Monday, October 26, 2009

Ode To My Father

by L.G.C. Smith

There’s something wonderful about traveling to another country and feeling more at home in many ways than I do in the U.S. I put most of that down to having a predominately British ethnic heritage. Not only do I see people who look like family all over Britain, but I know the rules for queuing, talking to strangers, and negative politeness -- whereby the polite is defined by how little one intrudes upon others rather than doing nice things for them.

I can function as an American in all of these arenas, but there is always tension. When someone tries to cut in a line, I become irrationally furious. I don’t typically say or do anything about it, but I am most definitely Not Pleased. When a stranger speaks to me, my natural inclination is to freeze or say something slightly hostile, like “Indeed.” I have learned to be friendly and will try to pretend I’m not feeling a bit of panic, but in Britain, I relapse. When a perfectly affable American gentleman made a small jest at a kissing gate in Oxford, saying he thought one was supposed to share a kiss going through, I reared back, horrified, and said “I think not!”

Hmm. Was that repressive disapproval strictly necessary? No, it was not. It was, alas, entirely beyond my control.

This may be mostly cultural, but the rapidity with which I forget all my “I am an American; I can cultivate and use social skills” rehabilitation efforts suggests to me a chemical component. Call it genetic. Call it blood. Whatever it is, it’s insidious.

There are some aspects of British life that I do not understand, however, and no degree of British ethnicity seems to help. One is the toilets. Almost every toilet I encountered outside of a public restroom required a master’s touch to flush. Five holiday cottages, all with multiple bathrooms, and nine B&Bs offered a good-sized sample of almost 30 individual loos. One or two I comprehended quickly. Others I learned to finesse into a full flush without interminable afterdrip in a day or two. The recalcitrant ones never cooperated.

What’s this all about? When they do flush, British toilets let loose a torrent of water shocking to ecologically conscious residents of the dry American West. The commodes are also deeper than American versions, making it impossible to inspect whatever gets down there – unlike the German toilets I remember from the 1980s. Those had a little shelf for deposits to land on, making me think it must have been fairly common procedure amongst Germans to keep close tabs on their bowels.

The very fact that I find toilets an interesting topic, and, yes, sorry, amusing, may be yet another indicator of too much British blood in the mix. That and the fact that my father is a Sanitary Engineer, which means he knows about clean water standards in scary minutiae and where to put septic tanks. He has also toured more sewage treatment plants than anyone else in the known universe. Still, one has to wonder why a nation of uptight, occasionally squeamish folks prone to frequent feelings of social ill-ease and embarrassment would routinely install tetchy toilets.

I’ve come up with a couple of reasons. First of all, it may be to embarrass foreign visitors. There’s definitely comedic mileage to be found there. However, all the holiday cottages I stayed in were also used by their owners, or had been lived in by them for extended periods, so I’m not sure this holds up as the universal answer. The second reason, my current front-runner, is that Brits enjoy a little humiliation too much to let go the shameful potential inherent in anything to do with toilets. You can’t get too big for your britches if you can’t operate a toilet successfully on your own. Plus, it encourages independent problem-solving skills in children, always a worthy social endeavor, as well as keeping them in their place. Again, humility must follow in the shadow of one’s inability to master a simple flush. And that goes double for foreign tourists, particularly if they’re French.

Therefore, in closing, the moral of this loosely organized post is that nobody’s blood matters much when it comes to flushing toilets in Britain. Certainly my own high percentage of British genetic material is of no great use, perhaps because most of those bloodlines left Britain before toilets were in wide use, or, perhaps because this is one of the many areas of life where blood isn’t relevant. If, however, one’s parent has a professional interest in sanitation matters, blood ties may involve sufficient affection to foster a similar, if less technical, interest.


Sophie Littlefield said...

i am so in love with that storm grate. I am fascinated when people take the time to do a small and humble thing really well and beautifully. Kudos to that anonymous artisan.

Unknown said...

Clearly my British blood is not dominant since I routinely talk to people in line (much to the chagrin of my children)....

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