Toilet talk, European style

Let?s talk about toilets. We take the free use of lavatories for granted in the United States. But, as was once again confirmed on a recent trip overseas, the same cannot be said for European bathrooms. One does not pee for free.

In America, and I use that term specifically for the United States, I have never had to pay to use a restroom. At least not directly. Public places nearly always provide a gratis public toilet.

I have been in private businesses that proclaim that bathrooms are for customer use only here in the States. Some of those restrooms, however, are nearly unfit for use by humans. The smell more accurately resembles a monkey cage at the zoo than a sanitary place to take care of business.

I do have to say that European facilities are often cleaner than their U.S. counterparts. I can only assume that the cleanliness is a direct result of the income generated by users.

I also sensed a bit of pride by the attendants at some public restrooms. At one Italian water closet in particular, I witnessed a man cleaning the grout between the tiles by hand with a small tool between assessing the 50-cent fee for each patron. I assure you, that made it easier to justify the payment, which can range from half to a full Euro, the equivalent of about $1.40 in American money.

My wife pointed out that this system tends to encourage a person to take his or her time, using all the toilet tissue required to do the job without any remorse at wasting time or provisions. After all, she says, you might as well get your money?s worth.

Besides the fee charged overseas, I have noticed another difference between bathrooms here and abroad. There is far less emphasis on separation of the genders in Europe.

It is not unusual to find an attendant of the opposite sex in a restroom, but, generally, each toilet stall has a locking door that provides a sense that the user is in a separate space, a completely isolated room. So, males and females only mix in the washing area. It doesn?t take long before this is no big deal.

I did notice this trip that there must be a premium placed on toilet seats, as a person would have to look into several stalls before finding a bowl with a plastic ring. Do these have a high street value in Europe?

I can?t even imagine a scenario in which I would remove a plastic seat and leave the facility with it. The attendants must be in on it, turning their backs to the capers. Or, more logically, the seats might just get broken and are not quickly replaced.

One of my fellow travelers and I had a strange encounter with a public toilet in Paris. By law, these must be free. Many of them are automated and resemble high-tech porta-johns.

First, the patron must push a button to allow access. The revolving door opens, then shuts behind the user. There is no visible lock or English language indication that the door is secure. I nervously went about my business, fearing the entryway would slide open without notice.

It never did. I pushed a couple of different buttons in an attempt to flush, but all I received for my efforts was a spoken message in French, which, obviously, did me no good. Eventually, the door reopened, and I can only assume the desired flushing took place.

The person with me also wanted to use the restroom, but once the door closed, a red light indicated it was out of service. We figured out the toilet cleaned and sanitized itself between each use. Not a bad idea, unless the person needing to go is in a big hurry.

Of course, the trip was not all about restrooms. The group traveled to London, Paris and Rome. I had been to England and France, but had never ventured into Italy. Here are a few observations about my first foray into the country.

The Coliseum in Rome seated between 50,000 and 70,000 spectators in its day. According to our guide, the venue could fill in 40 minutes. The wooden floor was covered with sand, which in Latin is ?arena.? Hence, our word for the place where an event takes place is an arena. The emperor paid for the games, and he generally lost money, much like the cities who host the Olympics these days.

Street vendors are everywhere in Rome. At the first drop of rain during our visit to the Vatican, the sellers of umbrellas and raincoats came out of the wood?work to offer their wares.

In the chapels we visited, men were employed to constantly tell tourists to be quiet so those who wanted to could meditate. I found it ironic that the periodic announcements were more distracting than the noise coming from the tourists.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn?t built in a day. And, with traffic congestion that boggled the mind, it can hardly be driven through in a day. Lines painted on the street to control traffic are mere suggestions. The motorcycle riders are nuts, working their way through cars, buses and trucks within inches of mirrors and bumpers.

I know next to no Italian, but because so many of our English words have Latin origins, I was amazed at how many signs I would sort of recognize. Our tour director told us the Italians speak several dialects, and they are generally very proud of their language. That might be why their discussions are so loud. They also use their hands a lot, even when on cell phones.

Gas prices were about 1.90 Euros per liter, so Smart Cars are an intelligent move. That price translates to about 8 Euros per gallon, which would be somewhere north of $10 for us.

Though there is a significant police presence in the Italian cities, I never saw one make a traffic stop. The state police are known as the ?polizia,? and if you need to call for a national officer, you need to know the Italian word for him or her is ?carabinieri.? By the time you manage to say the word, it may be too late.

One of the most interesting things about Rome is the seemingly random mixture of ancient ruins and modern buildings. In several places, the two are combined into a unique architecture.

Some members of the group had the privilege of visiting the ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii, destroyed when Mount Vesuvius interrupted in the first century A.D. The people were caught by surprise as the town was buried under tons of ash and volcanic debris. Much of the city has now been excavated, giving visitors a glimpse of life in the moments before all residents were killed. I was amazed to gaze at tracks made by roman chariots and wagons in the rocks used to pave the streets.

We finished our trip in the Sorrento region at the top of the Italian ?boot.? I would rank the area as one of the most beautiful I have visited in Europe. The farmers there grow lemons the size of grapefruits, and their oranges are some of the sweetest I have tasted.

And, as a bonus, the rates for using the bathroom were also quite reasonable.