Okay, I realise by posting this I’m oversharing. I’m also revealing how inept I am as a traveller and how shallow I am as a person.
Two years living in a foreign land and the one thing that’s really broadened my horizons is a bottom hose.
I know. I should be banging on about how, thanks to Qatar, I’ve discovered religion and am now teetotal (one of these is actually true). But there are more important things in life: loos.
You see, I grew up in what was pretty much an all female household. My dad lived with us, but he was either working, in prison or drunk. And when he was around, he hid in his private en-suite with a bottle of Old Spice. Our family bathroom was strictly women only.
To compound my insecurities, my very beautiful and very ladylike mum has never even said the word fart, much less let one slip out and blame it on the dog. The only clue I ever had that she had the same bodily functions as the rest of us was the occasional lingering scent of Anais Anais in the bathroom.
My mum (well, close enough).
So I’ve grown up with toileting issues. I’m a firm advocate of the ‘house guests are like fish – they go off after two days’ rule. Partly because I’m an anti-social cow. Mainly because I need privacy to poo. I’d love to be less uptight, but anytime I travel I always endure some toilet-related incident that winds me up even further.
Paris, the late Eighties.
Celebrating the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day in a tiny bar off the Champs Elysees, my newly-proclaimed gay ex-boyfriend and I were having a ball. We’d just led the Frenchies in a rousing rendition of I Don’t Want A Lover by Texas (“Yes of course we know Sharleen, we are Scottish after all!”) and were now enjoying the attentions of a scarily sexy Frenchman, who was scribbling bad poetry on beer mats, then frisbeeing them across to our table. I was 17, I was tipsy on cider and life had never been better.
Until I needed the loo.
The bar didn’t actually contain what anyone British would describe as a toilet. Across the far left corner of the room, a couple of swinging saloon-style had been bolted to the adjacent walls, behind which was the dreaded hole in the ground. No wash hand basin. No loo roll. No National Geographic.
And thanks to the fact the doors didn’t actually meet in the middle, no privacy.
There was no way of avoiding the fact that anyone could turn round at any point and see either your scarlet face if you squatted too high, your equally blushing nether regions if you squatted too low, or simply peer through the crack in the doors and get a full frontal of both.
It was the stuff my teenage nightmares were made of (in fact, it’s the stuff my middle-aged nightmares are still made of).
I decided going low ran less risk of splash-back on my Levi 501s, so with Vanessa Paradis warbling about a taxi driver named Joe, I crouched down and confirmed my commitment to La Republique with the longest wee in the country’s history. In the 789 minutes it took to empty my bladder, I looked back fondly on nights out in Glasgow, where pub toilets were as God/John Knox intended: grimy cubicles with graffiti and a resident junkie.
England, the early Nineties.
I’d avoided all the big festivals like Glastonbury due to, you know, poo anxiety. But I’d convinced myself a bijou event in the shadow of Cambridge University would be fine. My friend’s college was close enough to dash to in case of an emergency and anyway, the place would be filled with ‘the right kind of people’.
A few hours in and so far so good. I wasn’t yet drunk enough to dance, but several snakebites and black had given me enough dutch courage to join the queue for the outdoor loos. A full bladder, a small packet of Handy Andies…I could do this. I could wee in a chemical toilet!
“Oi love, are you going to Strawberry Fair? ” No. Never again.
And I very nearly did. Until a gang of crusties lifted up one of the portaloos and emptied the contents over the head of their mate, who was two in front of me in the queue. Nice.
Poland, the late Nineties
A journalism exchange to Poland also sticks in my mind for the wrong reasons. On a day off, we took a trip to Malbork Castle, one time home of the Knights Templar. The train was old and took a slow hour to trundles away from Gdansk and through the Polish countryside. It was lovely to be out the city and I spent the entire journey with my head out the window, dreaming of Cary Grant.
Malbork Castle, Poland
I don’t know if it was the fresh air or the fact that I’d been eating bigos for breakfast lunch and dinner, but by the time we arrived at Malbork station, I had to leg it to the ladies. No one else was there, so I had the pick of the five cubicles and complete privacy – yippee! I’d just bolted the door and unbolted my fly (yup, I was still wearing 501s) when someone started banging on the door and screeching in Polish. My Polish then was worse than my Arabic now, but by her hand gestures it was clear I had to follow her to her wooden hut just outside the toilet block.
Buttocks clenched, it eventually transpired using the loo cost a zloty. And if I wanted toilet roll, that was a zloty too. I handed over two zlotys and reached for the loo roll.
She slapped my hand away in disgust. One zloty did not the whole toilet roll buy. Apparently, one zloty got you two sheets and two sheets only.
Cheryl, move to Poland. They’re totally with you on the two sheet thing.
Using my one Polish word – bigos – and a mixture of hand and bottom gestures, I tried to convey how two sheets weren’t going to cut it. She wouldn’t budge.
Okay, how about I pay two zlotys and get four sheets? No way. Toilet paper was clearly a luxury item and as such, this former socialist state had restricted it’s consumption to two sheets per customer, period.
Two sheets! Or you can have the sponge on a stick.
With a look that correctly assessed me as a paid up member of the petite bourgeoisie, she sent me off to the loo to make do with my two sheets and the outbound half of my train ticket.
Qatar, the erm, Twenty-tensies (?)
So imagine my joy on arriving here in Qatar.
There’s no way of writing this next sentence without bragging: we have four bathrooms. There is a loo for every member of the family. There are loos that are miles away from any other part of the house (although as mums worldwide know, your kids will find you – mine have taken to slipping notes under the door asking when I’m coming out).
And of course, each bathroom has a delightful hose beside it that you use to wash your bits and bobs. A quick schoosh, a quick dab dry and my world is a better place. Which is why bottom hoses are my number one favourite thing in Qatar.
The only problem now is when we go back to the UK. My eldest son spends the first couple of weeks freaking at the ‘totally disgusting’ British loos: ‘What? I’m supposed to actually wipe my own bottom? With toilet roll?’
And so it continues.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Philip Larkin, 9 August 1922 – 2 December 1985