The International Art of Sharing a Bathroom


In London, I found myself in a room with one guy and eight women. One of the eight women belonged to the guy, his piece of the pie; another was older and traveling on her own, wandering in and out of the room in a state of purposeful oblivion, pretending that none of the other nine people existed; the six remaining girls belonged to each other, gifts from Sweden (I guess – Americans always see blonde hair and assume Sweden), six blonde girls who rose with the sun and went to bed before the football games were over. For the five days I spent in London, I never saw them out of their beds. They slept in their beds, talked while lying in their beds, read in their beds, argued in their beds, dreamed of blonde boys in their beds, grew older in their beds, and stretched out in their beds right before waking up, opening like big feminine flowers covered in yellow hair and white underpants. And then, as orderly as the rising of the sun is, they would all head to the single bathroom we were all to share, one right after the next, showering and getting themselves prepared for their upcoming out-of-bed experience at an average time of 16 minutes a pop, the quieting of the siren-esque bathroom fan working as my only signal that their lavatorial pilgrimage had finally come to its sparkling end.

During those five days, the bathroom became a prize, a gleeful surprise, sort of like how it felt when I was a kid and we’d somehow get free HBO for two days. Spending more than a quick two minutes in its slightly off-white confines felt as if I was stealing something and, just as the glorious gift of free HBO eventually would end, turning back to a disfiguration of scrambled colors, I would, inevitably, feel the mild heartbreak of losing my bathroom again, usually at night, when the carousel of corporal cleansing would resume. One blonde after the next, water/flush/water/bed.

It was our communal toilet, and yet it clearly had ownership. Every house, I think, has its own de facto toilet controller, one who dictates the daily habits of others, whose bowel and bladder routines work as a green or red light for everyone else. It is an understated fact that the last two generations of Americans, who seem to embody independence, self-determination, and an early sense of self-awareness, have learned so much of that from growing up in houses that have more than one washroom. One really gets to know him or herself, both inside and out, when there is always a washroom with unlimited access.


Dublin. This time, my room had a whopping 15 other people in it. There were 16 of us in total, an odd collection of trading cards, one guy from Germany who was studying to be a doctor, an Irish guitar player staying in the hostel until he could find someplace better, an uncountable number of Brazilians there to learn English, and a boy and a girl from Frankfurt who everyone thought were a couple but who in fact were not (must be her decision, I think; friend zone, poor guy).

At the far end of the room was the bathroom, where there were two showers and two toilets. The room itself was a mess, bags everywhere, clothes thrown about like everyone undressed in stripper-take-off-and-toss fashion, arms or legs sometimes sticking out from beds, jackets thrown over the exit signs to mute the neon green light that, let’s be honest, drew way too much unnecessary attention to itself. However, to my delight, the bathroom was, against all odds, fucking spotless, so clean that I half expected to see a man in a suit inside, sitting on a stool by the sink and handing out paper towels (which I would refuse, because I don’t want to tip). There were no stray hairs wiggling down sink drains, no urine drops dotting the toilet seats, no greenish brown fungus-dirt stuck in the corners that one day would be the subject of advanced archaeological studies.

It was divinity. Immanuel. God on Earth. At the end of my stay, I thought back on the hostel warmly. I think that no matter how bad a place is, if the bathroom is nice and clean, it can be a home. Likewise, if your pristine palace has a disgusting horror movie of a restroom, prepare for depression to overtake the place like a poltergeist. Love cannot live in a house with a dirty bathroom. Forget family or couples therapy; the real way to save or salvage everything around you is to invest your money in a Swiffer, some Glade plug-ins, and a lifetime supply of those things that turn your toilet water blue as the Atlantic Ocean when you flush ‘em.


In Brussels, Belgium, the bathroom was schizophrenic, broken, shattered into a million pieces like someone dropped it on the floor; there was a sink in the room, a toilet outside, and the showers were located at the bottom of a dark stairwell that an English guy in the room with me referred to as being ‘dungeon-like.’ The shower had nothing along with it, just a spout and a button to press to make the (cold) water shoot out. There wasn’t even a soap dish, forcing me to gently place my soap on the shower floor like a prison inmate who had decided to just give up. Directly outside the shower was a miniature cubicle where my clothes could narrowly avoid being drenched in water, and where I would later use my little towel to wipe all the cold water off my back before it turned to ice.

The entire experience felt disorienting, directly leading to hours of wandering Brussels in sheer confusion, unable to read maps or follow streets before they themselves, like the bathroom, split apart. On my final day, I woke up to find one of the other guys urinating in the sink, still drunk from the night before and unable to stumble over to the toilets outside. Nobody said anything. I pretended to sleep and listened, disgusted but empathetic, as he straddled the line between narrowly avoiding an accident and engaging in unusually casual public urination.

My head was a blur as I left that hostel. The bathroom, like the chorus of a song or the bun of a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich, holds things together. Segment it, and you’re living in a world of free-form jazz and cheap crumbling fish. Some people view the living room as the center of the house. They’re fools. The heart of any home is the bathroom; it’s meant to stay stable and rhythmic – it is the voice of reason. Whatever crazy-assed design the bedroom is, whatever modern twist you put on the kitchen, whatever motif you rip off from the HG TV and apply it to your living room, the bathroom is always the same. Conservative. Simple. Human.

Whatever country I’ll visit, the bathroom is one of the few things that we all have, we all understand, and we all feel perfectly at home with.


Birds Were Doing This Shit Way Before It Went Digital


The stewardess had the kind of face that a smile would seem out of place on. Her hair was pulled back into a sloppy pony tail, sort of how mine looked when I was nineteen and I’d tie it back blindly with a rubber band; her face glowed the way sweaty faces do, with too much makeup around her eyes, making it look like her eyelids were drawn in ink while the rest of her face was sketched in pencil. The nametag on her uniform said ‘Svetlana,’ just the sort of name one would expect on a Russian airline. I thought how her parents must’ve lacked creativity the same way American parents do when they name their kids ‘Joe’ or ‘Christina.’ Certain names hang on their owners with the stale air of a dead metaphor; I doubt a clever parent would name their child ‘Joe’ any more than they’d stoop so low as to say something like ‘scared as a deer in the headlights’ or ‘free as a bird.’

Speaking of birds, airplanes aren’t like them. Not at all. Birds are mobile, while airplanes are static, big and metal and inflexible. An airplane can’t swirl its head around or shit corrective fluid down on people crossing the street below. Remember when you were a kid and you’d hold your arms out and make engine noises and run around, pretending you were a plane? Well, you did a good job. That’s about how a plane moves, stiff and upright, with arms forever stuck out as though the plane has been crucified. Having the ability to fly is about all a plane has in common with a bird; the latter flies fluidly and gracefully while a plane can’t even flap its wings.

The Chinese woman sitting next to me kept snapping pictures of Svetlana. I have no idea why. Every time Svetlana came out with her cart – fish or chicken, miss? fish or chicken, sir? – the lady next to me would snap away like crazy, some sort of mile-high paparazzi. Finally the other stewardess had enough, she turned to the Chinese woman and demanded that she stop taking pictures. The stewardess seemed upset, speaking tersely in a strong Russian accent as though she was Svetlana’s older protective brother. Svetlana herself didn’t seem to notice, or at least didn’t let on that she did. Her face still hung heavy, expressionless, her eyelashes still drooped with too much makeup, and I still felt nervous when she’d ask me something. Fish or chicken? Whichever would make you happy, Svet.

She was the way I think Russian women look. In contrast, there were pictures on the seat in front of me, pictures of Russia, that weren’t anything like how I had envisioned it. In these dubious photographs, Russia was not covered in ice, frozen over like Jack Nicolson at the end of The Shinning, but was instead green and wonderful, with brilliant red and orange trees in the autumn. A movie set designer could not have created a more beautiful landscape, nor could a painter, and I stared at it, reading the words below – Discover the Beauty of Russia – and I asked myself, “Is this real?” Could years and years of books, jokes, political cartoons, and James Bond films have created within my mind a false image of Russia?

I’m not sure what I expected – certainly not trees straight out of a Pierre Renoir painting. Maybe a long line of people with slumping shoulders and thick black coats, waiting outside in the cold to collect a single loaf of bread. That was more the Russia I knew. I certainly couldn’t picture Vladamir Putin running through a field, twirling around, the hills around him alive with the sound of Pussy Riot. Borris Yeltsin alone, wearing a big fuzzy hat, drinking vodka in a dark basement seemed more appropriate. And “Discover the Beauty of Russia”? Not the slogan I expected. I would have anticipated something more along the lines of, “Russia: We Must Break You.”

It was all too much, being on the Russian plane. But the real doozy, the shot of tequila that puts you over the edge, the most annoying kid in the classroom, was the nightmare vision I found on the screen in front of me during the take off and landing. In an instance of technological TMI, the plane had a camera that broadcasted nifty views from below, so the passengers could watch themselves separate from the Earth and then come back to it. A bird’s eye view nobody asked for, right there in front of me and impossible to turn off or look away from. Perhaps it’s my slight fear of flying; the bird camera did not sit well with me. It was horrifying to watch, worse than any Wes Craven movie. I kept expecting to see something go wrong (There’s smoke coming from the engine! Oh no! The runway isn’t there anymore! It’s covered with a bread line!).

The upside of the bird camera didn’t seem worth it ( Albeit small, there was a chance I could watch my death, the big END, and that creeped me out. I don’t need a camera to show the plane descend just as I don’t need a camera projecting an image of the inside of my throat while I eat, so I can see a huge lump of fish (Svet was out of chicken) stuck in my esophagus as I gag and choke to death. It would be like fitting your pit-bull with a camera on his head, hooked up to your flatscreen, so you can watch it in full detail when he finally flips and tears you open like a bag of doggie treats.

There’s something intrinsically special about a bird’s eye view that a stupid camera on the underbelly of a jet plane can’t capture. Think about it this way: in Russia, the people expect to see the autumn trees. Women like Svetlana are everywhere and, thus, nervous guys like me aren’t intimidated by them and nobody has to be told to stop taking their picture. Svetlana, the autumn trees…it’s the norm. And so, for a bird, is looking at the world from up above. It isn’t astonishing. I could watch the shot from that camera all day, and it wouldn’t look normal, look natural.

The abnormality of the whole thing made me uncomfortable. All I could imagine was the plane suddenly going silent, the engine dying, the green land below coming at my screen, at me, warp speed, the plane crashing down into those beautiful green Russian hills, and the birds flying around the wreckage, looking down on the fire and the smoke, thanking their bird God that they don’t explode upon impact, then landing easily in the arms of a magnificent autumn tree like they were posing for a tourist brochure.


On Leaving Korea: Hands Off My Mayo, Punk


The broccoli in Korea has vanished. I’m not sure where the hell it went, but it’s gone. For the past two weeks, the area of my grocery store that used to be home to the broccoli has vacated, as though the broccoli packed its things and headed West, in search of a new place to live where it won’t always have to play second fiddle to kimchi. It didn’t go alone, either. The broccoli apparently convinced the salsa and green olives to go with it. Everything in the grocery store seems to have disappeared. There’s no chicken and I can’t even find the brand of tuna I like. Sometimes I walk into the grocery store, throw my arms up in despair, and leave with the hope that the loss of my business will encourage the little Asian lady that works there to hire some private detectives to go get my broccoli back.

In about one week, I’ll be gone too. I thought about that as I scanned the shelves for mayonnaise. “Get the smallest container you can find,” I said to myself. In a few days, I’ll be out of my apartment and some new guy will be taking my place. He’ll teach my students and sleep in my bed, which I guess were only ‘mine’ for a limited time to begin with. “Don’t buy a big thing of mayo,” I continued. “Get something you can finish in a week. I’m not stocking this next fucker. He can go buy his own damn mayonnaise.”

I don’t know why I’m so against leaving things for the new guy, but I am. The ironing board and toaster oven I bought will be going to my girlfriend as slightly used presents. I look at the new toilet seat I recently installed and shake my head, “That lucky guy doesn’t know how good he’s got it.” The new toilet seat is amazing. It’s like a throne. It’s so good, sometimes I pee sitting down just for the luxury. And now it will be his, whereas, when I arrived, I was handed over something vastly inferior. I inherited a pink bed and a half-eaten cake in the freezer.

If you’re curious, I replaced the bedding and no, I didn’t finish the cake.

Leaving a place where you’ve lived for any amount of time can be a lot like breaking up. When I got to this apartment, I found it ridiculously small and shabby. A couple months later, I didn’t even want to be in this country anymore and I certainly didn’t have much fondness for my job. But now that I’m leaving, I’m only able to see all the good qualities in everything. I’m filled with regret. “I love this place,” I find myself thinking. “I love this apartment and I love Korea and I love all my students. Oh my God, what have I done? I’m leaving the best thing I ever had!”

It’s exactly like how, after a breakup, the girl quickly goes from intolerable to amazing, and suddenly I don’t want to part with anything. Get rid of the pictures of us together? You’re crazy, man! It’s almost the same way I won’t let go of the toaster oven. That shit is mine, and it’s going to my girlfriend’s apartment, so I can come back in six weeks and, I don’t know, make toast I guess. Lots and lots of toast…unless the chicken and the broccoli are back by then.

Similarly, just as the first person you date after a breakup doesn’t seem good enough, my next step – backpacking around Europe for a month and a half – seems tedious. I go through the Lonely Planet book, jotting things down, going, “Yeah, I guess I’ll go to Stonehenge…it’ll pass the time until I come back.” No one has ever been as melancholy about going to Europe as I have been. The Louvre? Oktoberfest? Nah, I just want to sit in my little apartment. On the toilet seat.

Maybe before I leave, I’ll write a short letter to my replacement. “You’re getting a tiny apartment,” it will say, “a job that will exhaust you, and a grocery store that doesn’t stock any food. Congratulations, you lucky son-of-a-bitch.”