Toilets (American Translation for this British Word: Bathrooms)

First, have you noticed that although it is a daily human occurrence, most authors do not show their characters in the bathroom? Unless it’s to do something illegal, private, or escape, this little room is merely used as a setting.

Secondly, the terms. I’ve heard it called the ladies or gents, a public convenience, the necessity room, the out back, a privy, and an outhouse–the last three for little buildings separate from a main building, or used at camp grounds. A thousand years ago in Rome and other large cities across Europe, using these facilities could be large with fifty or seventy holes. Men and women used the same room.

Thirdly, on our recent trip to England, it was difficult at first for me to refer to bathrooms or restrooms as toilets. But there they are–all over Britain–signs saying “TOILETS.” In fact, when I saw large signs in windows for “Flat TO LET” my mind wanted to stick in the letter “I” in the space.

Of course, the Brits have other words for this room, like loo or bog or water closet or W.C. One tour bus trip we took had us meet back at Bog Island. I didn’t think much about it until I returned to the bus and realized there were steps going down under the street on this little triangle surrounded by road. It’s now closed off, but once upon a time those steps led to the bathrooms, or toilets, or bogs.

As an American, when I think of toilets, I think of the actual seat and bowl and tank. So when I saw a sign reading “Men working in women’s toilets,” I imagined tiny men inside a toilet bowl. (Must have been jet lag thinking.)

In many public places in London, like the Tube or train stations or near the Thames River, it costs to use the facilities. My friend Mary often goes to England for work. She’s usually around the Manchester area, up north. She warned us that it would cost 20p to use the toilets. So before we left, I made sure my husband and I each had 20p with us. I was delighted to find my first toilet in England free. That one was in the airport, near the custom’s line. But later when I came across pay toilets in London, they were for 30p or 50p. So much for being prepared with p to pee.

However, do not let a fear of finding a bathroom in England stop you. There are, indeed, plenty of free restrooms. Restaurants have them. Museums have them. Churches and cathedrals have them. So when you go to England, you may feel free to go.

Fashion in London

It was our first time to England, staying for ten days. What was the main thing I was concerned about? Fashion. Blame it on my Shaker upbringing when there were different clothing rules for every occasion. Oh, what to wear! I knew my American accent would make me stick out, and that I could control the volume of my voice, but would my clothes fit in? Would carrying a backpack make me look like I was a college student or a tourist?  People traveling to England recently told me that no one wears sneakers. Would my shoes be walkable and yet fashionable? People here in the States seem to make a big deal about shoes.

As it turned out, my worry was for naught.  Riding the Tube gave me plenty of time for fashion observation.

Many people wore backpacks — men, women, young and old, both in London and in Oxford. If women carried purses, the strap generally went over one shoulder and across the chest to the opposite hip. Men also carried “man bags” very similar to women’s purses and in the same across-the-chest way.

Women’s shoes? 80% were black flats with sometimes a bow or buckle on them; 15% were sneakers, leaving the other 5% in heels. Although once I saw a young woman in a short black skirt walking near Trafalgar Square wearing black net stockings and no shoes on her feet at all.

Shorts? About 1% of women (teens, mostly) wore short-shorts. And about 1% of men wore shorts — can you say tourist?

There were also Indians and muslims in long dresses.

We met a man from Canada who had lived in England for four weeks. Even though it was in the 70’s most of the time we were there, he complained about how he had to wear jeans and long-sleeved shirts every day in the summer there because it was so cold. Um…wait a minute. I’ve been to Canada many a time, mostly camping out. 70’s is not cold. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.

So, when going to London, no need to worry about fashion. Simply wear comfortable clothes (and don’t speak loudly).

Our European Hotel — in London

In February, I started to panic. We were going to England at the height of tourist season, end of June, beginning of July. We’d decided to only do public transportation (i.e., no car rental). We needed to secure a place to stay (or more) which were nearby to Tube stations (a.k.a., The Underground, or what we in America would call, subways; however, in England, a subway is the path down the steps and under busy roads). As I looked at maps of London, I panicked again. I don’t think there are any two streets parallel in the city. Just how did one find their way around?

When I began my search for hotels, I started stabbing, though not entirely, because I’d look up hotels only in the area we were spending the most of our time — South Kennsington — and hotels which had a room available for ten days. I contacted British writer friends for suggestions. One didn’t travel to London if she could help it, the other recommended chain motels like Super 8’s, but which needed a car (or taxi) to get to. Back to personal on-line research. Results: full; full; full; way too expensive; full. Then…BINGO! Although it was at the top end of our price range, more importantly it was in the area we wanted and available for ten days. We’d never been to England. We hope to go again, but who knows. I grabbed my credit card and booked it.

I actually thought it was a sweet European style place to stay. It was only nineteen rooms on four stories, and was above cafes and shops. They had no kitchen or lounge, so our continental breakfast was brought to our door each morning. How quaint. How European. All true. My husband said that thirty-eight years ago when he was a student abroad, there were some mighty skimpy places he’d stayed, so as long as the room had a bed and an en suite (in room) bathroom, it was all good.

Our hotel was half a block from the South Kennsington tube station. Yay! Perfect. Location. Location. Location.

When we arrived in the morning, our room was not available, but we were able to leave our two bags there at the desk and take a walk around our neighborhood, and even check out the Victoria and Albert Museum just a few blocks away. Oh. And the reception desk was on the first floor landing — the European first floor, which is our American second floor. We left our bags and returned after our neighborhood walking tour and eating Fish and Chips at a restaurant which held about sixteen chairs around tables (very typical arrangement for restaurants; some have fewer indoor eating spots with four or so tables just outside).

We took our room key, 417, and started up the posh red carpeted stairs. We discovered the 400 number did not mean fourth floor. The first room in the hotel was 401. So up we marched, and marched…and marched. We were on what Americans would call, the sixth floor — 86 steps from the street level. (pant-pant) I’d requested a quiet room in the back if possible, as a result of one of the reviews. We got one of the two rooms facing the street.

Most English buildings do not have central heat or air (heating or air-conditioning). A small circular fan sat on the desk. We put it in the open window, hinge broken so it could only open four inches. There was also no screen. In fact, in our entire ten days in England, I don’t recall seeing a single window screen. Besides the fan on the desk, there was a 12″ x 18″ tv screen atop the small (dorm room size) refrigerator, two twin beds, two night stands, and a chair, with walking room between the door and the window. But, yay, we had an en suite bathroom — tiny, but efficient, with an 18″ towel rack (no hooks on back of door, etc.).

Our continental breakfast was the same every day — and the same for other guests, I noticed. Two hard-boiled eggs in metal egg cups, 4 slices of white bread, two small glasses of orange juice, a small pot of tea (for me) and a small pot of coffee (for my husband), all on a small tray. There were two cups and two saucers. In one of the cups was two pads of wrapped butter and two jelly pads. The toast was atop two small plates — which were smaller than the toast itself.

My husband sat in the chair at the desk to eat. I sat on the edge of a bed. He’d dragged over one of the heavy nightstands for me to use at a table, but by the time I leaned over the plate to eat, my chin nearly touched the nightstand. From then on, I ate off my lap. Reaching across for my drinks set on the refrigerator. Yes, that was within arm reach, so I didn’t need to get up to get them.

Our “hosts” (behind the reception desk, and who brought us our breakfast trays) were two India-Indian men and one who was of perhaps Turkish heritage. My husband pointed out how it was difficult to understand them sometimes because they not only spoke with an English accent, but an English accent with their own native language accent twisted in. For some reason, I didn’t have any problem understanding what they said.

We ate supper usually around 7:30 or 8, which is considered late by American standards, but normal for English. We’d come back to our room after supper. Sunset was about 9:30, so we tried to be in bed by then. The signs on the pubs on the street below requested that the customers keep their voices down after 11:00 in respect to their neighbors. That was rarely the case. Also, being on the street-side, we heard the police and ambulance sirens, although we couldn’t see the street because the sidewalk in front of the hotel was only two people wide and the building went, well, straight upwards. Also, there was construction on either side of our hotel with scaffolding from the street all the way up to the sixth (American sixth) floor. You know…sometimes they do construction work in the night. Crash-bang.

Also, it was hot in our room. In the morning, I’d keep our door opened unless we were dressing. The difference in temperature was about 17 degrees. There were a few nights when I stood in the opened doorway at 1 or 3 a.m., just feeling the cooler hallway air in my nightgown. My husband suffered in silence, every night sweating through his sheets and pillow. This was also deceiving, because by the time we walked down the 86 steps to the street, some mornings it was sweater weather, and mine was left up on the sixth floor.

I must say that the first few days, I was rather grumbly about our room situation. But then, well, it was just all part of the experience. And by about day six, it was normal. Besides, walking up and down those stairs every day had to be some sort of good for my circulatory system. I’m glad for the hotel experience. I’m glad they’re memories. I’m sure I’ll be using most of this in some way in future stories. It’s all good.