International Travel and the Porcelain Throne

As much time as I spend atop toilets, differences in them get noticed. This was one of the more memorable, if offbeat, experiences for me in traveling overseas. Granted, I haven’t yet sampled some of the infamous “hole in the floor” outhouses and butt-squirting surprise toilets known to exist elsewhere in Europe; but there are subtle, yet notable, distinctions between the most common ones encountered here and there. These can make the difference between a pleasant, annoying or even very unsanitary experience on a trip, so pay close attention and take heed of my advice.

The American/Canadian commode usually features an attached, external water tank. It has a deeply sloping, conical bowl hole, either symmetrically centered or slightly askew toward the back (rectal) portion of the bowl. This design allows droppings to immerse quickly in a protective aqueous bath, with minimal “skid mark” residue initially. The protection, of course, goes both ways:

  1. The solid (or semi-solid, if on a high fiber diet) wastes are as far as possible from further contact with the human producer, and
  2. The human nose is protected from adverse aromas evaporated from all but the loftiest of the piles that occasionally protrude from the water surface. [Note that most of the putrefaction in American restrooms originates either from urine thoughtlessly deposited outside the commode bowl, unflushed protrusions of droppings above the waterline, or most commonly, frequent flatulent interludes during the waste deposition process.]

Any skid marks tend to be in a downward spiral pattern, related to the rotation of the waste plume as it is flushed, the volume of the droppings pile, the presence of anomalously long and thick logs of waste, and the tendency of toilet paper to sandwich solid waste against the bowl’s wall.

The flush handle usually rests at upper left of the front of the tank, as in the specimen illustrated above. Sometimes it may be centered on the tank lid, or in many commercial facilities, protrudes from an attached metal pipe directly above and behind the back of the bowl.

The Italian toilets that I encountered differed little from the American/Canadian models, except the water tanks of many lay behind or within the restroom wall. In this example, the bolts protruding from the black ceramic plate support the tank on the other side of the wall. The tank isn’t in the way; however, routine maintenance that you and I take for granted (such as pushing down or replacing the rubber pipe stopper to halt a gasket leak) would involve invasion of the wall with time, tools and hassle. A subtle piece of sanitary ingenuity lies in the location of the flush button behind the opened lid. It allows one to simply push back on the opened lid to flush, or while still sitting, lean back firmly against it.

The Austrian commodes (sorry about the knee in the shot!) were the most entertaining, if not the most sanitary or straightforward in design. There, residential toilet bowls, including those of guest houses and other small lodging facilities, most commonly rest noticeably beneath a detached tank with top-mounted flush button. Often a wall-mounted water heater tank for the whole residence or guest room sits high on the wall above the toilet tank. These apparatuses reside in their own closet — an altogether separate room from the sink and bath/shower area. Such a partition necessitates leaving post-event hand germs (or even fecal residue, if the toilet paper was mis-folded or improperly aimed during use) on the inside door handle before hands can be washed; so beware and be careful.

The most curious characteristic of the common Austrian toilet is in the bowl itself. The hole drops asymmetrically from the forward quadrant, in front of a shallow and nearly flat platform which holds a centimeter or two of water between flushes. My unease with this setup was twofold:

  1. A tall, standing man almost cannot help but splash drops of liquid waste out of the bowl without very precise aim directly downward into the bowl hole. Only a minor overcompensation makes the floor very messy, very fast.
  2. Solid waste stacks up on that platform, not in the bowl hole. This yields a distinctly deleterious degradation of air quality, especially in such small rooms. Also, if the pile is large enough, one may have a direct physical encounter with it before flushing, if not moving and wiping very carefully.

The flush water in such a commode cascades forcefully from the rear, shoving solid waste piles off the platform and depositing them in the forward hole. Often, heavy piles initially dam much of the water before slowly sliding over the edge under the relentless momentum of the current. This may leave a wide skid mark on the platform’s precipice, while redirecting a portion of the torrent above the plane of the bowl top. Therefore one may get his or her bottom considerably wettened if the need arises to flush while sitting.

In conclusion, I prefer the Italian commode for its ease of use and the American/Canadian archetype for overall performance and sanitation. One always should consider the engineering and design of the unit before use, as well as concepts of gravitationally driven fluid dynamics, in order to avoid potentially noxious or messy surprises.


3 Responses to “International Travel and the Porcelain Throne”

  1. Joel Genung on August 24th, 2005 2:37 pm

    Roger, You’ve outdone yourself on this one! Great post. This recalls my time in Turkey as an Army dependent in the mid-1950’s. Our family had just taken possession of our rental apartment and my mother, a proper Midwestern girl, had never ventured beyond US shores and was far less experienced than my Dad in worldly customs. The apartment was still void of furniture and as she was exploring the empty rooms, she stumbled upon the “Turkish commode,” a sinister-looking ceramic hole in the floor with two grooved protuberances forward of the hole, where one placed one’s feet during the squatting process. Upon seeing this, she immediately burst into tears and exclaimed to my father that she “Can’t use this!” Fortunately, the same room contained another door, which led to the “American” toilet, thus saving the day. For our entire 2-year stay, the Turkish toliet served as our storage room and was never used (at least to my knowledge) during the time we occupied the apartment.

  2. Sigrid Ueblacker on August 29th, 2005 1:03 am

    You got it right. Those Austrian Toilets are so bad! I do not understand why they are this way.
    But there is a reason, at least this is what my sister told me: you are in the great position to self examine the job you just did and maybe become arware of any irregularities sooner than just dumping the stuff in a hole.

    I could not quit laughing, and found it very amusing that you spent time to write about this subject.

  3. Chuck Doswell on August 31st, 2005 9:04 am

    Great post! Well written, albeit a bit turgid, but then … that’s your style. I’ve had all the experiences you describe in my European travels, including the infamous hole-in-the-floor toilets in Italy, although some actually have a flushing action! The Chinese are also known for the hole-in-the-floor type, but I didn’t encounter them in the American-style hotel I stayed in while recently in Beijing. Anyway, your descriptions are spot on, so to speak. At least they leave brushes for you to clean up the inevitable skid marks remaining behind after the piles are swept away and, for the most part, people do just that without even the need for a nasty sign prompting folks to clean up after themselves. But a redesign along American lines would render most such clean-up (not all, as you noted) unnecessary.

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