Bog Blog: It’s a Matter of Convenience…
My mother’s favourite sayings about not doing housework went down rather well with readers last week (you’re clearly all just as slovenly as I am), so here’s another of her wonderful maxims that made me the woman I am today: “Never pass a toilet without using it.” Now, it’s probably sensible to take this one with a pinch of salt, particularly if you’re in a well-facilitated office or shopping mall and have things you actually need to achieve with your day – some of the malls out here have loos every fifty yards or so and if I took Mum’s advice literally it would take me all day to get from one Starbucks to the next. But the essence of the advice is very wise indeed: you’ll never be caught short if you make the most of a convenient convenience.
One is unlikely to be caught short in the average villa or apartment in Dubai. As I mentioned in a previous post about food poisoning, our two bedroom apartment boasts no fewer than four toilets. FOUR! We have two each! We can rotate or alternate, just for fun! It is a blessing not to have to decide who gets to go first on returning home from a long journey, and we don’t have to take turns in the morning when getting ready to go to work (waiting for someone else to finish in the bathroom is a desperately unique and lonely agony).
That’s the private privy, though; the public loos out here are actually quite diverse and their style depends entirely on the part of town you’re in. Some restaurants, parks and malls feature the traditional squatter – a horror that never fails to make the average expat recoil in utter dismay. I’ve seen many a poor woman queue up for ages only to have her anticipatory relief cruelly shattered by the sight of a perilous, porcelain hole-in-the-ground. They stop, reverse and return to the queue; their silent eye-contact seems to say, “Quite frankly, I would rather die.” Such lavatories are of course fine if you’re familiar with the procedure and have a cunning clothing strategy, but I wouldn’t usually choose to use one. Any port in a storm, though, and I have sometimes had little choice when travelling and in a bit of a tight spot… On a trip into the desert last year, the only loo available was a filthy squatter at the back of an old petrol station. I’ll spare you a detailed description of the loo itself – I’m sure you can picture something suitably stinking and medieval – but here’s a photo of the alleyway outside it… I know, I know. I should have been warned. I should have turned back. It doesn’t exactly lead one to expect a glittering palace of hygiene, does it?
I was interested to read in the UK press this week that unisex toilets are increasing their presence back home. Brighton and Hove City Council are pioneering these ‘gender neutral’ facilities for many reasons – partly to make public toilets more family friendly and partly for the inclusion of transgender individuals (for those of you with suitably poor taste, feel free to insert a pun here about coming out of the water closet…). Presumably it’s just a more economical and pragmatic approach too. I understand these arguments, and I’m sure many parents will be delighted that baby-changing facilities are no longer to be restricted to the female facilities, but – am I the only one who finds public unisex loos a bit disconcerting? I once worked in a school that had unisex staff toilets and I have to say, it was simply appalling. It’s easy to get emotive about something so personal, but it felt fundamentally wrong to be washing my hands and straightening my tights whilst standing next to my male head of department. Of course there is also the issue of dignity and privacy – again, I won’t get bogged down with unpleasant details, but, when it comes to strangers of the opposite sex, there are certain sounds and smells one simply shouldn’t have to be subjected to… My measured language here belies my true strength of feeling on the subject: inside I’m screaming, IS NOTHING SACRED?!!! In my humble opinion, unisex public loos could only work if each individual cubicle had its own hand basin and mirror, was self-cleaning, sound-proof and HERMETICALLY SEALED.
Some ‘washrooms’ in this part of the world are dazzlingly high-tech, with toilets that flush themselves, automatic taps and soap dispensers with invisible sensors and those extraordinary air-blade hand dryers that blast you dry in five seconds flat, rippling the flesh on the backs of your hands. It’s easy to get used to these modern facilities and I sometimes find myself in public toilets in Britain, waving my hands about in a vague and confused way, only to experience the extraordinary revelation that I actually need to rotate a handle or address some sort of lever in order to make water and soap happen. On flying home, the contrast between the glossy, automated loos of Dubai airport and the grubby grief-holes of Heathrow never fails to startle me. After disembarking the plane, it’s my first real taste of home and what a vile taste it inevitably is… For prodigal daughters of England and indeed travellers from foreign lands, these airport loos – with their broken locks and toilet seats, dirty floors and absence of toilet paper – are a rather sorry welcome to our green and pleasant land. The toilets on the trains as I complete my journey home are equally awful. Have any of you experienced those strange, large loos with the automatic semi-circular door that slowly rolls open to reveal the toilet within – as if it’s the top prize on Family Fortunes? The system of buttons is horribly confusing for anyone vaguely intimidated by technology, and there’s the feeling of not quite being in control… On a deeply primitive level, one likes to be within leaping distance of a door handle, lest the toilet door should suddenly fly open (is that just me?). In such loos, there is always the horrifying thought that the automatic door might just start slowly sliding open to reveal not only the Family Fortunes prize but some poor, startled punter perched atop.
I was taught to appreciate a good loo from an early age. On camping holidays as a small child, my mother and I would always pop in to inspect the facilities before we settled on a particular camp site for the night. I was never exactly clear about what our objectives were with these missions – there were no rigid criteria – but there were obviously certain complex, unwritten codes of hygiene provision that needed to be met. Many of the facilities in this part of the world would more than meet my mother’s high expectations, I’m sure. Some of the loos here are marvellously ostentatious and luxurious. The Ladies in the posh hotels are simply a joy to behold: they sparkle with gold and marble. There are huge white hand basins with shining taps, softly lit mirrors and beautiful upholstery like a prima donna’s dressing room. No soggy, sagging roller-towel dispensers; these lavish lavs have piles of soft, freshly laundered handtowels. There is something quite blissful about choosing from a range of fragrant soaps and hand creams, sitting in an armchair and doing your makeup with a place to actually put your handbag down without it getting soaked. A really good bathroom isn’t purely functional, it is a peaceful, sanitary sanctuary. Beautiful loos are to be appreciated on both an aesthetic and an anatomical level and can be a pleasure in themselves. So, dear readers, to amend my mother’s advice ever so slightly – never pass a really nice toilet without using it…