"¿Donde esta el baño?" "Ou sont les toilettes?" "Ein ahmer-hathe min fathe-lick?"
Some answers to that question can panic a traveler. Perhaps no answer is as disturbing as, "Bathroom? What bathroom?", particularly when delivered with a sweeping gesture toward an endless, featureless landscape.
The toilet habits of Americans are based, thanks to largely urban and suburban upbringing, on high expectations. Indeed, discussions about the relative advantages of one-ply or two, quilted or not, folded or bunched, can go on at length, in certain odd social circumstances, without second thought to the availability of toilet tissue, nevermind an appropriate place to use it.
In privyless generations an outhouse would have been a step up. Pioneers in covered wagons, no doubt, dreamed of a two-holer for the relative comfort afforded as protection from Nature's vagaries. Add pages torn from a Sears catalog and the next thing to luxury was at hand when compared to a few presumably carefully chosen leaves. In fact, toilet paper, per se, didn't appear on the scene until the mid-1800's when a 'thunder mug' under the bed represented real luxury and a commonplace alternative to late night forays outdoors.
But even today the intrepid traveler can be faced with daunting circumstances in search of the illusive excratorium and a wad of TP. In India, for example, you're more likely to find rolls of toilet paper on restaurant tables than in bathrooms, the better to wipe runny noses after spicy food. For that matter, just down your street and around the corner you'll find what are euphemistically referred to as 'sanitary' facilities that are anything but. Even a supposedly predictable restaurant chain's Buoys or Gulls room, with carefully initialed hourly inspection sheets, may leave you wishing you'd found another port in the storm. Modern airliners, with hundreds of engineering hours devoted to what amounts to little more than a high-flying teflon-coated outhouse, may challenge your standards, ingenuity, and athletic skill. And consider the gravity of the situation faced by an astronaut.
You'll be relieved to know, however, that in most other parts of the world people don't seem to worry about these issues as much as Americans. In many foreign countries 'down the street and around the corner' may be where you go...literally and figuratively, with no pretense at sanitary. Simply squatting by the road is considered perfectly modest and acceptable in many places. If they don't worry about it, you needn't either.
No one but American tourists seem to notice the al fresco facilities in Italy or street corner toilets in France, where see-under modesty panels are de rigeur. In Japan porcelain fixtures are a relatively new amenity, replacing a simple hole in the floor. Faced with such a novelty more than one undaunted Japanese lady daintily mounted the bowl facing the wall in a pose not unlike the youngster in the famous Norman Rockwell doctor's office scene.
Admittedly, other cultures apparently do consider hygienic issues, but with a more functional bent. Billy Wilder opined that France was the only country where the money falls apart and you can't tear the toilet tissue. And Americans are often bemused by the water fountain next to the toilet upon their first encounter with a European bidet. King George V proclaimed (from the throne?) that you should always go to the bathroom when you have a chance. In Morocco and parts of India, Africa, and Asia only the right hand is used for eating, ensuring that alimentation and elimination never go hand in hand.
In the end, American's abroad are advised to leave their bathroom habits behind, do what you have to do, and take a roll of paper with you--or at least a copy of this article. As one critic wrote, "I sit in the smallest room of the house. Your story is before me. It will soon be behind me."
A fitting end?