Sunday, October 17, 2010

So many beautiful things (excluding public toilets)

Every weekend, I make a point of taking in at least one tourist attraction. So far, I've spent an afternoon in Cologne, visited Bonn's botanical garden, hiked to a hilltop castle, seen a modern dance performance, spent a day in Dusseldorf, strolled along the Rhine River, checked out the Beethoven Museum, and walked through Konigswinter's wine region.

It's good to do these things in small doses. Setting aside a few hours on a Saturday to see the sights is better than spending the entire weekend rushing from museum to castle. But this has nothing to do with a preference for quality over quantity. This is all about a lack of public toilets in Germany.

I would love to spend more than three hours wandering around Bonn on a Saturday afternoon but my bladder won't let me. There are no free public toilets anywhere.

There are public washrooms in the train stations but these usually come with a one-Euro cover charge. Unless you limit your sightseeing to a one-kilometre radius around the train station, you'll be nowhere near a public toilet when the urge strikes. And don't make the mistake of thinking McDonald's is a toilet safe haven -- the one place where you don't have to buy anything to use the bathroom.

I made that rookie mistake in Dusseldorf. I had been walking up and down the same street five times desperately looking for the "WC" marked on the map (this was before I realized the "WC" symbol dotted all over the map didn't refer to the location of a "water closet" but to "wheelchair" access).

So I ducked into a McDonald's, where I was surprised to see a toilet attendant stationed outside the stalls. She sat on a chair beside a table with a small pile of coins on it. There were no signs but the message was clear -- pay up if you want to use the toilet.

I mean, I probably didn't have to pay but this woman was a professional and she knew how to play the guilt card. I was washing my hands in the sink when she jumped up and handed me a paper towel. It was a strategic move. I couldn't get a paper towel with my hands still occupied under the running faucet. She had anticipated my needs and provided a service (albeit a service I didn't want or need). My conscience wouldn't let me walk out of there without adding a couple of coins to the pile.

This wasn't a five-star hotel. This was a McDonald's. A place where homeless people and non-paying customers should be able to use the bathroom for free. I'm not opposed to paying to using the bathroom in general. Just not at McDonald's. Multi-billion dollar corporations should give something back to the community. Free public toilets is the least they can do.

So I limit my sightseeing to a few hours on the weekend. But no matter where I go or what I do, there is always one common theme -- a desperate need to use a bathroom and an inability to find one.

Toilet troubles aside, I have seen so many beautiful things on these little sightseeing trips. Trees wrapped in misty morning fog along the Rhine River. Frank Gehry buildings sparkling and shining in the afternoon sun in Dusseldorf. Trees blazing in the throes of autumn beauty in Bonn's botanical garden. Grapes growing under rocky mountains in Konigswinter.

I only stayed a few hours in each of these places. I would have stayed longer but I had to use the bathroom and there were no toilets in sight. This is the story the photos don't tell.

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