One of the pleasures of being home after being away is that you return to your own known space. Whatever you call it, the loo, the lavatory, the George (why? I have a vague memory that one of Britain’s Hanoverian kings died there. In the course of checking this I have just come across a website that looks worth exploring http://www.nndb.com/) To continue, the bathroom, the toilet (tilet as it is pronounced in this part of the world) is a place whose boundaries you know. You have chosen, or at least have the chance to express views on, the loo/ bog paper and available reading matter. You are accustomed to the characteristics of the flush. Abroad, in private or public places, you are facing the unknown.
In the house of my Belfast grandmother, diminutive, determined, teacher mother of five sons and still believing that boys were best (big plates and second helpings for my father and brother and guess who did not have to help with the washing up) the bathroom on the half landing looked normal until you reached a hand for the paper. Rather than the then prevalent skimpy half water-repellent (totally human-repelling) Izel, Grandmother favoured small squares of newsprint. Lacking then an interest in public affairs I shuddered. Now I have an image of her sitting in the kitchen alongside the sisters who lived with her in old age, resolutely folding and tearing up sheet after sheet of newspaper. In my mind she and they are wearing the small feltish hats which seemed to accompany them everywhere, balanced on the sausage rolls of their grey, netted hair. In silence? Humming bits of Gilbert and Sullivan? the flowers which bloom in the spring, tra-la, have nothing to do with the case? who now knows.
My first experience of the difference between home and away was being confronted by one of my classmates on a school trip to Paris. We were clustered in the dormitory of a boys’ lycee. She emerged from a screened cubicle in the corner. She said nothing as the next in the queue entered and pulled the door behind her. Then into the silence she announced that there was just a hole, no seat. To go, or not to go, is often a realistic question but we were there for a week. It was a discombobulating experience. It was probably due to contemplating the lurking horror that I, later that evening, discovered that in getting changed for a visit to the ballet I had forgotten to remove my heavy travelling skirt from beneath my summer frock.
The apartment where I stayed in Kefalonia was one of those which, while comfortably appointed, sheltered an ominous white bin and a notice banning the dropping of paper into the lavatory bowl. With one’s mind turning to holiday delights anticipated or remembered, habit sometimes takes over and I found myself (Oh sod it!!!) pushing down the handle with fingers crossed, eyes closed in supplication to whichever god might be kind. It is like riding a bike, driving a car, human becomes robot.
But things were worse in Japan where I went with a group a few years ago following a pilgrimage trail round shrines on the southern island of Shikoku. If you were fortunate, the public loos would have a cubicle at the end of the line marked ‘western style’ for which the females in the group waited restively. But even in the relative privacy of your hotel bedroom you were at risk. As a group we were inclined to value history, to respect the traditions of others, that after all was why we had signed up for this excursion. Some hotels were western (beds at a normal height, no tatami mats and a sporting chance of not having miso soup for breakfast). Others, including a monastery high up in the snows, had lavatory slippers…
Not so bad, if you were on your own, to forget the ritual: enter; take off own shoes (leave on rack); put on hotel slip-ons to pad across the tatami mat. The private facility was generally situated beside the entry door… so, cross mat, remove slip-ons (replace in rack), put on lavatory slippers, proceed to goal, and then reverse the procedure. In the monastery and more traditional lodgings there were shared facilities. You made your way along the corridor in your bedroom slip-ons, bypassing the opportunity to share a wooden bathtub roughly the size of a large chest freezer with five of your travelling companions, to the communal area of washbasins and loos. Okay. Out of room shoes, into lavatory slippers, act and perform in reverse. As you went back to the bedroom you would meet people scuttling shiftily barefoot with those garish red slippers in hand. More shamingly, some of the correctly shod would point accusingly at your own feet. Evil polluter, turn again.
Not all Japanese cludgies were traditional however. This was the most scarey.
Always follow the safety precautions
• DO NOT splash water or hot water on the product and/or power box (This may cause fire or electric shock)
• To avoid low-temperature-burns, turn off the warm seat switch when the product is used by the very young or the elderly, those who are incapacitated
Gardez loo! You have been warned!
Is a concern with lavatories a girl thing? I have no idea but my mother wrote of her childhood in the ’10s and ’20s of the last century:
‘Travelling on those bygone trains was not all bliss. Above all loomed the worry as to whether it would be a corridor train. Infinitely better to have a train lavatory than not, even if you were jerked about as the train fled through twisting glens trying vainly to follow maternal instructions not to touch the seat. This sanitary preoccupation made the reserved compartment good sense. A potty could be concealed in the hand luggage…’ (Tak’ Tent o’ Time: Memories of a Post-Edwardian Edinburgh Childhood, by Elaine Mary Wilson, p21)
As children we travelled with a potty too, a small blue metal object, but it was a precaution lest the raw carrots eaten, the dangling chain from the bumper, and Callard and Bowser Butterscotch failed to ward off travel sickness as the family made its way by car down through those twisting glens and over the ‘liable to subsidence’ roads of Fife to the ferry at Queensferry. For us otherwise, the shrubless wastes of Rannoch Moor and nettly ditches.
They say ‘east, west, home’s best’. Sometimes it is.