Whenever folks who have lived or traveled in Germany gather for a beer, sooner or later one subject is sure to rear its ugly head: what is the deal with those toilets?
German toilets are quite extraordinary. Other European toilets - well, the ones that aren't merely holes in the floor - work much like their North American cousins. They are shaped a little differently, but the basic principle is the same: the excrement either lands directly in the water or it slides down a steep slope into the water, before being flushed away. Simple, effective and clean. See?
Not so the German toilet. The excrement lands on a bone-dry horizontal shelf, mere inches beneath one's posterior. Repeated flushings are required to slide the ordure off the shelf into a small water-filled hole, from which it hopefully disappears. See?
I do not understand the purpose of this toilet. It does not save water - you must flush it eight or ten times to remove every last scrape and smear. It is not hygienic - the smell is ungodly. The only conceivable explanation is that Germans love to inspect their stool, so the German toilet of necessity features a built-in stool inspection shelf. I wouldn't be surprised if the more expensive models include a digital scale: "Mein Gott, zwei kilogram!" exclaims Günter, joyful and relieved.
Further research has revealed that the German toilet is in fact designed to facilitate stool examination. This is a wise, healthy practice, argue Germans, a person's best defence against intestinal disease, water-borne parasites or worm-riddled, undercooked pork sausage. While this made perfectly good sense around 1900, thanks to improvements in public health the whole shelf business should have become obsolete shortly after World War II.
Germans, however, see nothing amiss. They actually like their toilets. Some even dislike North American toilets. You splash yourself, they claim. I don't think this is possible. I've never splashed myself sitting on the toilet. For the wave to reach one's bottom, one would need to eject a hefty pellet at tremendous velocity. I think they're making that up.
We've had innumerable bad experiences with German toilets. In Berlin, we lived on an upper floor and the water pressure was too weak to push a healthy-sized log off the shelf. After a few minutes' fruitless flushing you'd be forced to grab a wad of toilet paper and give the horrid thing an encouraging nudge. Then followed a lengthy bout of brushing and cleaning to remove the skid marks from the porcelain. At the other extreme, in Munich we lived in a basement suite where the water pressure was too high. Worse, the shelf was actually slightly concave, forming a shallow bowl. The first time I flushed the toilet the water came rushing through so forcefully that a small chunk of poo launched off the lip and shot out over the floor. After that we always held the lid down when we flushed. I swore you could feel a kick as the turd ricoched off the underside.Occasionally I try to convince Annette to write an article on the history of the German toilet. Instant tenure if she could explain the purpose of that shelf.
Don't believe me? See for yourself.
The German toilet's shortcomings are not limited exclusively to Number Twos. It is almost impossible for males to urinate while standing without soaking the bathroom. Urine sprays everywhere. There is a technique, but is tricky and requires a certain degree of penile agility: bestride the toilet and direct the stream vertically down into the hole at the front of the shelf. If you are sufficiently flexible and accurate, it's relatively clean, though it makes one hell of a noise.
The alternative, of course, is to pee sitting down - the dreaded Sitzpinkel. Herein lies the source of much gender conflict, for German women have become increasingly militant in their efforts to encourage or enforce the Sitzpinkel Rule. It's not uncommon to see little stickers on the underside of toilet lids, reminders to less civilized males that they really need to embrace their feminine side and sit the hell down.
An American friend was once at a party where, on his way to the bathroom, he was accosted by the hostess who demanded loudly in front of the other guests that he not pee standing up. The male counter-reaction has been predictably lame, only a few sad jokes here and there. Me, I've made promises, I've tried to be good, but somehow the instinct not to Sitzpinkel runs very deep. I just try not to spray.
© 2003 Scott Anderson (revised 2 March 2003)