Why European public toilets are the very definition of highway robbery

2018-04-03 13:30 - Darrel Bristow-Bovey
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“Excuse me,” said the Belgian woman indignantly. “What do you think you’re doing?”

I looked up at her and tried to disentangle my legs from the turnstile. She had caught me red-handed, and there was no denying it.

“This isn’t what you think,” I said.

But it was.

“I just want to go to the bathroom,” I whimpered.

We are spoiled in South Africa. Until you’ve been to the cold-hearted north of Europe, it’s hard to recognize how essentially open and generous we are with each other. For instance, when you’re driving a long distance in South Africa and you stop at one of the service-station rest stops, you take for granted that you can freely use the public toilets. They are public, after all. It’s right there in the name. You can just walk in and use the facilities and splash water on your face and try to avoid eye contact with the other guys at the urinals – all the regular things that men do in public bathrooms.

This is not the case in Belgium. I was on a road trip across flatlands and grey horizons beneath grey skies. There are many nice places in Europe, but to get to them you sometimes have to drive through Belgium. 

I stopped at a service station and filled up. In Belgium you fill up your own tank, and then walk inside to pay at the cashier. This system differs from ours in two ways – first, it employs fewer people; second, it is wildly less efficient, especially when there is a queue of cars at a busy service station on the motorway, and a queue of people waiting to pay for their snacks at the cashier inside. A car spends easily twice as long at the pump as it does back home, while the queue gets longer and longer and more Belgian and passive-aggressive.

Afterwards I ambled over to the bathroom. But where was the bathroom? The signs seemed to be pointing this way, but what are those paypoints and turnstiles doing there? I don’t want to pay for parking, I want to go to the bathroom. I have just bought petrol and I’m going to probably buy something from the Burger King, surely they don’t expect me to pay for the bathroom as well? What?! Seventy-five Euro cents?! That’s more than ten rand! What outrage is this?! And what if I get inside and decide I don’t feel like going any more? This is the very definition of highway robbery.

I watched the solid citizens of Belgium queuing like placid, wet northern sheep to pay their money and pass through the turnstile, and something fierce and southern and South African rebelled within me. Why should I pay to swell the Belgian coffers for a service which should be provided for free as an act of simple humanity? No! No way! Bad enough the prices I paid for that plate of mussels in Bruges last night – the extortion stops here.

I lingered until there was no one left in the queue, then I stealthily approached the turnstile. It was built too high to vault over, but as every South African knows, when you try to fix one security problem you open up another one: they left a gap beneath it and the floor. Perhaps they thought no one would so compromise their dignity and self-respect as to crawl under a turnstile into a public toilet, just to save seventy-five cents. Hah! The joke’s on them! They don’t know who they’re dealing with!

But perhaps I’d been eating a few more waffles on the road than was entirely good for me, because just as I was halfway under, one of the metal arms of the turnstile snagged the belt of my trousers, and as I wriggled to try extricate myself my shoe laces caught on one of the other arms and my leg somehow became hooked between the two. I looked like a chip packet that has been blown through a barbed-wire fence, and the more urgently I struggled to get free, the worse it became. 

Oh, I thought, oh, please don’t let anyone see me like this.

That is when the Belgian lady found me.

At first she seemed concerned, as though I were having some sort of epileptic fit. Not so concerned that she would have done anything to help me, of course – she was Belgian, after all – but even the slightest concern is better than indignation. When she realized what I was up to, she became indignant.

Oh, there is nothing worse than an indignant Belgian.

She scolded me as I slowly reverse-leopard-crawled back out, and a small crowd gathered to watch with wide eyes. A woman with a small child pointed to me and murmured in a low voice: “See? That’s why you must always pay to go to the bathroom.” A guy in a red peaked cap and his girlfriend looked at me in silent sympathy, like a couple of long-term prisoners in a maximum-security jail, watching the newbie trying his first doomed escape. 

Back on the motorway, I drove for about ten minutes, stunned and shamed.

But I’m South African – my embarrassment doesn’t last long before it becomes defiance. I still needed the bathroom, damn it!  I pulled off to the side of the motorway and climbed out of the car and strode manfully to the grassy verge. There may be laws against stopping on the motorway, there may be laws against public urination, but I didn’t care. I stood there, a proud South African man, and a car drove past and hooted and I looked and it was the guy in the red cap and his girlfriend and they were waving and beaming and giving me the thumb’s up. I waved back with my free hand, triumphant.

I felt like a freedom fighter.

Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter.