titled Michalengelo’s “PeePee”.
Who can fault anyone for skipping even the most famous works of art when the call of Nature is more insistent than that of the Muse. I suppose that tour guide had already determined that a group of people—I had learned from one of them that they had all “won” the trip for selling large amounts of real estate back in America—who would proudly wear their company uniform abroad didn’t have much dignity left to lose by being publicly told where and when and where to urinate. This was Florence, a temple of great art, not Brussels, whose civic mascot The Manniken Pis, is a little boy who piddles all over the city.
I glanced down the gallery at “David,” fully exposed but dignified, and the “Captives,” their genitalia in various stages of release from the marble. Then Rule No. 1 urged itself upon me and I made my way down the hallway to the men’s room and took my place at the urinals with the guys in yellow blazers.
©2004, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.28.2004)