Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.
Based on some research I undertook in Berlin, I can now tell you why Germany’s economy is so strong.
It’s because they have pay toilets.
This means no matter how desperate you are, or how much your eyes are bulging out of your head, you can’t go to the bathroom without first coming up with some money.
Even if you’ve just had a $300 meal in a famous restaurant and want to freshen up afterward, you’re likely to find a militant-looking madam guarding the entrance to the restroom. “Do I really have to pay?” you can whine self-righteously. “I’ve just had the filet mignon and cherries jubilee and a bottle of vintage wine.”
But you will be cut off by a steely glare and a few arch words in German that you know intuitively mean, “You certainly do, you miserly visitor from a rich country!”
All over the city, there are women in official-looking white lab coats, glowering perniciously from the doorways of lavatories. Each has a spotless fluffy pink dust cloth in her hand, and a 50 euro-cent coin lying eloquently on an old saucer nearby.
The coin indicates what’s expected in the way of a “voluntary donation”; the cloth is purely decorative, but suggests toilet seats you could eat off, if you were that kind of person.
The attendant’s job is straightforward: first, she hurtles herself into the WC, hot on the heels of an exiting customer; then she gives the toilet a resounding, but environmentally irresponsible, second flush; and finally, huffing and sighing loudly, she emerges, looking harried.
Her hunched shoulders imply the job is an exhausting one; the puffing and groaning insinuate, ever so slightly, that the last occupant left something disgraceful behind.
My introduction to the pay-as-you-go system was in Berlin’s main train station, where I rushed with as much decorum as I could muster after our arrival from Prague, my pink wheelie bobbing along frantically behind me.
“Quick, John,” I hissed at my husband, in a dead panic, “find me a euro!”
Between us we cobbled together the exorbitant sum required (about $2) and tried to understand the German instructions to get through the turnstile. But I was so desperate I couldn’t think straight, and was forced to climb over it, discrediting myself and wrecking my hamstring.
“Hey, this ticket gives me 50-per-cent off my next visit,” I called over my shoulder before disappearing into an empty stall.
“Maybe we should hang around a couple of hours so you can use it,” John called back to me. Bargains really appeal to him.
Throughout our visit, the stress of finding both a loo and the correct change was causing me bladder issues. And the coins we were stockpiling made John’s trouser pockets bulge in a vulgar way.
After a week spent lurching from restroom to restroom and sight to sight in this vibrant and exciting city, we returned to Prague.
“But we haven’t used your 50-per-cent off coupon!” John protested as our plane took off.