Toilets I Have Known: Part One

19 Jun

So there are certain topics that I tend to avoid, whether in blogging or conversation or thought. I don’t talk about sports. (The only team I care about is the University of Oregon Ducks football team and as we won the Rose Bowl over New Years, what more is there to say?) I don’t talk about politics. (I have opinions but I keep them to myself: far too risky a topic for a person who hates conflict.) And, most of all, I don’t talk about sex. (I turn scarlet and involuntarily hiccup.)

I also do not talk about bodily functions.

Today is no exception.

I am, however, going to talk about something which skirts on the edge of second-grade humor.


No, not the mundane throne sitting in my upstairs bathroom, but rather the exceptional porcelain gods that I have experienced in my traveling life.

Well, none of them were porcelain, actually.

For at least 20 years I have wanted to write about the Toilets I Have Known.

Now’s my chance.

There really are only two which stand out in my mind. There used to be more but I’ve forgotten their details. These two, however, will never be forgotten. Especially now that I’m immortalizing them in blog-land. I’ll tell you about the first one today, and the second, even more exciting one, on Thursday.

EXCEPTIONAL POTTY #1: Location: The Soviet Union, February 1988.

When I was in 12th grade, I went on a school field trip to Russia. Living in West Berlin at the time, this wasn’t that big of a deal. We drove to Schoenefeld Airport (putting up with scrutinizing East German check-point guards as we did so) and boarded a lovely Aeroflot jet. (Okay, “lovely” is not true. Though they did have real silverware, as I recall, none of this decadent Western plastic stuff.) I remember – though this was the return flight – that someone’s balalaika slid back and forth the entire flight in the open overhead compartment with a slightly musical crunch every time it hit the end.

But that has nothing to do with toilets.

We spent several days in Moscow, where, from our historic hotel across from Red Square we shopped at the famous GUM department store, photographed St. Basils Cathedral more times than traditional film cameras deserved, and avoided Lenin’s tomb (crazy-long lines). We saw dancing bears at the circus, watched a newly-wedded couple be photographed in front of the 1980 Olympic ski jump and wondered, constantly, if we were important enough to be followed.

We weren’t.

Though they did tell us that our hotel rooms were likely bugged and we reveled in making cryptic comments and writing notes about items of national security just in case.

We then moved on to a small town – its name now lost to my memory – where they make the famous Russian black lacquer painted boxes. After a long bus ride, we arrived and were told that we could use the facilities if we needed to before entering the factory.

An example of Russian lacquerwork.

Thankful for the opportunity, I walked eagerly into the barn where they told us to go.

Yes, the barn. As in BARN.

I walked through the OPEN barn door. No, it did not close. I’m fairly certain it was frozen open.

I stopped in horror. HORROR, I tell you.

Before I proceed allow me to remind you that it was February. In Russia. No, not Siberia, but it was frigid, just the same. Frigid and frozen and icy.

There, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but barn stalls, doorless, each with a hole in the ground.

And the stench!!!!

I cannot begin to describe it. Suffice it to say that that was the day I learned that even frozen waste can smell.

Despite my discomfort, I didn’t go. I just couldn’t.

Not THE barn, but still, it gives you the idea.

And that is all I remember about that particular town; the entire tour of the lacquer plant was lost in my discomfort and decadent western standards.

I wonder, sometimes, if the political changes in Russia have brought hygienic changes as well. I shall probably never know.

Thursday: EXCEPTIONAL POTTY #2: Location: The Andaman Sea, Thailand

PS – I found these two frozen barn pictures at – there are a lot more neat barn pictures there.


26 Responses to “Toilets I Have Known: Part One”

  1. Minnesota Prairie Roots June 19, 2012 at 8:18 am #

    Wow, that’s quite an entertaining toilet story. I lived for the first dozen years of my life in a house without indoor plumbing. So, in the warm months we used an outhouse and in the cold months, a pot on the porch. Neither ever smelled pleasant, but we had no choice. There might have been a lot of breath holding done to avoid smelling the putrid odor.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 19, 2012 at 8:25 am #

      Yeah, I’ve had a few outhouse experiences that were fairly memorable, but nothing like 12 years of it, day and night, winter and summer! Wow. Cannot imagine Minnesota in the winter and a chamber pot on the porch. I wonder how that has shaped you today?!!!

      • Minnesota Prairie Roots June 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

        Interesting that you should ask how this experience shaped me today. I think, because I had so little in the way of material possessions and conveniences while growing up, I really am not at all focused on “things.” I am happy to have one bathroom in my house because it’s way better than an outhouse.

  2. Eris de Suzerain June 19, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    Ah, the potty stories we could share! My first experience at a “foreign potty” was in Okinawa, where I learned I would have to squat at floor level in a public stall. I was 11, I was horrified but lucky to be limber.

    The toilets in East Block countries didn’t but me as much as the toilet paper – but I didn’t make it to outhouse territory.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 19, 2012 at 8:31 am #

      Thanks so much for your comments! Yes, I’m sure that everyone has good stories to tell – using the facilities is the great social equalizer isn’t it? My parents lived in Okinawa during the ’60’s and I know that my sister would NOT use the local potties – she’d wait the entire day rather than have to use those squatty potties. “Lucky to be limber”!! HA! That made me laugh. And yes, the toilet paper in those Eastern Block countries was terrible – I never have quite understood why they had such terrible TP. I have a friend who used to have a collection of waxy, awful Soviet-era toilet paper. Ahhh, the memories…

  3. Just A Smidgen June 19, 2012 at 8:34 am #

    Oh dear.. should have eaten before I read this one, lol! I have only one memorable one in Europe.. Every young girl before me yelped before coming out.. I thought it odd. Then went in.. yup, hole in the floor that still flushed with water. As I turned to go, the water splashed up and sprayed the back of me legs.. and I yelped. I’m so glad I live here.. and travel to nicer places now! xo Smidge

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 19, 2012 at 8:51 am #

      Wonderful story! I love all the stories I’m getting here! I imagine that everyone has a good toilet story or two – but being sprayed…that’s so not good!!!

  4. lifelibertyeducation June 19, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    Our nasty potty experience was similar. It was the rest area toilets in France. They made me lose respect for the French really. They were the hole in the floor that flushed. Usually had NO toilet paper either. My youngest (4 at the time) was terrified and refused to use the whole in the ground and had a stinky accident in herr pants before we could find a real toilet. I have dealt with so very many disgusting toilets (especially living in the south) but The French squat is forever burned into my memory and has spoiled that nation for me forever.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 19, 2012 at 8:53 am #

      Oh, that is not good! My sister, when she was young, refused to use the potties in Okinawa – some sort of situation. You’d think that, as everyone has to use the facilities, everyone would try hard to have decent ones, wouldn’t you?! But rest areas have bad reputations, that’s for sure! One time in Iowa we came across a rest area that proclaimed itself to be “The premier rest area in Iowa” – we thought that was pretty funny. It was nice, though, at least!

  5. treadlemusic June 19, 2012 at 8:55 am #

    Having never traveled in Europe, all that has been said is definitely ‘foreign’ to me (sorry, just had to write it!) but, spending many many years in tent camping mode in small town/city camping areas, I do have some idea of lackluster facilities. To call some of these structures “outhouses” is to give them too much dignity! Ahhhh, what memories the younger generation have missed!!!!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 19, 2012 at 9:04 am #

      Yes, I can imagine your stories! The whole camping world is one I’ve only dabbled in – and the facilities are part of the reason! It’s not worth it for me – I’ll take a lovely day hike any time – but spending the night…not so much!

      • treadlemusic June 19, 2012 at 9:23 am #

        Years ago, I made the decision to get my own motorcycle so DH and I could carry the necessary ‘creature comforts’ to various biker events…..choosing spots with nicer ‘facilities’. Now, our little 5th wheel camper fills this need if we find ourselves in an overnight event situation. The bikes come out for more leisurely short get-aways and may involve a motel!!!!!

  6. AirportsMadeSimple June 19, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

    Oh my goodness! I laughed out loud. WOW. All I can say is: “Whatever did you do if you didn’t go?” It reminds me of my many and terrible public toilette experiences in France. You can NEVER find a toilette in Paris. NEVER! And those rotunda-like porta-potties in the middle of the street hold VERY unwelcome surprises. Mostly, on the floor of said johns. At one point, my husband paid $10 US for a small muffin at a restaurant just so I could use the bathroom! And, the McDonalds in Paris has bathroom police! I’m serious! I could go on and on…but gotta fly! Cheers, D

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 19, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

      What is with France? They’re getting hit badly in these replies – and for good reason! I don’t get it, that’s for sure. Having to pay $10 for a muffin/potty break is just wrong!!! Anyway, I’m glad you had fun reading the post! Just wait until Thursday!!

  7. bitsandbreadcrumbs June 19, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Toilets in small towns in the south of France are always interesting and “splashy” but my fave (not) was on a boat in the Grecian isles, a hole in the floor that went straight out the sea…that is if you could hit it while rocking back and forth. Probably the one thing—along with the inability to use more than a square of toilet paper and actually flush it throughout Greece—that I didn’t like about Greece!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 19, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

      Ah ha! Just you wait until Thursday’s post!! Hee hee. I can’t imagine that a hole in a boat was too fun – ugh. Yes, France is not known for it’s good facilities, is it? Too bad, isn’t it?

  8. hotlyspiced June 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    You certainly have done a lot of traveling. I remember as a young child being taken to a house in NZ that was high on a hillside and their only toilet was a hole in the ground outside. We all wanted to see it. Like you say, the stench was terrible and the blowflies! So revolting. When the hole filled up they just covered it over and dug another one! Amazing how some people live. Great story Gretchen xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 19, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

      Uff da! I can’t imagine having to live with that – I suppose I’m spoiled. It would be the flies that would be the worst. COULD NOT face that long-term. Just wait until Thursday’s post – it’s going to make you very thankful for your life!

  9. hotlyspiced June 19, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    Oh, and I have some friends who went to St Petersburg to plant a church about 15 years ago. They lived there for about five years. Some of our friends booked a trip to go and visit them and before leaving they asked, ‘Is there anything you would like us to bring you?’ My friend said, ‘A toilet seat’. I’d say things improve very slowly over in Russia! xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

      Oh, wow! Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Not sure I could take that! Great story, though – thanks for telling it!

  10. cravesadventure June 19, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    Ha! – thanks for sharing and cannot wait to hear about the next place:) Have a Wonderful Day!

  11. whatimeant2say June 21, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    I encountered holes in the ground while in Japan, the same country that also had toilets with heated seats and played music. I never knew what I would find. But, I have always wondered how less limber people deal with squat toilets. It seems that there must be a point when some people just can’t squat anymore!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 22, 2012 at 8:43 am #

      Ha, never thought about that! Not good. I can’t imagine heated seats and muzak!! That’s hilarious. I know my dad used to talk about heated towel bars in the USSR – even in the middle of summer when such things were NOT appreciated!

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