03 July 2010

Blog Readers and Irishmen: Urine-portant to Me

I've come to the conclusion that the only thing more irritating than a blog that is never updated is a blog where the only updates are apologies for not updating. I've always found those to be a little too much ego to handle. Like, "I know you've all been waiting with baited breath to hear the excruciating minutiae of my unexceptional life, and I'm sorry I haven't kept up with the running tally of my back pimples, but I promise I'll update soon and let you all know how my colonoscopy went!"

Apologizing for not updating seems to say to me that, "My blog and I are so important to you that it was rude of me to live the life of a normal person and not write down every single thought I have for you to read, dissect, and debate."

But I digress. I'm deviating from the most important thing I wanted to talk about today, and that is: toilets. Or, more specifically, toilets in Ireland.

I recently got back from spending about 5 weeks in the Republic of Ireland. When I first arrived, I became immediately convinced that the reason Ireland has never become a major world power is because of the proliferation of alcohol. Everyone drinks in Ireland. I think that, if the indigenous ungulates had thumbs (and pocket money), they, too, would drink. Ireland is part of the European Union, and as in many European countries, everything closes at 6pm. And I don't mean "close" in the American sense, where the lights dim and shopkeepers make announcements that they'd really appreciate it if you headed toward the cash register. I mean, it's 6pm, the door is locked, and they're pulling the gate down in front, if they didn't already do just that at a quarter to.

The only exception to this closing time is the ubiquitous pub. Pubs in Ireland are like Starbucks in the USA - you can't spit without hitting one. No one is bothered by shops closing early, because everyone drinks once the working day is over. At any given moment, about three-quarters of the Irish population is getting foxed.

This, I thought to myself, is why you just don't hear much about Ireland. But the longer I was there, the more places I visited, the more restaurants I ate at, I discovered a much more sinister problem lurking in Ireland's back rooms: there are almost no public toilets in Ireland.

Oh, if you're in a pub or a Supermac's, there's bound to be a toilet. But rarely more than two toilets per room (men's or ladies'), and they're usually enough to, if you'll pardon the expression, frighten the piss out of you. I went into a pub toilet once and I turned around and walked right back out.

But during the day, or if you're not a drinker, you are out of luck. There are no public toilets anywhere. Shops will not only tell you they haven't a toilet, but the employees will stare at you as though the very notion of a toilet is too ridiculous to even imagine. One woman repeated the word to me: "Toilet. Toilet?" as though it was foreign to her. Finally, she said something akin to, "Why on earth would we have a toilet?"

Why on earth, indeed. This attitude would explain something else I noticed with alarming regularity in the good old R of I: public urination. In five weeks in Ireland I saw, and I am not making this up, at least 10 men having a pee in some random corner. Or behind a tree. Or into the river or the ocean. Or wherever he might have been standing. I was rather revolted, to say the least, but at the same time I'm not sure what else a person is supposed to do if there's not a pub in the immediate vicinity (rare, but it happens).

And as I mentioned, pub toilets don't seem to have any sort of hygienic standard, the kind that might be enforced by a government entity. Actually, none of the precious few public toilets I did find seemed to have been designed, or cleaned, by anyone with any human DNA. In one stall, the toilet paper dispenser had been mounted on the wall behind the toilet, forcing the user to either try to assess her toilet paper needs before having a pee, or contort herself into a position usually only seen in the Cirque du Soleil to reach said toilet paper after relieving herself.

Then there are the toilets themselves. Irish toilets have remarkably deep bowls, causing what I will delicately refer to as a sort of splashback when any sort of ... ahem ... matter enters the bowl. Just in case public toilets weren't hygienic enough, let's construct them so they function as accidental bidets as well! Why not? And when you come to the end of your time on the can, there's the flush. I didn't once see a public toilet where the handle to flush was actually attached to said toilet. It tended to be on the wall. And sometimes it wasn't a handle so much as a sort of metal cylinder that had to be pushed in. Lever or cylinder, it's a rare Irish toilet that will actually flush the first - or second, or third, or fourth - time you try. And it's nothing to do with whether the toilet has actually been used or not. Some of them simply have to be persuaded repeatedly and with great force. A few jets of water will make a bit of noise, and the toilet will gurgle in a somewhat convincing manner, but nothing much will happen.

The more public toilets I used, the more convinced I became, as I am now convinced, that if Ireland ever wants to have any kind of global impact, they need to re-think their plumbing. In my opinion, a nation rises and falls on the strength of its public toilets. I think that's what has made America the great nation that it is. We may have economic crises to face, we may be divided on important issues, we may face international ridicule for some of our policies or laws. But, by gosh, we know how to do public toilets.

And that's what I'll be celebrating this July 4th, dear blog readers. This great nation called America, and its remarkable system of public bathrooms. I can go into almost any store in America, ask to use the toilet, and be pointed in its direction. And that, to me, is what freedom is all about.