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.