Tag Archives: travel

Toilet Tales: Part 9 of 9: A Key to Nowhere

Coming to the end of our journey through the “water closets” of the world that I have, so far, been privileged to explore, we found ourselves in a roadside stopover somewhere in Israel.

This was one of our longest shore excursions, somewhere between 9 ½ and 12 hours – mine and Bill’s memories differ on just where we were on that given day, and my notes aren’t crystal clear on that point either – the downside of seeing so much in such a short span of time on each of our first two days docked in Haifa and our third docked in Ashdod. We covered a tremendous amount of territory those few days – from the Sea of Galilee at our most northern point to Masada on the Dead Sea at our most southern point, and everything between.

Arriving at our roadside stop, my friends and I cued up in two long lines for the women’s restroom while the men’s restroom was virtually empty. The men were able to get in and out in no time at all, but it’s not as easy or as fast for women. Most of the women I know agree that women everywhere should have two full-size restrooms at their disposal for every one the men have, not only lessening the time we must wait but that which men must spend waiting for us, as well. This should be the case in all public spaces where there are lots of people: airport concourses in particular, along with concert venues.

On this day, we were lined up discussing the odds on our tour leaving without us when one of our guides, a male, told the back half of the women’s line, which we were in, that we could use the men’s room and he would stand guard for us. Two at a time in, two out. As long as no men needed to go.

This place was the equivalent of a Stuckey’s-like operation one finds on that interminably long stretch of highway I-70 that runs across Kansas where there is absolutely nothing else to look at for the entire 8 hours it takes to cross the state by car. Unless there’s a tornado. A view of Stuckey’s (though they may have changed hands since last I traveled through Kansas) is preferable to a tornado on the horizon, though it can be pretty boring when that’s all there is to look at. I think anyone who’s had to drive across Kansas would agree.

Anyway, our guide kept watch and sent in a couple of women a little ahead of me as there were no men waiting at that moment. Our line, at last, was beginning to move a bit. I was getting close when another man came up and offered us the use of the separate, and singular, handicapped restroom.

As most of us were leery about going in the men’s room, there were a few also a bit leery of doing this, as well. Doing something we’re not accustomed to doing. Could it be more egregious than using the men’s restroom? So I offered to go first, opening the wide door to the extra space allotted for wheelchairs, crutches, and the like. It was a one-person at a time venue, an entity unto itself, and I was immediately overcome with an impending sense of doom. I considered the possibility this might have been a mistake but managed to push that aside as I’d come this far already, so I locked the door with the key that was already in the lock for just that purpose – to keep others out. I reasoned that, with my usual luck, someone would likely walk in on me if I didn’t, though with Suzanne’s experience on our last trip on my mind, I tried to convince myself everything would be okay.

Her experience would not repeat itself by casting me in the starring role on this occasion. It would be fine. I knew this.

But when I turned the lock back to open the door, it wouldn’t go. My gut reaction was panic. Claustrophobic panic. The door, as many are there, including those on our ship, was floor to ceiling. I wouldn’t even be able to crawl under it. Nope, not even in the realm of the possible. There was no way out, and this room, now quite unexpectedly, did not seem nearly as big as it had when I first walked into it. I pounded on the door and, managing to maintain control of my voice as if nothing at all were troubling me, asked for help. I didn’t even know if anyone was still in line out there.

I couldn’t hear any voices, and my panic began to rise. I pounded again and someone said to do this, or try that – all of which I did. Until, that is, the key broke in my hand. Yes, the metal key, probably as ancient as the country I was in, broke in my hand, my half falling on the floor.

Now I was reaching the point where I couldn’t breathe and wanted desperately to scream, to break down and cry, to get out of this box I was in. They would all be finished by now, grabbing drinks or souvenirs and getting back on the bus. It felt like an hour, maybe even two, had already gone by. I closed my eyes and tried to maintain some modicum of self-control. I could not let this get to me.

Had I been caught on a Candid Camera clip? What a ridiculous scenario to be starring in. I should have been laughing, bowing to the audience. I might have been laughing had I been able to breathe.

Fortunately, someone got an employee to come to the door, and he told me to slide the key under it so he could get it. What? He had to be kidding. I couldn’t even see light under there. Another question crossed my mind – Was this the only key there was?

I was never so glad to hear the sound of someone’s voice, though he was a bit difficult to understand, his heavy accent muffled as it was by the thick door between us. I wasn’t at all sure the key would go under there, there was so little space I couldn’t even see light, but I managed to force it through. Which only meant, of course, that if he failed me, I was without a single sheet of a toilet paper’s shred of hope and on my own, stuck inside.

I wondered how much air was left in here.

Honestly, I am seriously claustrophobic and had to force myself to control the panic that threatened to take over. To inhale deeply, and slowly, to regulate my breathing so as not to hyperventilate. What good would I be to my own rescue if I fell apart now?

The man attempting to help me tried working with what was left of the key I’d slipped under the door. Several long minutes later, the male voice on the other side, assuring me he’d be right back, left to get more help. I never felt so alone in my life. Did they have a crowbar? Would they have to break down the door? Remove its hinges? How long would he be? How long would the others wait for me?

At last my temporary knight in shining armor returned with another key – a whole one that didn’t break when he used it from the outside – freeing me from my restroom prison. I felt a little like Sleeping Beauty whose curse ended with a kiss by a prince. Or Snow White who awakened from her poisoned state when kissed by her prince. But it was my prince who held the key to my kingdom!

I tried to walk out calmly, like a normal person, rather than screaming like a banshee or running toward the light (not that light, though). All I could think was: Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.


Toilet Tales, 4-6 of 9: Expect the Unexpected

Toilet Tales, Pt. 4: Slovenia, Border Checkpoint   Do My Eyes Deceive Me?

Climbing the mountain via steep, tight switchbacks in a Passat we’d rented in Munich, we crossed the border from Austria to Slovenia and stopped for border control at the top where passports and visas would be checked. While we were there, we took advantage of their on-site restrooms as we didn’t know how long it would take us to get to Lake Bled where we had reservations at the Hotel Toplice.

I was told to go to the end of the room and turn left down a hallway where I’d find the ladies room at the end. As I reached the turn I was facing an open door where I noticed a man standing in profile emptying his bladder into a urinal. He looked at me in the same instant I saw him, but nonchalantly continued his business as if this kind of thing happened every day. The door had been left open and I wondered why. Was that conventional here?

Bill assured me that was likely the case. It’s an accepted practice in many places. Compared to many peoples in other parts of the world, Americans are prudish and uptight about everything, but here, and in most parts of Europe, this is a “so what’s all the fuss about” kind of thing. Why not leave the door open in plain view of the office area where what few people, who seemed to cross the border at this junction, came? Everyone does this, and to most, it’s as natural as breathing – and we don’t hyperventilate over breathing in other people’s presence, do we?

Granted, this was quasi-public, sort of, but in Amsterdam they have “pissoirs” on sidewalks in the cities and they come in different forms, the most common is made of metal. If a towel is wrapped around a man’s waist when he goes in there – a towel made of metal, sometimes with cutout designs, sometimes not – anyone walking down the street will see everything but the toweled area. And some pissoirs are wide open and circular. Four individuals, all standing in a circle can take advantage of it at the same time – a public urinal that’s public in every sense of the word. I never saw one of those for women, but I’d have to be absolutely dying before I’d do that on a public street. And the likelihood of my being able to be successful, even if I tried, would be zero, just like at the castle at Heidelberg.

“Checkpoint Charlie” was totally unfazed. I was, well, just beginning to see that things were going to be different from here on out.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 5: Slovenia, Erasmus’ Castle   Balance is Everything

First encounter with a Turkish Toilet…

A couple of days later, we hiked up to the site of Erasmus’ castle, aka Predjama Castle (Predjamski Grad), carved partly out of a high cliff on a mountain of stone in the 12th century. Most of what can be seen today was built outwardly from the stone in the 16th century. On the way up, one finds concessions. They are common here, like they are in the states, but unlike in the states, seem so out of place in this setting.

People selling things to make money off tourists – people are the same everywhere you go. The first person to confront me was a man holding a plate upon which sat a pig’s head. A small one. A piglet. Eyes and all. It was staring at me with its mouth open, its teeth stuck in an apple. A kind of taxidermy at its best. I declined, heading for a restroom I was told I’d find in a little shack – “over there.”

It reminded me of the outhouse of my childhood, but opening the door, I found a ceramic square on the floor and a chain hanging from the ceiling. I presumed, for flushing. No toilet, no seat. It took a bit of figuring out how to approach this task but I managed, albeit with some degree of difficulty. I’ll spare you the details here, but suffice it to say, I don’t know how people manage this without getting into some amount of trouble. You know, with clothes and all. And water gushes out from holes in the porcelain square on the floor when the chain is pulled. The first time you’re caught off guard because you’re not expecting a geyser to erupt, but it does and your gut reaction is to jump up and out of the way. Your second reaction is to catch yourself, somehow, so you don’t slip and, uh, fall onto the square itself.

I never thought I’d be thanking the powers that be for the “normal” toilets we have at home.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 6 Albertville:  All One Can Do is Laugh

Second Encounter with a Turkish Toilet…

Travels, especially those in another country, are replete with strange things you don’t find here. Travel also, I believe, carries with it the responsibility to learn, and with two ceramic squares now to my credit, I have learned some interesting things. The Turkish toilet goes by several names, one of which is the “squat toilet.” I’ll spare you the other names used. You can find them on the internet if you really want to know what they are. And there are several different kinds; the ones I’ve encountered are the “older models,” meaning they are flush (no pun intended) with the floor – they don’t have a raised seat like the toilets we have in the states, and this one didn’t have a “hood” as you will see in pictures. You do not sit; you squat – hence, the name squat toilet.

Laura and I have traveled together in Europe a number of times. One of those being to Albertville in the French Alps, south of Geneva. We took a bus from Lake Annecy, near the small village of Faverges where she lived for a time, and stopped at different towns before arriving there. Albertville is picturesque, quaint, and was the setting for the Winter Olympic games in 1992. We walked through the streets taking everything in, but finding a bathroom became urgent, and Laura suggested we use one in a bar. People do that all the time, she said, and they’re not required to buy anything, either. I was hesitant, but when ya gotta go…so in we went.

We found it, and she went in first. I waited by the sink. Behind the curtain that separated the sink from the room’s reason for being, I found – yes – that infamous ceramic square, aka “The Turkish Toilet” inside what looked like a small, and confining, shower stall with a chain hanging from the ceiling. This little dandy was new to her but not to me. Both were the “older models,” maybe circa 17th century (a wild guess), and this one looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since then either. She’d have to place her feet on the ceramic “pads” on either side and squat, then pull the cord to “flush.” Only the flushing part was like a tidal wave of rushing water when it came. Worse than my geyser had been. That’s when she yelled. It sounded like she’d fallen – and that would have been disastrous indeed.

“What Happened?”

“I slipped,” she said, “and all I could think was, I’m goin’ down!” In an automatic response to impending disaster, she slammed her hands against the walls on either side to keep herself on her feet – testimony to how small an area we’re talking about here. It wasn’t easy, and I grabbed her hand to pull her back up because the entire floor was wet and slippery.

It only took a minute for one of us to break down, and we were soon laughing so hard I could hardly make out what she was saying. “I slipped and almost went down completely,” she said, whereupon we broke out in another round of uncontrollable laughing. She had managed to stay on her feet, thank goodness, but tears of hilarity were streaming down our cheeks.

We knew those walls were paper thin and that those old men sitting on the other side of it could surely hear us and were wondering what we were doing in there – and that seemed even funnier. What if she had fallen? We didn’t have extra clothing she could have changed into. And if she’d fallen at the wrong moment, the water she’d have been soaked with would, well, not have been clean. Would they have even let us back on the bus? This incident, so incongruous, so ridiculous, so incredibly funny when you could stand back and separate it from all its possible consequences, was an absolutely hysterical event.

But only one of so many we have had over the years. Life with Laura – one hysterical event after the other.

We were still trying to get ourselves under control as we walked out of the restroom and, as fast as we could, made our way outside – with every single of those men watching, their eyes trained on us as we walked past them and out the door.

What else can one do in a situation like this, but laugh? Without a sense of humor, we’d all be doomed.

Cinderfella and the Leather Slippers

Bill is very particular about the slippers he wears, and he wears them religiously, especially when we are traveling – dirty floors and carpets full of germs and all that. And never, ever, would he allow someone else to wear them. That would be tantamount to asking rain not to fall. Bill can be so Howard Hughes-ian at times, I could swear he’s at least a distant relative. Even I had better think twice about putting his slippers on and flopping around the house in them, as I’m wont to do at times.

Soooo, when he stepped into the shower after a week filled with sight-seeing and morning to evening side-trips in southern France, he was so exhausted he didn’t realize for the first couple of minutes that he’d done so without removing his leather slippers – the ones with the shearing wool lining. The only kind worthy of adorning his feet. By then, it was too late. They were soaked inside and out. Needless to say, when reality set in a split second later, I couldn’t keep from laughing. I mean, really, how could you not see the humor in it.

Mr. Bill, nit-picky in the extreme about certain aspects of daily life, stepping into the shower with expensive slippers like that – talk about a Priceless Moment! And it wasn’t as if we could go shopping for another pair just like them right then, either. Pretty exhausted by this time myself, I was unable to maintain my composure, and the staid, reserved manner I would normally turn on for a situation like this just wasn’t working for me. It was just too much. The slippers were soaked clear through and squished with the least hint of pressure. Sopping wet – what can I say? I couldn’t help myself.

I left Bill stuffing his slippers with dry washcloths and met Mary Jane and Joe for breakfast that morning, relaying the details of this calamity, engendering another raucous round of laughter as Bill arrived at the table. I’m sure the other diners were wondering what on earth we found that hilarious at such an early hour.

Before we left for the day, Bill was uncharacteristically calm. So calm I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t channeling some stranger. A monk in a secluded mountain-top retreat or Buddhist guru bent on serious meditation perhaps – peaceful men who use words sparingly (or in the monk’s case, not at all). Asking me if I thought a hair dryer might help – I said it couldn’t hurt – Bill un-stuffed the moccasin look-alikes, removing the soaked washcloths, and pointed the hair dryer down their throats.

I hadn’t told him I didn’t think the hair dryer idea would actually work, but it became a moot point anyway as, after a few minutes on high heat, the hair dryer died. Its wire had burned through. Obviously, one non-industrial strength hair drier was not able to manage a big job like this. There was nothing else we could do right then as we were momentarily leaving for the villages of Beaune and Cluny. So Bill re-stuffed the slippers with dry washcloths and placed them in front of the sliding glass door to catch the heat from the sun in the hope that would facilitate the drying process.

Shortly afterward, we boarded a bus to visit some wineries – we could have used a big glass of wine at that moment  – and to soak up the local history on an all-day tour. On the way Joe, reading a copy of the ship’s newspaper, turned to me pointing to a story about Jerry Brown (then governor of California) and his proposal to impose new restrictions on Californians, which Brown deemed necessary due to the drought. He rattled off what they were and said there was one in particular that he thought would interest Bill. It was the one banning individuals from stepping into showers wearing their slippers because they soak up too much water. Too much water, a valuable resource currently in short supply, was being wasted on slippers in need of a washing.

You know how it is when something is set in motion (Newton’s law and all that) – once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. Tears were streaming down my cheeks and Mary Jane and Joe were also making the most of this moment of levity. When I turned to see how Bill was handling being the brunt of the joke, I found him laughing, too. People were looking at us liked we’d lost our minds, but we didn’t care. We were enjoying the moment we were in to the fullest. Too many people don’t, and look at all the fun they miss.

The real test would come this evening, though, when Bill’s slippers, hopefully, would be dry. Would Cinderfella’s soaked slippers still fit?

Everything and Nothing

While en route home from a three-week vacation trip, it seems I left one of my notebooks on the plane stuffed into the seat pocket of the person in front of me. Tight quarters being what they are these days, I’m surprised I didn’t notice, given the 8 ½ x 11 notepad stuck out at the top. My reading glasses, pen, and book were also there, so I’m at a total loss as to explain how I could have left that notebook behind. I would rather have left an arm behind than that notebook.

I had written two blogs and had a solid start on an essay on those pages. I’m sick to my stomach just thinking about it, in tears even. Every single writer reading these words knows exactly how I feel.

In the larger scheme of things, this is nothing, really. Yet in this particular moment it is everything. Everything and nothing at the same time.

And I have to say that it’s all right to over-react, an accusation some might like to make. Not everything has to be compared to the worst thing that might have happened. Not everything, regardless how small, has to be minimized either. Not every smaller event or setback can compare in importance to the larger things in life, but that doesn’t mean littler things don’t count in one moment in time or another. They weigh in differently, but that doesn’t mean they don’t count. Especially if they have a space of some significance in one’s life, however momentary that might be or how irrelevant to someone else.

Life isn’t all or nothing. It’s made up of loads of both big and little things. If a truly big thing had happened, I would be devastated. And no, I’m not devastated, but it is a blow to have lost those words, those thoughts, and the direction they were pointing me in at that specific moment. Moments like that don’t always arrive on time and sometimes not at all,  and the thing is, I don’t recall where they were taking me. Where they had brought me. So much information was processed between my having written them and my searching for them now. I wrote them down and put them away for later digestion. I thought they were safe.

But my brain was on overload the entire time we were gone. We were in Greece, in Israel, in Naples, Pompeii, and Rome. Cities of Antiquity, the Holy Land. There was so much to see and do. So much information to absorb. So many cobblestones to negotiate and cross.

So that which I wrote along the way was set aside as new things were being processed. I wasn’t worried about it. I’d get back to it, polish it off, and send it out when I got home.

Only it wasn’t there when I got home, was it.

I have turned the house and the car inside out three or four times, but I’m going to have to stop now so I can move forward again. Whether it’s writing about something or doing something, there comes a point when we have to move on. Do something else. Let go.

Obviously, I’ve had a bit of trouble letting go. I was hopeful I could write this and get it out of my system by doing so. If you could see how red my fingers are from holding on so tightly, how precious little tension has been assuaged by searching the same places over and over again, how stress lines have formed on my forehead as I sit here going over the possibilities and looking for new places to search, places where I still might find the notebook that’s surely waiting to be rescued.

Letting go? You can see how well that’s worked out.

Burial At Sea – Southern France, Part II

When I think about France, I’m reminded of my daughter, the consummate Francophile. It makes setting foot on French soil without Laura difficult, fostering, as it does, a bout of nostalgia. I visited her several times while she lived there, and we had many adventures, some that revolved around the wonderful cheeses of the Savoy – specifically, Reblochon. Our favorite.

Those of you who’ve been following my blog will recall Reblochon from an earlier post, and the adventures with that cheese continue here.

Laura loves France; in many ways it’s like home to her – and France has Reblochon, one of the best things France has going for it. It’s impossible to get state-side as it’s unpasteurized and forbidden entry into the U.S. because of its “unsanitized” state. So when we are in France, it’s the first thing we buy. That and French baguettes, chocolate, and croissants, of course, and let’s not forget French wine. Who could want for anything with these gracing one’s table?

Because Laura and France are inextricably linked in my mind, when I spotted a small wheel of Reblochon in a local French market last month, I had to have it.

One thing you need to know about Reblochon is that it smells. Most cheeses do, I know, but this is offensive to the max – trite but true. When you step into a small cheese shop there, the mingling of cheese smells can be overwhelming at first, but Reblochon engenders the same affect all by itself. Bill is genteel in his description of it, saying “It stinks!” But one taste erases that unpleasantness. Reblochon spread on a fresh baguette – there is nothing better.

So when I found some in the market, I snapped a picture of it on my iPhone for Laura, then purchased the whole wheel (maybe 6 inches in diameter). If Laura had been there, we likely would have consumed the whole thing at one sitting. Instead, Bill and I put it in the mini-fridge in our stateroom so we could share our cache with Joe and Mary Jane a little at a time. In the first two days, we’d eaten close to three-quarters of it and then, being off the ship more than on, forgot about it for a couple of days.

Who knew the mini-fridge in our room wasn’t working as well as it should have been?

When we remembered it and opened the fridge, the stench knocked Bill back on his heels and permeated everything in the room. It stank worse than ever. It was SO bad. I knew the bad smell that was good and the difference between that and the bad smell that was not good, and that’s what this was, bad to the bone. Even I was afraid to eat it. It had to go, no question about it. But where? How?

It’s safe to l say Laura would have been appalled at this waste of one of the finest cheeses France has to offer.

We considered unceremonious disposal in a public trash bin, but people might have wondered what had died in there. And the smell would creep all over the ship, something we couldn’t risk – couldn’t have people jumping overboard to escape the smell, could we? That would never do. If we put it in the wastebasket in our room, we’d have to sleep elsewhere – and it was too cold to curl up in a deck chair on the balcony or on the upper deck. I envisioned Stefan, our cabin attendant, refusing to clean our room; we didn’t want that either. We even considered asking Stefan to dispose of it for us, but we saw ourselves the talk of the Downton Abbey’s downstairs staff pointing at us in the hallways and whispering asides in the dining room. We’d be ostracized, singled out by crew and passengers alike. Perhaps even set ashore, bags in hand.

The only thing left was burial at sea. Bodies – Cheese: same thing, sort of. Quietly lowering our coveted cheese over the side of the balcony, sheathed in white, we would let it slip quietly into the water and sink to the bottom of the Rhone River. You see it in the movies all the time, with bodies, that is. So that’s what we did.

The mistake we made was this…

We had already tied it up in a plastic bag to cut down the smell before we’d decided on the more traditional, if not outmoded, sea burial idea. We’d twisted the bag around tying a knot near the middle thinking of that beloved cheese as garbage now. Garbage sitting in the bottom of a white plastic bag from which I’d not extruded all the residual air. It was still dark, so tying a second knot close to the top, I hung myself over the side as far as I could safely manage so it wouldn’t splash when it landed in the water. But we weren’t connecting the dots well. We didn’t think “plastic bag” and how one tied the way this one was would behave when lowered into the water.

It would float – as our own Reblochon did, adopting the statuesque pose of a swan moving just off the side of the ship on its way toward the Mediterranean Sea, its head held high and proud.

It failed to sink like I thought it would. In my haste to get it into the water unseen before dawn broke, I neglected to poke a hole or two in the plastic so it could fill with water. Instead of sinking, it sailed away silently like a symbolic lantern in the Japanese Lantern Festival guiding the souls of the dead to their homes and then back to their resting places – the floating paper lanterns creating a vision of peacefulness and harmony as they commemorate the dead.

It was a beacon unto itself.

Our ceremony for the dead Reblochon, cast as a singular, lost, plastic swan, was heading out in search of its family, too. A silent swan, set adrift alone on the high seas – the Rhone River substituting for the ocean. I doubt it knew the difference. No fanfare for a legendary cheese well-made. No salute to the Savoy. Bill noted: “We sent her off into the sunset (or rather, sunrise) masquerading as a swan.”

When we got home, I saw a brief article on the internet about the “10 Foods You Should Never Eat Overseas.” Guess what was on it.

According to the FDA, drinking unpasteurized milk or eating unpasteurized dairy products like cheese or ice cream is 150 times more likely to cause a food-borne illness than pasteurized dairy products, it said. Pasteurization (or irradiation, in some countries) kills a myriad of nasty little suckers like salmonella, E. coli, listeria, and other harmful bacteria that can be found in raw milk.

Though it was difficult to part with knowing I wouldn’t be having any for a long time to come, it was probably a good thing we didn’t try to eat it. On reflection, Laura would surely have agreed…maybe.