January 21, 2013

The Expat Toilet

You might accuse me of having a one-track mind.

And it's true. I can't help but zero in on the potty aspect of a new environment. If you take all the toilet talk out of my Kili Diary, there isn't all that much left to the story.

Perhaps this is so because having a good - excuse me - shit is pretty much the first thing you do when you arrive somewhere new, and you can't help but observe the different functionality.

Or maybe, if your life has just been turned upside down moving from one side of the world to the other, and nothing is in its place, the ONE thing you'd like as a constant in your life is your trusted toilet, and it just pisses you off - no pun intended - that it's not.

Writing and toilets - both obsessions of mine...

Whatever the reason, I don't seem to be the only expat with a toilet obsession.

I recently came across a brilliant article about German "inspection shelf" toilets by Planet Germany and it was very instructive. Having grown up in Germany, I never even knew there was a special term for it. Indeed, I thought toilets the world over must look exactly the same. With a flat, well, shelf that has just a little water sitting in it in which you deposit your droppings and which, yes, lends itself to conducting a closer inspection should you be so inclined.

Come to think of it, I WAS so inclined the one time one of my kids - without naming names - swallowed a penny and the doctor instructed me to inspect his bowel movements for the next week or so to ensure its safe passage. Alas, by then we no longer lived in Germany and the inspection shelf was not at our disposal. I won't go into details, but my search efforts were neither pleasant nor successful. We can just hope that the penny somehow made its way out, eluding inspection.

As a German, I feel like I should say a word here in praise of the inspection shelf. In addition to its usefulness for introspection, if I may use that phrase, it also serves as an excellent splatter guard, completely saving you from that pitfall - see what I'm doing here? - of a soaked ass when water splashes up.

Although of course you can do worse than splashing water.

I remember when I was little and we traveled outside Germany for the first time. Everything seemed very exotic and exciting, until I had to pee and for the first time stood face to face with a French squat toilet, one of those holes in the ground stinking to the high heavens. I can't remember what I did that time, but maybe it explains this picture taken in Avignon, France, ca. 1971:

Yep, that would be me taking aim while my mother is smiling for the camera and my brother
looking on with a disgusted look wishing he could be anywhere else at that moment.

It also might explain why I was often constipated on Southern European vacations.

But any toilet is probably better than no toilet. As Marie of Rock the Kasbah fame points out in her so aptly named expat blog post The Shit, 40% of the world doesn't even have access to toilets. I have no idea if that's true but everything else in her story seems very authentic. Go, read it, and judge for yourself. I'll be waiting...

There you go, aren't you glad to be back in my rather sanitized world?

So let's get on with taking a look at the expat toilet situation. South African toilets, I must say, did not stand out in any way to me during our three years there. Which basically means they were absolutely perfect.

For those people in South Africa of course who have the privilege of living in a house with toilets.

I once was given a township tour by the leader of the Kliptown Youth Programme (a place I have yet to write about) and he explained that the port-a-potties such as the below had to be shared by a number of families. I can't remember how many exactly, but it was a big enough number making me appreciate our multiple-toilet home in an entirely new way. He also told us that each family guarded the key to their communal toilet unlike anything else in their possession.



Our life in South Africa might not have been marred by any toilet hardships, but we quite literally lived with shit hanging over our heads, at the very real risk of having it raining down on us some day.

I am talking, of course, of the Joburg sewage pipe spanning in a graceful arch over Dainfern Valley. A beautiful sight, until you first learn what it contains, and then you can't quite bring yourself to ever find it quite as beautiful again as when you thought it was the bridge of a commuter train.

Especially when you read in the local news that thieves have been stealing its aluminum panels again, making the threat of a leak ever so real.

Another very interesting topic for expats in particular is not that of the toilet per se, but what kind of instrument a country prefers for the business of cleaning its collective bums. I could have said wiping, but of course that doesn't nearly cover the whole spectrum. Wiping, it turns out, is an entirely Western habit. For a very illuminating discourse on the debate of water vs toilet paper you should read Maria's essay The Lota Position on I was an Expat Wife.

But getting back to the toilet, at least we never had any drainage issues in South Africa. Which can't be said about our new country of residence. Why in the world American builders insist on equipping houses with waste water pipes that have a diameter of, I don't know, an inch perhaps, if not less, is entirely beyond me. Americans, who from my observations are the most finicky about coming into any possible contact with the slightest contamination, are the ones probably most used to having to wield that dreaded but useful instrument, the plunger.

Because lots of stuff can get stuck in such narrow pipes, trust me. And not just alien objects. All that is needed is for you to have come back from a recent trip to Southern Europe. If you get my drift.

Perhaps the pipes are not solely to blame. It could also be a matter of low water pressure, another uniquely American problem. Maybe you have to make the pipes narrow to increase the travel speed in them given the low pressure? Isn't there some inverse relationship between diameter and speed? I'm embarrassed to admit I have no clue, even though I took a physics major in high school. But you would think some smarter heads would have solved this problem long ago.

While we're talking about American shortcomings in the toilet department: Why are our toilets so low? Last time I checked, Americans weren't all midgets. But when you sit on a toilet here, you do wonder why you've had to lower your backside quite so close to the floor, your knees practically poking into your eyes. Is there any reason for this, I'm asking you?

In any case, we were barely back in the USA for three days when we already had a bowl-overflow emergency. Three years of uneventful flushing in a country further up on the toilet evolutionary ladder, so to speak, had all but erased our collective memories of clogging and its aftermath.

A frantic search for the plunger ensued. Luckily, one had arrived with the recent shipment of furniture we had in storage while overseas. I shudder to think how exactly it was stored in relationship to that furniture in such a tight space. But nevertheless I have rarely been much happier at the sight of a household tool as in that particular instant.

You might have caught me prancing through the house, plunger raised triumphantly.



Some vigorous plunging action (what an apt word) solved the problem. I followed it up with a timely lecture to all (rather unwilling) household members on the merits of flushing in stages. I then got myself into some hot water with my South African friends when I posted about my ordeal on Facebook and insinuated that South Africans probably didn't even know what a plunger was. What I meant to say was that they had such good toilets they probably never needed one, but what came across was that they never used such a lowly tool because they had domestic help.

Quite an uproar ensued. We SO do know what a plunger is, thank you very much, was the collective answer.

So, just to make it clear:

Dear South Africans, in no way do I want to ridicule your prowess with a plunger. I'm sure you're all masters at wielding one, and at cleaning up your own shit.