European toilets astounded me. When I landed in London, the first thing I did was beeline to the bathroom. I crammed my suitcase into the stall, rigged up my duffel bag so that it was teetering on the suitcase by the grace of the tiny door hook, and turned around to see the cutest toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. This must be for children, I thought. In my sleepless, post-flight, full-bladder stupor, this was the only rational explanation for such a petite toilet. What if a child has to pee, and I’m in here? Children can’t wait; they wet themselves! Or worse.
So, logically, I had to go check the sizes of the other toilets. Of course. I squeezed past the baggage blockade, and awkwardly popped through the narrow opening, as though the stall had given birth to me. A woman washing her hands at a nearby sink squinted at me suspiciously, her eyes trailing down to the abandoned luggage. In a flash, my mind went to all those “If you see something, say something” posters plastered around New York. Sheepishly, I slid back through the crack in the wall.
What struck me was how clean the bathroom was. It could be down to timing—it was before 8:00 a.m., and presumably, not many people had passed through recently. I have no explanation for the rest of the bathrooms I encountered, though. I have never seen so many consecutive clean toilets. On my return flight from Heathrow, I actually went to the bathroom with the sole intention of photographing one of the minuscule toilets. Unfortunately, I found a stall with litter on the floor, but I tiptoed around the Band-Aid minefield and took the picture anyway. The last time I ducked out of a Heathrow bathroom stall to check another, I was nearly reported for suspicious activity.
(The water level was another initial concern. In the United States, low water level in a toilet generally hints at a blockage. As in, the previous person most likely used too much toilet paper, and you’re going to end up standing in a scum puddle when you flush. A woman from New Zealand assured me that I wasn’t playing toilet roulette, and that in fact she had been equally surprised by the excessive amount of water in American toilets. “I could practically touch the water every time I wiped, and I’ll never forget the splash.”)
Many of the toilets I used in Italy had no seat, and at first, I thought they were broken. Then I realized, people can’t pee on a seat that doesn’t exist. Genius. This is the sort of innovation that propelled the Roman Empire, folks. Others had lifted seats, but I welcomed those situations all the same. My favorite Italian toilets were the ones on pedestals. What better way to feel like you’re ascending to the throne than to literally climb a stairway to toilet heaven? Some bathrooms also had efficient foot-operated sinks, so I didn’t have to play that game where I try to scrub my hands before the water stops flowing, inevitably fail, and have to start all over after touching the faucet again. One toilet in Rome had a pull chain above my head. Like the foot-operated sink pedal, I missed it at first, and stood dumbstruck for a few moments before I figured it out.
Greek toilets were a different ballgame. We were warned, as we boarded the ferry to Corfu, that we would not be able to flush toilet paper in certain areas in Greece. I didn’t realize that included the ferry, so by the time I tried to use the bathroom, the toilets were overflowing with backed up toilet paper. Despite signs everywhere stating that tissue paper must be discarded in the provided trash bins, several cavalier toilet rebels disregarded the rules and flushed away. Opening the trash to see someone’s sodden butt paper after what must have been an upsetting meal is a distinctly unpleasant experience. Greek hotel maids deserve massive tips, especially considering the current state of their economy. Before going abroad, a particularly green-minded friend told me about her experiences with European bathrooms, and espoused the virtue of their dual flush, water-saving toilets. Figuring out which button to press was supposed to be the extent of my bathroom culture shock, but I got so much more than I bargained for.