Public Conveniences

An inevitable part of traveling is visiting public restrooms, and when we travel abroad, most of us inevitably compare the public restrooms with what we are familiar with at home, which in my case is the United States. Public restrooms here vary greatly in the degree to which functions are automated. Among the automatic features that are possible are automatic toilets (activated by an “electric eye,” these often flush more often than needed if not adjusted properly), automatic faucets (controlled by a thermal sensor that can be rather frustrating for those with cold hands), automatic soap dispensers (rather rare but quite a luxury when they work properly), automatic towel dispensers (sometimes one wears oneself out waving in front of their sensors), and automatic hand dryers (again, it can be a challenge to keep one’s hands positioned in the “sweet spot” to keep these going).

Other, less savory, variations include the absence of toilet paper, towels, or soap; toilets that won’t flush; broken hand dryers (coupled with absence of paper towels); faucets that won’t stay on long enough for one to wash both hands at once and consequently have to be held down with one hand while futilely attempting to wash the other single-handed (whoever designed these instruments of torture evidently never heard the proverb “One hand washes the other”). And of course there is great variation in the general cleanliness of the restrooms, degree of luxury, etc.

Travelers abroad, however, face additional variations, including some challenges, such as pay toilets. The current price to “spend a penny” at Victoria Station in London is 20p (though you do get a Dyson Airblade to dry your hands), and in Paris I encountered an even more insidious entrapment: if you haven’t paid to get into a stall (because someone held the door for you), you are (apparently) locked in and can’t get out! Surely this must be a violation of the fire code!

Travelers to Japan invariably comment on the sanitary arrangements there, where toilets range from essentially a hole in the floor to Toto Washlets (some with remote controls) that bathe your bottom with warm water and dry it with heated air. The other feature of Japanese restrooms that is commonly remarked on is the notable lack of privacy in men’s rooms, where maids are apt to come in and go about their business oblivious of men doing theirs, or where the urinals are often open to public view (as in the Kyoto train station).

Our most recent trip, however, was to England, where we encountered not only the typical variation in automation but also certain other quaint features not usually seen Stateside.

One of these, of course, is the persistence of toilets with elevated wall-mounted tanks, activated by a pull-chain. Although we may have seen these in more than one location, the one pictured here was in a restroom at Stonehenge.

Another phenomenon frequently encountered is a restroom carved out of a tiny space. The one shown below, in the Bridge Coffee Shop in Bath, can perhaps best be appreciated by realizing that the photo was taken from the corridor outside the room since the space inside was too small for taking a picture.

It was probably not the smallest restroom we encountered. Shown below is the sink from another tiny one, in Café Loco in Oxford.

In contrast to the restrooms we encountered at tourist sites in Japan, many of which were so loathsome that one just resolved to “hold it,” most of those we used in England were quite nice. For example, the “public convenience” located near Magdalene Bridge in Cambridge was very attractive and sparklingly clean, as can be seen below (even if the utilitarian stainless steel toilets were reminiscent of those seen on planes and trains).

At another public convenience, this one in Reigate, Surrey, I experienced, for the second time (but the first time functioning), a fixture made by Wallgate that combines a lavatory (with soap) and a hand dryer in a single wall-mounted unit, shown below.

English pride and self-respect are clearly invested in these public restrooms. At 1 Royal Crescent in Bath, a restroom had been wedged into a tiny outdoor building, with the evident intention of making the best of a bad situation. It wasn’t deluxe but certainly served the purpose, so I was amused by the apologetic notice posted above the sink (below). Note also that hot water is supplied from a small “on-demand” boiler installed just for this purpose.

At an preschool we visited in Reigate, the “adult” restrooms were for some reason closed, so we used the ones designed for the children. Not surprisingly, the size and height of the toilets and sinks were adapted for their tiny users, but I was amused by the label on the soap dispenser.

Almost as entertaining as the restrooms themselves, however, were the signs that labeled them. On landing at Gatwick the first time we visited England (in March 2008), even before we reached Passport Control or Customs, we availed ourselves of restrooms, and I remarked that women in England seemed to be stuck in the 1960s, wearing crinolines under their puffy skirts. (Like the Venus de Milo, they are also without arms.)

We never saw this particular icon anywhere else, though we did notice considerable variation in the icons used. The typical U.S. icons, which are also prevalent in Britain, are shown below:

At the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, however, I commented that the women appeared to be wearing overcoats:

The public convenience in Cambridge showed a variety of different icons:

But perhaps the most charming were those on the children’s restrooms at the preschool we visited:

It would probably surprise no one that fascination with public restrooms is not uncommon, but I was amused to find that interest in restroom icons is also widespread. A Google Images search for “restroom icons” turns up many intriguing variations, including the jaunty ones at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, removable “wall art” for weddings, and a priceless version from Austin Neon that alludes to a “can’t hold it any longer” condition.

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