In anger, you hold your tongue. In exasperation, you hold your horses. Under water, you hold your breath. Surrounded, you hold the fort. But for many a tourist facing a disturbingly strange WC, you simply wish you could hold everything.
The travel author Paul Theroux spoke for each of us when he described the convenience station on his railroad coach in his book Riding the Iron Rooster: “It was a hole in the floor about a foot across … traveling 50 miles an hour across the ice and snow of northern China. A gust of freezing air rushed (upward) … Anyone who used this thing would be frostbitten. When (passengers) came out their eyes were tiny and their teeth were clenched, as though they had just been pinched very hard.” I'll wager that we each could tell our similar horror story.
Legend tells us that the modern WC breakthrough came in 19th-century Britain as a result of the work of Thomas Crapper. He perfected the closed-siphon flush. In 1861, when Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert died of typhoid, the grieving queen marshaled the genius of the British Empire to devise a sanitary toilet. Despite persistent reports to the contrary, Crapper did not gain a knighthood from it, but he did have the distinction of being the official plumber to the Queen (according to some research it was Crapper's Frederick Humpherson who really invented the closed siphon, but it is exceedingly doubtful that the Humpherson name will replace Crapper in general usage.)
In a Seattle museum stands in regal splendor what purportedly was an original Thomas Crapper chain-flush toilet. The Seattle display also explains an interesting chapter in that city's history. When Crapper’s invention reached these shores around the turn of the century, some Seattle residents had to elevate their imported thrones as high as 19 feet above ground level in order to overcome uncomfortably chilly surges caused by high tides. Throughout low-lying sections of old Seattle a toilet can be seen hanging high on the side of a wall. Its site, and the perch of the occupant, was dictated by the pull of the moon on the tidal waters of Puget Sound.
The French discerned the usefulness of the indoor toilet before the British. But, along with their numerous laudable qualities, the French tend to shun foreign innovations until they can be reinvented in Gaul. So, instead of the closed siphon, the French for years walled off the upstairs landings of their stairwells and used the straightest-line-between-two-points method dictated by the laws of gravity. (The utilization of gravity was totally acceptable because the French consider it to be a discovery of Blaise Pascal in experiments from the top of St.-Jacques Tower in central Paris.)
In one of our many apartments in the City of Light, the toilet was separated from the rest of the house by a 16th-century oak beam - the primary support of a five-floor historic mansion. The distance from the bottom of the oak beam to the floor of the toilet was about 4 1/2 feet, which dictated the height of the doorway. A phrenologist would be hard pressed to read true meaning into certain bumps on my head. (And this was on Ile St.-Louis, that four-block island in the Seine behind Notre Dame Cathedral where our neighbors included the British royal family, Mick Jagger and the Rothschilds, just to drop a few names.)
My favorite Paris toilet, however, remains a wondrously Gallic amalgamation of aeronautical and hydraulic engineering. The array of dials and gauges, all vital to success of the mission, would rival the dashboard of a classic Citroen. Rather than four-on-the-floor and a synchromesh transmission, however, there were separate levers for pumping and flushing that had to be simultaneously manipulated. This bathroom resembled a U-boat torpedo room.
A world traveler and journalistic colleague, Wallace Beene, later showed me a Tokyo newspaper clipping recounting early perils of the 120-mph bullet trains. The Japanese engineered everything to a state of the art, it seems – except the toilets. These remained the hole-in-the-floor variety familiar to Genghis Khan. When the speed of the train encountered compressed atmospheric pressure in a tunnel, some things actually begin to run uphill that by the normal laws of physics and gravity should not. Rail officials quickly set aside a contingency fund to cover the cost of a hot bath and laundry for inconvenienced travelers.
But leave it to another world traveler and journalism colleague, Bick Lucas, to detail a harrowing personal episode. In seeking nothing more than a rest stop, Lucas almost became a man without a country.
Although most of the town of Basel is steadfastly Swiss, sections lie in Germany and even in France. Without leaving town you can imitate a jet-setter by breakfasting in Germany, lunching in Switzerland and following the Michelin guide to France for dinner.
Seeking only a pit stop before continuing his travels, Lucas double-parked near the Basel rail station and found the shortest route to its facilities. To his later sorrow and amazement, his return to the car was barred by a customs official. He had crossed an international frontier without, let us say, the right kind of papers.
Fortunately, the border guard accepted Bick’s plea in loo of a passport.