Monday, January 11, 2010

Hungarian Bathrooms and Toilets

Rather than proceeding directly to Gombrowicz, I have decided to take a detour into Hungary, to explore its delightful bathrooms and toilets.

Where do baby children come from? In my case, the answer is Hungary. For the four months before I was born, I was living in the capital city of that small Central European country, using its toilets.

There are many things I feel I could tell you about Hungary, the Hungarian language, and the Hungarian people. But most of it is contained in these two observations.

#1: The Three-Chambered Hungarian Bathroom

What I have to say about Hungarian Bathrooms will proceed in several stages.

Imagine that you are me. You are in Hungary and don’t speak Hungarian, but you want some of their reputedly delicious crêpes, which they call palacsintak. You go to a palacsinta house, order some, and eat them. Then you need to go to the bathroom.

Stage Zero: The Door

I walked up to the door, as depicted above. I noticed right away that there was a lot of writing on the door of the bathroom. There was sign after sign, handwritten on differently coloured paper, presumably warning the user against various hazards. I did not understand any word but “Coca Cola,” which didn’t seem relevant, but didn’t dissuade me. I proceeded to Stage One.

Stage One: The Sink

I entered the door. It was a small white room with a sink and a mirror. Right away I noticed that a woman was in it. So this was a unisex bathroom. It was too small for two people, so I returned to my seat. I waited for her to leave.

Stage Two: The Urinal

I kept watch until she had left, and I got up and entered the door before anyone else could get in. I locked the door behind me.

I was once again in the small white room with the sink and the mirror. There was one door leading from it. Nothing was written on it. I walked through the door and entered a second small, white room. It had a urinal in it. I locked the door behind me and began to pee. Then something unexpected happened.

Stage Three: The Toilet

I was standing up and peeing into the urinal. Something I ought to have noticed but did not was that there was a second door leading from the urinal room to a third room, of uncertain content. As a was peeing, the content of that third room—an old woman—opened this door and entered the room where I was peeing.

Please try to visualize this situation. I was standing up, peeing, having twice locked myself into the bathroom. Then, suddenly, from a room whose existence I had not even slightly suspected, an old woman entered and saw me peeing.

Now please try to imagine the situation of the old woman. She was peeing in a toilet room. To get in to this room she had entered the Sink Room, passed through the Urinal Room because it was of no use to her, and finally entered the Toilet Room, probably locking its door behind her. Now she was doubly locked into a room with a man (me) who was standing and peeing.

Such is the strange and confusing state of certain bathrooms in Hungary.

#2: The Hungarian "Show-Me" Toilet

Gentle reader please take note: The picture on the right is not of poop in a Hungarian toilet. The toilet is Hungarian. But that’s kale or seaweed or something in the toilet. I mistakenly bought it thinking it was spinach—a mistake I made because Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, and words sound nothing like anything I’d heard before, and I just grabbed something green and frozen and hoped for the best. I disposed of the kale or seaweed by flushing it down the toilet—but not before taking that picture, which I knew would come in handy some day for a discussion of Hungarian toilets. (I have changed it to black and white in deference to the sensitive among you.)

The toilet in my apartment in Hungary (pictured at right) was extremely strange. I am told that this toilet-design is not exclusive to Hungary—that other Central and perhaps Eastern European countries also use it. I also know for a fact that many toilets in Hungary correspond to the design with which I am more familiar from life in Canada. There is every chance, for example, that the Old Woman in the story above had just been sitting on a perfectly normal toilet. But I have only twice encountered such a toilet as the one under discussion, and both times it was in Hungary, and this time I had to deal with it for four straight months.

One of the American states—I don’t remember which—is called “The Show-Me State.” The Hungarian toilet design here discussed might be appropriately called “The Show-Me Toilet.”
Instead of peeing or pooping into a little pond of water, as is normal in the West, the Hungarian design has you do this onto a little shelf. There is perhaps half a centimeter of water on this shelf, so that if you do happen to poop, your poop sits almost fully exposed on this shelf—“like a patient etherized upon a table,” as an American poet (is Missouri the Show-Me State?) once said.

Bill Cosby has a famous bit about disappearing poop. You’re doing your business, then you’re done, and then you look into the toilet, and your poop is mysteriously vanished. Apparently the Hungarian toilet has been designed specifically to preclude the occurrence of this disturbing event. Your poop has nowhere to hide. It cannot even bathe.

It’s a no-nonsense (I would have said “no-bullshit”) way of treating poop. You just put it on the shelf. Since it’s not underwater, you can not only see it in all its ugly unrefracted three-dimensionality, but you can also smell it far more than usual. It’s the “gritty reality” of which Hungarians are so fond.
The next step is to pull the lever or push the button that releases a jet of water. This jet is supposed to push the poop into the hole, from which it drains into the abyss of the Hungarian Sewage System (a topic, thankfully, I know nothing about.)

The catch is that this jet seldom performs its duty efficiently. This is because the “shelf” is not perfectly flat but slightly cupped. As a result your poop must first clear a “lip” before it can pass into the abyss. It would be too simple to just let it fall straight into the hole. It would be pandering to poop. And it would be too easy for the person pooping to just press the button and leave the room without contemplating what he or she has done.

So you must stand there, depressing the lever, watching your poor poop struggle in the stream of rushing water, desperately spinning away, trying against all odds to vault over the lip and pass into the hole.

Sometimes it simply doesn’t work. After irritating your neighbours with rushing water for half a minute and filling the bathroom with a clean, chloriney, water smell, you have to take some toilet paper in your hand, and actually push the poop over the precipice.

Toilets, it seems to me, exist so that we never have to do this.

Such is the topsy-turvy state of some toilets in Hungary.


Anonymous said...

Dear Adam, Your Hungarian toilet is actually a typical, albeit old-fashioned design with a health purpose: inspection of your poop. In the old Austro-Hungarian medical tradition, kids were taught to inspect their poop as a health measure. Obviously, a healthy body makes good poop -- not too hard, not too soft. Just right. Your toilet is a modern style that enabled people to follow this old-fashioned medical advice!

Anonymous said...


Dealt with these in Hungary too, but they worked perfectly fine unlike what you encountered. As Anonymous 1 points out, this is a health inspection thing - and if your poop is smelling, at leas you know about it and can thus do something about it.

I have heard that this is a "german" style toilet, as they are "that efficient they check their own stool".

Anonymous said...

In the netherlands you have these kind of toilets too, i see them less and less, but I am very happy to be able to tell you I have one in my house.
I'm sure inspecting your poo is good and all, but the thing i like about it, is that pooping does not *plomp* and if there's one thing i hate, it's getting a pee and water mixture agains my sphincter.

Regards, A Dutchman