When you gotta go …

No, this is not political, religious or moral, just an observation about the current, “Which sex uses which bathroom?” controversy. There are arguments to be made on both sides of the stalls, and I’ll simply state that I’ve been there and done that. I don’t mean I’ve had a life-changing alteration in my anatomy, but I’ve been dealing with the quandary for some years beginning when I’d travel with students in Europe.

Same sex toilets, johns, bathrooms, loos and water closets were very much in evidence when I began traveling with kids in 1979. In fact, to find separate restrooms in France was once a rarity. You’d stop with a busload of kids at a roadside inn in the south of France and there’d be a single door marked “W.C.” After explaining to my anxious travelers that W.C. did not stand for wind chimes or window cleaner, I’d then point out that in this part of the world people used the same facility, no matter their sex. Okay, there are some foreign customs that American teenagers simply will not go for … snails in garlic butter, smoked fish lying on top of your salad, smelly cheese for a dessert course … but when you gotta go, you gotta go, and after a four-hour early morning bus ride from Paris, they usually had to go. If we were the only inhabitants of the restaurant or gift shop, then the matter was simple: girls go first while someone guards the door, then the boys can have at it if they’ve not already found a French tree behind the café. This method sounds workable, but in fact we tended to stop at places teeming with tourists and we often had to choice but to share the restroom.

Let me try to describe the procedure without being indelicate. Most of these European toilets had three fixtures: a commode walled off by flimsy stall, a washbasin and a urinal. The ladies would stand in line for the stall while the men stood with their back to the ladies while using their male appliance. The doors to the john would remain open. The restrooms were often quite small, so the men might be only a couple of feet from the girls waiting in line. Again, I’ll try to avoid being unseemly and say that there are certain things in life that require a certain amount of concentration and more often that not the boys, if they were able to steel themselves this far, were unable to go any further. I can speak from firsthand experience here. There’s a synaptic connection between a man’s brain and … well, other regions. Sometimes your cerebellum sends a signal southward shouting, “I don’t care how bad you’ve to go, it ain’t gonna happen, Bubba!”

All good travel adventures seem terrifying at the time but make for great stories when returning home. Time after time I’d take kids on whirlwind tours of Italy, England, France and Germany, and when Mom and Dad would travel to the St. Louis airport to pick us up, the first words out of the young traveler’s mouth would be, “We had to use the same toilets, Mom!” These were not the most welcoming of words to a lady who’d entrusted the wellbeing of her daughter to me for the past two weeks. I’d try to jokingly explain the custom of European same sex restrooms as the worried mother collected their child’s luggage and hurried them back to Morgan County and far away from this demented chaperone.

In Spain we were once confronted with not only a single, large communal bathroom, but communal bathtubs, as well. Seven of them, all in a row. I adhere to the “When in Rome …” adage in most things culinary, cultural and aesthetic, but this was a bridge too far. I announced that the girls would take their baths in the evening the boys in the morning and never the twain shall meet. This was fine with my kids since they had no desire to bond quite that closely. However, I chose to take my bath at midnight when there’d be no traffic at all. Unfortunately, this was the same time that two of my female students opted to take a bath. I was in stall number 4, exactly halfway down the row of bathtubs. What are the chances of the two girls wanting to use stalls 3 and 5? I’ll cut to the chase: after a few calm whispers and (thank God) no screams we all returned to our rooms, dripping and laughing.

I would only advise those wrapped up in the current bathroom scandals to take a trip to the nether regions of the globe where in some cases the lavatory is the nearest ditch. Let’s not let our First World problems concern us so much that we forget to give thanks for a place to … well, you know.

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