Dispatch: Tour De Toilette-A Look At Loos Around The World

Loo. Toilet. WC. Ladies’ room. John. Whatever you call it, it’s the same on the surface–a bathroom.

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“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that features pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com.

Loo. Toilet. WC. Ladies’ room. John. Whatever you call it, it’s the same on the surface–a bathroom. But during my travels over the past year to numerous international triathlon hotspots, I’ve learned a lot about potties and how much they vary worldwide. I know this interests you, because like me, you’re a triathlete. I know we can talk about this, because it’s what we do. When we’re not swimming, cycling, running, eating or sleeping we’re usually talking about our pee and poo. We’re open, explicit and rarely embarrassed. We wee just about anywhere–we’ll even advise one another how best to do so in the heat of battle–and we rarely bat an eyelash when a fellow athlete shuffles along a run course with soiled shorts. Yes, toilet habits figure big in our vernacular, as do the locales in which we execute these actions. But not all restrooms are created equal. Some are downright dumbfounding, especially in foreign lands. So let me share a few insights gleaned from my travel experience, along with a handful of helpful tips, should your triathlon travel take you to toilets abroad.

Most similar to our American bathrooms are those in Europe–with a few culturally conditioned caveats. For example, it’s entirely normal to find unisex facilities in restaurants throughout Europe. I’ve seen them with single sex entrances (albeit leading to the same space) or with sex-separated rows of stalls, but for the most part you’re in close proximity to both genders when you go about your business. As a woman, I found this a fantastic solution to limit the all-too-common problem of a long line in the ladies’ room (while men rarely have to wait). I found it less fantastic when I came face to full-Monty with a stranger using an open-air urinal. He didn’t flinch (in fact, he held a perfectly steady stream) but for me it was an altogether awkward moment. Tip #1: Be careful where you cast your eyes when entering a shared bathroom.

In general, Europeans are far less inhibited than Americans. Take a look around any European race’s transition area and you’ll see what I mean–the no nudity rules that are commonplace at U.S. events simply do not apply. Following my race at Challenge Roth in July I was compelled to tweet:

It’s entirely possible I saw more naked men yesterday than in my entire life sum total.

People in parts of Europe tend to change their clothes or shower together without trepidation. Some even stand around talking race strategy completely in the buff. Tip #2: Nudity ain’t no big thing in Deutschland. Act normal should your transition rack neighbor lack clothes.

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Along with its gawk-inducing incidents, Europe is also famous for that glorious gadget, the bidet, which shoots a cleansing spray of water at a person’s private parts. I wanted to know whether anyone actually uses them, so I asked a German friend who told me that while every home has a bidet built into the bathroom’s design, it’s rarely used for the intended purpose. Case in point, he and his siblings would fill the bowl of theirs with hot water to soak their frozen feet after a day spent playing in the snow. Tip #3: If desperate to thaw out post-race, you know what to do.

Bidets are also common in South America and parts of Asia. In Taipei, my hotel room toilet had what can only be described as a built-in Bidet Gone Berserk. This toilet was a machine, with multiple controls. You could choose from oscillation, massage, high or low sprays, a heated seat and a button simply marked “strong.” I had to try it out (mainly because a Twitter follower dared me to do so)–I dropped my drawers and was on that thing in an instant. In truth, the promising control panel was anticlimactic. Every option did approximately the same thing, shooting a simple stream of water in my direction. Tip #4: A bidet is a bidet is a bidet–basically an upside down shower for your bum. Give it a try and decide for yourself whether or not it’s for you.

I did find one bathroom accessory in Asia that I loved. In the restroom stall of a high-end restaurant there was an audio device that played the sound of rushing water as inspiration to wee. Now that is pure genius–and something I’d love to install on my TT bike. I can’t tell you the effort I’ve expended in an oft-failed attempt to go on the bike–and I know I’m not alone. Whether it’s the bumpy roads or the inability to perform in a pack (perfectly spaced four bike lengths apart, of course) some of us freeze up. I imagine a waterfall soundtrack would serve us well.

Not all Asian toilets are quite so fancy as the ones in high-end restaurants and hotels, however. If you race in the region, you may find that the only port-a-potty option is “squat style,” as was the case in Taiwan. Pre-race, it’s potentially draining on your quads. Post-race, it’s potentially dangerous–especially after dark with too-tired legs and no one around to help you up from your squatting stance. Tip #5: When faced with a squat toilet, find something sturdy to hang onto. The toilet paper dispenser or the door handle may be your lifeline out of the loo.

Now have you had enough bathroom babble? Perhaps this is potty-talk blown out of proportion. But it is important stuff. There’s a reason we triathletes are so bodily-function-focused–the right “movement” can make or break a race. So next time your non-triathlete friends “Ew!” or “Oh!” when you boast about wetting your chamois, encourage them to keep an open mind. People the world over share quirky bathroom habits, and ours are certainly not the strangest. It’s simply a matter of viewpoint–one that will be vastly widened if you venture out to travel the toilet-strewn globe.

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