Years of world travel have shown me that, if nothing else, we Americans can be proud of our bathrooms. We’ll never take for granted the pleasures of a well-organized and properly equipped bathroom. There, our patriotism shines through. Such was the case for me this spring when I experienced a comedy of difficulties in bathrooms throughout England.
The English do many things well, but step into a bathroom there, and you’ll have the feeling that you’re way smarter than everyone else. British bathrooms in hotels and guest houses include numerous perturbing features. For example, toilet paper rolls are placed so far back behind the toilet seat that you’d need an extension arm to reach them. The showers are, if anything, worse. You can sometimes find the towel rack inside the shower -- and the hotel staff hangs the towels there, as if the point were to soak the towels before using them. Often there’s no shelf or ledge for the soap and shampoo. Most of the showers are in dangerously narrow tubs raised a foot or so off the ground, making them treacherous to step in and out of.
It was normal for me to spend time puzzling over how to turn on the shower. In some cases, nothing works until you’ve pulled a cord to activate the energy-saving device that warms the water. The faucets are complex. Rather than having hot and cold water valves, they have one handle to set the temperature in degrees celsius, and another to control for the flow of water. The one won’t work unless the other has been set.
Where I got myself into trouble was with the light switches. You’ll look everywhere for a logical mechanism before discovering the actual switch, sometimes on the wall outside the room. Often enough, the switch is operated by a string cord. You pull it, and nothing happens. Then you pull it again, and nothing happens. Finally, you discover that you need to pull it and wait a few seconds for the light to turn on. Sometimes the second pull turns on the exhaust fan.
My bathroom in London had a switch on the outside wall. But there was also a pull cord inside the bathroom. I assumed that the cord was for the exhaust fan. I pulled the cord, but nothing happened. I waited. I gathered my shampoo and soap. I puzzled over the shower controls. Then the phone rang. It was a man at the front desk.
“Is there an emergency?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Did you pull the emergency cord?” he asked.
I said, “I didn’t know it was an emergency cord.”
He told me to pull it once more to deactivate the alarm that must have been sounding at his desk.
I pulled it, but then I heard a loud pounding at the door. “Emergency!” the man said. “Please open the door!”
“It’s okay!” I shouted. “I just spoke to the front desk.”
“You MUST open the door,” he said.
It was early in the morning, and I could hear disturbed guests coming out into the hallway. I was half-dressed. I wasn’t even in my best underwear.
The guy came huffing and puffing into the room and began searching frantically for the source of the alarm. “It must be the steam,” he said, waving his hands through through imaginary steam and going over to open the window.
“No. I pulled the emergency cord,” I confessed. “The man in the lobby told me to pull it again.”
He was visibly relieved. This would not be the worst day in his life.
Music: Edward Elgar's The Wand of Youth, Suite No. 2 Movement VI "The Wild Bears", recording from the London Philharmonic Orchestra