Every traveler has one or two great toilet stories.
Foreign toilets can be traumatic, but they are one of those little things that can make travel so much more interesting than staying at home.
If you plan to venture away from the international-style hotels in your Mediterranean travels and become a temporary resident, "going local" may take on a very real meaning.
The vast majority of European toilets are similar to our own. But in a few out-of-the-way places, you might find one that consists simply of porcelain footprints and a squat-and-aim hole. If faced with one, remember: Those of us who need a throne to sit on are in the minority. Throughout the world, most humans sit on their haunches and nothing more.
Toilet paper (like a spoon or a fork) is another Western "essential" that most people on our planet do not use. What they use varies. I won't get too graphic here, but remember that a billion civilized people on this planet never eat with their left hand. Some countries, like Turkey, have very frail plumbing, and toilet paper will jam up the WCs. If the bathroom's wastebaskets are full of soiled toilet paper, leave yours there, too.
The WC scene has improved markedly in Europe, but it still makes sense to carry pocket-size tissue packs (easy to buy in Europe) for WCs sans TP.
Finding a decent public toilet can be frustrating. I once dropped a tour group off in a town for a potty stop, and when I picked them up 20 minutes later, none had found relief. Most countries have few public restrooms. But with a few tips, you can sniff out a biffy in a jiffy.
Restaurants: Any place that serves food or drinks has a restroom. No restaurateur would label his WC so those on the street can see, but you can walk into nearly any restaurant or café, politely and confidently, and find a bathroom. Assume it's somewhere in the back, either upstairs or downstairs. It's easiest in large places that have outdoor seating, because waiters will think you're a customer just making a quick trip inside. Some call it rude — I call it survival. If you feel like it, ask permission. Just smile, "Toilet?" I'm rarely turned down. American-type fast-food places are very common these days and usually have a decent and fairly "public" restroom. Timid people buy a drink they don't want in order to use the bathroom, but that's generally unnecessary (although sometimes the secret bathroom door code is printed only on your receipt).
Even at American chains, be prepared for bathroom culture shock. At a new big Starbucks in Bern, Switzerland, I opened the door to find an extremely blue space. It took me a minute to realize that the blue lights made it impossible for junkies to find their veins.
Public buildings: When nature beckons and there's no restaurant or bar handy, look in train stations, government buildings and upper floors of department stores. Parks often have restrooms, sometimes of the gag-a-maggot variety. Never leave a museum without taking advantage of its restrooms — free, clean and decorated with artistic graffiti. Large, classy, old hotel lobbies are as impressive as many palaces you'll pay to see. You can always find a royal retreat here, and plenty of soft TP.
Coin-op toilets on the street: Some large cities, like Paris, London and Amsterdam, are dotted with coin-operated, telephone booth–type WCs on street corners. Insert a coin, the door opens, and you have 15 minutes of toilet use accompanied by Sinatra Muzak. When you leave, it even disinfects itself. Some cities have free, low-tech public urinals (called pissoirs — no joke) that offer just enough privacy for men to find relief … sometimes with a view. Munich had outdoor urinals until the 1972 Olympics then decided to beautify the city by doing away with them. What about the people's needs? There's a law in Munich: Any place serving beer must admit the public (whether or not they're customers) to use the toilets.
Trains: Use the free toilets on the train rather than those in the station to save time and money. Toilets on first-class cars are a cut above second-class toilets. I "go" first class even with a second-class ticket. Train toilets are located on the ends of cars, where it's most jiggly. A trip to the train's john always reminds me of the rodeo. Some toilets empty directly on the tracks. Never use a train's WC while stopped in a station (unless you didn't like that particular town). A train's WC cleanliness deteriorates as the journey progresses.
The flush: After you've found and used a toilet, you're down to your last challenge — flushing it. Rarely will you encounter a familiar handle. Find some protuberance and push, pull, twist, squeeze, stomp or pray to it until the water starts. Automatic urinals, sinks, and hand dryers are increasingly common.
The tip: Paying to use a public WC is a European custom that irks many Americans. But isn't it really worth a few coins, considering the cost of water, maintenance, and cleanliness? And you're probably in no state to argue, anyway. Sometimes the toilet is free, but the woman in the corner sells sheets of toilet paper. Most common is the tip dish by the entry. The local equivalent of about 25 cents is plenty. Caution: Many attendant ladies leave only bills and too-big coins in the tray to bewilder the full-bladdered tourist. The keepers of Europe's public toilets have earned a reputation for crabbiness. You'd be crabby, too, if you lived under the street in a room full of public toilets. Humor them, understand them, and carry some change so you can leave them a coin or two.
Women in the Men's Room: The women who seem to inhabit Europe's WCs are a popular topic of conversation among Yankee males. Sooner or later you'll be minding your own business at the urinal and the lady will bring you your change or sweep under your feet. Yes, it is distracting, but you'll just have to get used to it — she has.
Getting comfortable in foreign rest rooms takes a little adjusting, but that's travel. When in Rome, do as the Romans do — and before you know it … Euro-peein'.
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.