The Price Of A Toilet In Oldenburg

C.B. Heinemann

When people who travel abroad first meet and discover that common denominator, the first subject that gets the conversation going full tilt is, inevitably, adventures involving toilets in foreign lands. Horror stories are hauled out into the light of day, groans and complaints shared, and an innocent bystander would be justified in thinking that those people laughing about strange toilets had slipped over the edge.

But while traveling, the biological imperative to excrete often forces one into unforgettable predicaments. In countries with near-obsessive concerns with hygiene, like Germany or Switzerland, the facilities can be so clean and private that you actually find yourself looking forward to those brief encounters. In other lands, the familiar have-to-go feeling is accompanied by the dread of knowing you must soon attempt the near impossible under combat conditions. But even under the best conditions, using public toilets can still lead to unforeseen problems.

Oldenburg, near the North Sea in northern Germany, is a pleasant, windy little city in a flat landscape frequently sprayed by rain. The cobblestone pedestrian zone is lively and features an unimposing fountain, but a tourist would search in vain for anything memorable.

While playing a series of concerts in Germany, my friend Charlie and I had several multi-night stints in Oldenburg's big new Irish pub. We stayed in a pensione a block away in the upstairs of a bakery, so our room always smelled of fresh pastry. One bartender at the pub, Martin, was polite and helpful, while Terry, the other one, was a big, lanky Dubliner with the droll accent and sarcasm for which that city is famous. The manager, Seamus, was also a Dubliner, but he lived in Denver for several years and treated us yanks like old pals. With his dense red hair and blustery mustache, he vibrated with enthusiasm in search of an outlet. His favorite game after the bar closed, and he was outside of a few drinks, was seeing how many steps in the stairwell he could jump down without breaking anything.

On our last weekend in Oldenburg before wrapping up the tour and heading home, the town was having its Stadtfest, or town festival. Seamus fretted that nobody would come to the pub during the festival, so he printed up posters advertising our "Farewell to Oldenburg" weekend and tacked them up all over town. In a moment of "inspiration" he got the idea into his head that Charlie and I should go into the center of town and play on the streets, handing out more posters to advertise the pub. Seamus was so excited about his idea that we didn't have the heart to say no. So at five in the evening, Charlie and I found ourselves standing in front of a closed hat store in the pedestrian zone, playing under a shop awning to stay out of a steady drizzle. Everyone was rushing to get home so they could get ready for the festival that night, so we didn't get many people to even glance at our fliers. When the rain came down harder and we got fed up with promoting the pub, we retreated to our room to rest before our last and presumably unattended gig.

At nine sharp we got on stage and faced an audience that consisted of Martin, Terry, and Seamus. Everyone else in Oldenburg was out at the Stadtfest, rain or no rain. There would be dozens of bands, food, beer, wine, games, dancing, and everyone in town would get good and drunk.

Charlie and I played two songs and, after much fuming and biting of his lip, Seamus forced himself to approach the stage. "All right lads, I'm throwing in the towel. Let's all just go into town and get pissed like everybody else. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. I'm paying."

Having no desire to be licked, but enthusiastic about not paying, we followed Seamus the four blocks into the center of town, where he led us from stand to stand, buying beers and shots of Roten Geneva. I didn't know what Roten Geneva was, but I discovered that I liked it.

Seamus morphed into an increasingly fascinating character—laughing, calling out to passers-by he knew, regaling us with tales of his life in Denver, a near-death experience in Texas, and his stripper girlfriend in Florida. Martin and Terry became warmer and funnier as we drank. A few local girls who often came to see us play stopped by, and we all stood around talking, breaking into song, telling more stories, and pouring down those little glasses of Roten Geneva that made everything seem so fun.

Then I had to go find a toilet.

Lurching off after mumbling, "I'll be right back," I picked my way through the crowds until I saw a sign for Toiletten and entered a restaurant that was empty except for a half-asleep waiter slumped at a table. I entered the necessary chamber—which was, like all toilets in Germany, strenuously clean—took care of the issue, and staggered out again to join my friends.

Earlier, while reveling with my companions, I half-noticed that stands, offering beer, sausages, candy, trinkets, and games, changed in shifts—one stand would fold up and move, to be replaced by another with swift precision, and those shifts would, of course, alter the festival landscape. It wasn't until I exited the restaurant and looked around that I understood the terrible ramifications of those shifts. Each landmark and point of reference, that I noted to myself on the way to the toilet, disappeared, to be replaced by something I hadn't seen set up at a slightly different angle. It was as if some diabolical puppeteer manipulated everything from behind a curtain in an elaborate attempt to drive me crazy.

Finding a toilet in a strange town is difficult enough. Finding your way back after using the toilet can be a nightmare, especially in a bland, unmemorable town center.

I set off in what I thought was the right direction, searching desperately for any recognizable sight. Everything looked the same—those well-scrubbed white buildings, the cobblestones, the beer stands—and I couldn't tell one place from another. Even in the center of town there were no statues, monuments, towers or churches to use as landmarks. The town fountain was placed so that everything around it looked the same. Oldenburg seemed designed to be generic and unremarkable, with every street like every other street. All I knew was that my friends were at a big metal van set up to be a bar with tables and umbrellas, but I saw dozens of identical stands with no one familiar in sight.

On I stumbled through the crowded, noisy streets, certain that just around the next corner I'd see my friends and we'd pick up where we left off.

With growing panic, I began to understand that I was utterly disoriented. I had nothing to help me find my way back and I couldn't even ask passersby anything more specific than, "Have you seen some people I know drinking beer?" At the same time, the effect of all those Roten Genevas began to kick in full force. The faces, the streets, the vendors began to swirl around me like a hideous montage from a Vincent Price movie.

That condition was not a mere short-lived unpleasantness—it wore on for hours and those Roten Genevas refused to let up. Gradually, I noticed the festival winding down, people hurrying home, the stands closing, and the lights going off. I was seized by the idea of getting back to our room above the bakery—somebody would have to go there eventually, if only to look for me. I turned my nose in what I believed to be the correct direction and ploughed grimly ahead.

The sun began to stir below the horizon when, after my dozenth attempt to walk in the right direction, I ran across two policemen and asked for their help. I could only remember the name of the bakery and the Irish pub. I didn't even know the name of the street we were staying on. The policemen looked at me with concern. By this time I was exhausted, freaked out, and still drunk. I'm sure they discussed the possibility of taking me in. However, they didn't speak English and my meager German had deteriorated to the point where they no doubt thought it less bother to let me wander at large than try to communicate with me in the wee hours of the morning.

One of the policemen pointed down a street, bent his hand to the left, and repeated, "Geradeaus, geradeaus."

I guessed that he meant I should go down that street, turn left, and keep going straight. I thanked them and tottered off while my heart pounded at my sweat-soaked shirt.

On that left turn, I saw a familiar grassy ditch running alongside the road and realized I was on the right path at last! My lungs heaving, I tried to run. Light began to fill the world, birds began to twitch, and a few cars passed me. I was half-convinced that I was hallucinating when I saw the silhouette of our pensione sign hanging over the sidewalk ahead of me.

By the time I reached our room I was overwhelmed by emotion. Not only relief, but anger at what I had gone through, frustration about missing a fun evening with friends, embarrassment at how that came about, and an unsettling sense of my vulnerability as a mere biological being made up of flesh and blood. To my surprise, I crumpled down onto the sidewalk and burst into tears.

The next afternoon, I woke up and tiptoed over to check Charlie's bed. It had been slept in but he wasn't in it. I saw a small puddle of blood on the pillow. He emerged from the bathroom with a swollen lip and red-rimmed eyes.

"What happened to you?"

Charlie rubbed his chin. "Terry and I went out to look for you. We stopped for a couple of beers and that damned Roten Geneva hit me like a hammer. I must have said something that pissed him off because he socked me right in the mouth. The worst part is that I have a feeling I deserved it." He looked at me with a sideways smirk. "I hope you found a toilet, at least."

On our way out of town for the last time, we stopped off at the pub to say goodbye and let them know that we made it through the night alive. Charlie stayed in the car. The pub, however, was locked up tight and nobody was stirring inside. We couldn't even go in to use the restroom.

After leaving a note, we drove through the windswept landscape and onto the southbound autobahn. The next time we planned to spend time in a place, we vowed, our first order of business would be to locate and map all the public toilets.


About the Author

A graduate of the University of Maryland, C.B. Heinemann's articles and stories have appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Fate, One Million Stories, The Whistling Fire, The Battered Suitcase, Danse Macabre, and Lowestoft Chronicle.