The most fascinating little book that you have (probably) yet to read this year is this gem from Alex Drace-Francis and Wendy Bracewell, both of whom we know – disclosure klaxon – from our days at SSEES: Where to Go in Europe.
It’s a simple idea: an anthology of travellers’ accounts of confronting the need to find somewhere to go while on the road. It’s a universal problem, one that everyone – from pauper to prince – faces at some stage, so it’s probably not too much of a surprise to discover just how often lavish descriptions of public toilets – be they luxurious, appalling or simply baffling – appear in even the most studied and learned accounts of international travel. As the curators explain in the pun-tastic introduction (written, of course, in Krapets, Bulgaria):
Travel writing, charged with all that seems anomalous about foreign parts, often enjoys the license of discussing matters which might be considered taboo at home. This may account for the sheer quantity of information about lavatorial habits and toilet technologies (or their absence) to be found in the writings of those who have left behind the conveniences of home and have ventured out into the world.
What is less surprising perhaps is how often the simple toilet is used to confirm existing prejudices about a country or its people, or even its economic system. After all, a perennial lack of soft toilet paper (or any toilet paper at all) was often cited in the western world as all the proof we need that communism was doomed (or, as Drace-Francis puts it: ‘the scarcity of toilet paper became a metonymic byword for the socialist utopia caught short’).
The first (and perhaps most graphic) vignette in the collection is that of a 15th century pilgrim travelling Europe in search of spiritual guidance who has his faith well and truly tested by the state of the loos – or what passed for such things – along the way, particularly on a galley he takes across the English Channel. The description of trying to get to the ‘facilities’ at night will horrify and amuse in equal measure.
Yet even 600 years later travel writers still put all sorts of emphasis on the civility of the local bogs. Indeed, we were prompted to go through some of our own work and were far from shocked to find more than a passing reference to the condition of various toilets. Even in the latest issue of Bucharest In Your Pocket we include a small section on the subject. Then again, given how decent public toilets in Bucharest are few and far between it would be amiss if we did not point our readers towards those which do exist (in the Universitate Underpass and at Gara de Nord). Indeed, we devote more words to the state of the toilets at Gara de Nord (we report them as being ‘reasonably if not impeccably clean but certainly usable, the gents at least’) than we do to either the ticket or the left luggage offices.
Other than that, all Bucharest can offer by way of public toilets are either the awful, stinking portaloos which look terrible, not least when dumped somewhere with little thought or futuristic yet impractical automated toilets which are again often placed with no rationale or consideration whatsoever.
So for anyone who has ever been caught short in Bucharest it may come as a bit of an eye-opener to come across (in the book) the words of a Croatian visitor to Bucharest in the 1930s:
The luxurious public toilets our correspondent is referring to are – we think – those at Izvor whose entrance pergola remains even though the loos themselves have long been closed. Bucharest’s top architectural blogger Valentin Mandache wrote about them a few years ago. You can see his article and photos here.
Bucharest: the city where even the public toilets have gone down the drain.
Anyway, do buy the book: it’s a bargain £4.79 on Amazon for your Kindle – so you don’t need to be flush to buy it – and it offers a fascinating peak under Europe’s toilet seat. It reveals far more about how we see ourselves and each other than any amount of verbal diarrhea ever could. We needn’t add that the short, sharp chapters are perfect for visits to the privy.