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Saturday, February 10, 2007

German Culture Mystery Solved

My having frequently visited Germany, and having even lived there for some time, qualify me to make sweeping generalizations about its people and customs. It also gives me license to jump to conclusions regarding their ways and means based on the flimsiest of evidence. Unlike JFK, Ich bin kein Berliner, but if you are what you eat, a substantial part of my composion would include schweinshaxe and koelsch.

Germany has quite a lot going for it as a country, and it’s not my intention to detract from that in any way. My intention is, and always has been, to understand it myself, and to share my hard-won insights with loyal readers of the VOB.

Today’s topic is… restroom ventilation.

Restrooms and elimination facilities vary widely throughout the world, and reveal much about the people that developed and use them. In England, the “WC” is often in a different room from the bath, so if you are inclined to “go to the bathroom” in the bathroom, you might not get a second invitation. In Italy, I once was challenged by a toilet consisting of a round hole in the floor, approximately six inches in diameter. Japan has some very “high tech” toilets which automatically provide heat to the posterior, along with some other surprising but not necessarily delighting features. I learned to just unplug them before sitting down. But also in Japan they have “traditional” toilets which consist of a hole in the floor similar to the Italian floor target, but oblong to facilitate variety in arrangement in excretory organs. And exemplifying the Japanese concept of “Poka Yoke,” or error-proofing, there are outlines of shoes painted on the floor, presumably to maximize accuracy by controlling squat location and orientation.

The German toilets look pretty tame at first, but two aspects of them give me pause:

1) instead of getting dropped off at the pool, your friends sit on a little shelf inside the bowl until flushing, maximizing the fumes they exude.

2) the bathrooms themselves are never particularly well ventilated.

Both these factors conspire to ensure a rather pungent hygeine experience, not just for yourself, but whoever follows for some time after you.

So the question is, why? And this is a very legitimate question, because my experience with Germans indicates that they are very well-endowed with critical thinking skills, and for everything they do, there is a reason. My own conjecture on the subject led to four hypotheses:

1) they have no sense of smell

2) they have a selective sense of smell, evolved over the centuries preceding closed sewage systems

3) they actually like the smell

4) there is a reason related to social consciousness

The first hypothesis is probably incorrect - the senses of smell and taste work together, and the Germans would never be able to produce their fantastic wine, beer, bread, and liverwurst without sensory feedback.

The second hypothesis is probably also incorrect. If Germans, and by extension all other Europeans managed to evolve a race of people immune to the smell of sewage through their exposure to it from centuries of living in cities with open sewers, then most of us white Americans who come primarily from European stock, would also harbor this immunity, which I can assure you is not the case.

The third hypothesis, that they like the smell of their own offal, is obviously preposterous, not to mention insulting, and I only inlcuded it to demonstrate that I have thought this through scientifically, covering all the angles.

That leads me to #4, some reason related to social conscience. Germany has a strong ethic for helping the less fortunate, including those who are physically handicapped. In fact, young men out of high school may opt to substitute for their 9 months’ mandatory military service (“Wehrdienst”), 9 to 18 months’ alternative social service (“Wehrersatzdienst”), and approximately 2/3 of them do. All public transportation has accommodations for the handicapped, and in my observation they are on a par with the United States and Japan in their provision for the handicapped for building access and employment opportunities. With this in mind, I racked my brain to try to figure out the social consciousness angle to explain the tendency to amplify rather than mitigate stench in the loo. Then earlier this week, while using a pungent German sanitary facility, I briefly closed my eyes and while drawing a redolent charge of oxygen into my nostrils it dawned on me: It’s so blind people don’t have any trouble finding a restroom!

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