Back in ’93, my neighbors in Houston were an unusual couple: Johnny and Karen. He was Mexican as can be, albeit a tall Mexican (the rarest kind! Ha!), and she was from Germany. When I mentioned that Honey and I were packing up our lives and children and moving to London, Karen beamed and said, in her vaguely clipped but excellent German/American accent, “Oh, you will just LUFF the British! They are Wonderful!” And she was, of course, right. She then leaned into a conspiratorial closeness, adding, “Just wait until you see the toilets!” Confused and a trifle alarmed, I replied, “What about them?” “Oh, YOU’LL see…” she whispered darkly. And so I have.
British sanitary ware (the toilet, if you will, but for those of us with American sensibilities, this is an uncomfortable and slightly embarrassing word at best) is little short of an adventure. Or, to quote Forrest Gump, “You never know what yer gonna get.” Will it be a box hung just eyebrow height on the wall poised to black your eye? You know the ones – the classic WC, where the tank and the bowl are separated by a yard or more of piping and the mechanism is triggered by pulling a long chain that looks to have been recovered from a Medieval torture chamber, a relic of the Inquisition softened only by its hand-painted china handle. They look slightly romantic filled with pansies and watercolored onto “Victorian” greeting cards in Midwestern gift shops, but in reality, not the most efficient of man’s inventions. Mind, it is a step above the chamber pot. Just.
In the 50s, the design of the toilet over here changed slightly. There was still a separate tank and bowl, but through the mid 1900’s apparently a separate tank and bowl, but through the mid 1900s apparently a separation of only 18 inches to 2 feet sufficed. Uber modern. These are the decorative equivalents of the Reliant Regal, yet some of these have FANTASTIC water pressure. You flush and it’s like you’ve opened the gates on the log flume.
Other times, you have to repeatedly pump the lever to build up the water pressure – loo foreplay, if you will – priming for the actual flush. When the toilet finally acquiesces to your ministrations, the whole room shudders and you get the sensation that this is not just disposal of your waste.
This, my friends, is a proper FLUSH.
Not only have the contents of the bowl disappeared, but a good 3 cubic meters of air surrounding the toilet has also been pulled out of the room. You may have trouble opening the door to escape due to the vacuum, but, as we all know, this ain’t altogether a bad thing. Still, it is all part of the adventure.
The newer toilets can’t quite compete with the effect, but they are certainly more attractive alternatives. The bowl and tank over the decades have crept closer, to the point where now, in the 21st century, you can actually, yes, my friends, you can ACTUALLY get an English toilet where the bowl and the tank actually touch! Some of them are even ONE PIECE. Can you believe.
Cue rays of light from Heaven… choirs of angels… the soft rush of water through a well engineered cistern…
Mind, with the wonders of quarter-inch piping to the mains coupled with water so lime-hard you can practically skate on it, there may be times you long for the days of the elevated tank flushing system. Particularly if you are going for the “second flush.” Now don’t be coy. Y’all KNOW what I’m talking about. So long as you don’t mind spending an extra 7 minutes waiting for the tank to refill, you are fine. Yes, I have timed it.
For most of us though, who like to put as much distance between ourselves and the scene of the crime as is humanly possible, this is a mortifyingly painful experience. In those 7 minutes, you have cracked a window, frantically searched for a box of matches (the sulfury wooden ones that adorn all European bathrooms – they are not for lighting candles, people!), then spent a good deal of time sitting on the lid twiddling your thumbs and listening to the slow drip of water into the tank whilst your dinner guests are left wondering if you suffer from IBS.
Yes, it is all part of the adventure. When one’s dignity is in shreds, the only real alternative is humor.
- feature photo of Brit toilet: ansionnachfionn.com
- second loo: lushhome.com
- third loo:britloos.co.uk
- modern loo: supplierlist.com
P.S. Speaking of shreds… some people must have really, really slow toilets!
And my personal favorite…
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