*have no fear, this entry is rated NG (not gross).
Albanian bathrooms are an experience unto themselves and require getting used to. Four months into my new Albanian life, I would say that — mostly — I have adjusted, but there is one aspect of Albanian bathroom culture that continues to astound me, mostly because I think it reveals so much about Albania/Albanians’ tolerance for less-than-adequate solutions and inefficiency.
My first “cultural experience” with an Albanian bathroom came less than 24 hours after arriving in country. Our group of Peace Corps trainees had been bused to Elbasan, our training site, and were staying at the Hotel Univers for a few days. I was rooming with another volunteer, Hilary, and was the first to take a shower. The shower was square: two sides were tiled walls and two sides were glass with doors that slid together to meet at the corner. I got in the shower, made sure the rubber gasket at the junction point of the doors was engaged and showered away; when I emerged from the shower, there was a flood on the floor. Not just water, but a flood. It turned out that — gasket or not — the lower part of the doors wouldn’t connect and water had sprayed everywhere. There were only two towels in the bathroom and I was already using one of the them. The other one could barely address all of the water on the floor and so I asked Hilary if she would go to the front desk to ask for more towels. She came back with a couple of towels plus a bucket and a mop and told me, “The front desk said ‘just use the bucket and mop in the hallway’.” It turned out that flooded bathroom floors are a way of life in Albania and that, unlike bathrooms in the U.S., Albanian bathrooms have a drain in the floor and a mop and a bucket nearby. Here are some other things I’ve learned about Albanian bathrooms:
- Mercifully, Turkish toilets are few and far between! (If you don’t know what a Turkish toilet is, this will tell you everything you need to know.) I have been told that there are parts of Albania where Turkish toilets are more common but thus far I have encountered only one or two of them. I’m sure some of you are thinking, “what’s the problem, Turkish toilets are better/more natural,” but I have yet to meet anyone who looks forward to using one.
- Toilet paper goes into the trash can, not into the toilet. I don’t know enough about Albanian plumbing and waste water disposal to assume anything beyond “the system can’t handle it,” but maybe at some point I’ll ask.
- Carry tissues! It is not uncommon to find no toilet paper — which I guess is a good way to keep it out of the pipes?
- Albanian buildings don’t have basements and so water heaters are mounted to the ceiling/wall of the bathroom. At any moment — day or night — the heater may suddenly emit loud gurgling or wooshing. This no longer wakes me up at night.
- In many Albanian homes, the washing machine is in the bathroom.
- Most Albanian bathrooms — public or residential — have a bidet.
- Hand-washing is much less of a thing here than it is in the U.S. Although things are getting better, many public restrooms (meaning those in bars, cafes, government buildings) lack soap and/or water and/or towels. Recently I had the opportunity to use the “executive” washroom in government office building for the city of Berat, a bathroom that is kept locked so that only the mayor and his immediate staff can use it. Once inside, I discovered that, although there was a sink, there was no toilet paper, no soap, no towels.
In the U.S. I am vehemently “anti-” the whole anti-bacterial thing. I believe that germs are helpful in strengthening and maintaining our immune systems and that regular hand-washing pretty much does the trick. Unless there is a major flu outbreak and I am teaching in a computer lab using communal keyboards, I don’t use anti-bacterial soap, gel or wipes — ever. But, here in Albania, I am never without some sort of anti-bacterial safety device and a whole level of vigilance that is new to me.
Water, Water Everywhere….
I started this post with a story about my first shower in Albania — at the Univers Hotel. The Hotel Univers — being a “nice” hotel — had doors on its shower, but many hotels and many homes in Albania have neither shower doors nor shower curtains. Granted, as a Peace Corps volunteer I am not running in high-society circles in Albania, but I live as an “average Albanian” lives and it appears that showering for the hoi polloi (which includes me) goes something like this:
- Before going to bed, decide whether you are going to shower the following morning. If so, decide whether you want to plug in the water heater now or wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 am to plug it in. Electricity in Albania is quite expensive (and Peace Corps volunteers get pretty meager stipends), so it’s a good idea to make an unplugged water heater your default.
- When you wake up in the morning, hope that you remembered to plug in the water heater!
- Clear the area around the shower of anything likely to get
wetsoaked. This includes such items as the bathmat, the toilet paper and the towels you will use when the shower is done.
- Make sure your bucket and mop are nearby.
- Put on your shower shoes so that, when you are done showering, you don’t slip on the wet floor. (Albanians seem to have a thing for shiny floors — shiny tile, shiny marble, even shiny sidewalk-paving stones. Given the shower situation and also Albanians’ penchant for washing down/mopping sidewalks, stairs, museum floors, elevator lobbies, etc., it’s hard to imagine getting out of here without a bruised tailbone and/or a concussion.)
- Unplug the water heater now so that you don’t forget to unplug it later only to discover, upon returning home from work, that it was plugged in all day.
- Turn on the shower and adjust the water temperature. If it’s summertime, hope that the cold water will be cool enough to set the temperature where you want it. (For many Albanian homes, the water tank (“deposit”) is on the roof and this means that 90-degree temperatures outside (as we’ve had most of July) mean close-to-90-degree “cold” water inside.)
- Take your shower, finding a place to put the “telephone” shower-head each time you need to use both hands. (Most showers have an attachment high on the wall to hold the shower-head but the water pressure isn’t usually sufficient to allow for this much distance between you and the water.) As you shower, think about showering this coming winter — with no constant stream of water running over you to keep you warm, no curtain to help keep the steam close to your body and a completely UNHEATED bathroom!
I understand that sliding glass doors are out of reach for most everyday Albanians, but how many times can one mop the floor post-shower before one thinks, “there’s got to be a better way”?
- As you get near the end of your shower, hope that you’ve recently used the hair-dissolver treatment for the shower drain so that the water accumulating in the bottom of the shower doesn’t cascade over the lip of the shower basin.
- Finish the shower and wrap yourself in a towel. Then, grab the bucket and mop and start mopping the floor as you contemplate what this will be like in the wintertime with no heat. Wring out the mop and dump the water out of the bucket.
- Move the bathmat back into place and replace the toilet paper onto the toilet paper holder.
- Brush your teeth, dry your hair and otherwise get ready for work. Then, take off your shower shoes and set them against the wall to properly dry (I have no idea why this speeds things up, but it does). As you step away from the wall, remember that the floor is still wet and you might slip. As you step out of the bathroom, remember that your feet are still wet so that you don’t slip on the slick tiles in the hallway.
As noted earlier, I have pretty much made the adjustment to Albanian bathroom culture. But, as I wonder about whether Albania can succeed in its attempt to become a thriving European country, I worry that (what I view as) the shower ordeal is a canary-in-the-coal-mine-type warning sign that has nothing to do with showers and mops, and everything to do with a lack of interest/ability/willingness to question the status quo and think creatively. I understand that sliding glass doors are out of reach for most everyday Albanians, but there are other solutions that could make showering easier and more efficient. How many times can one mop the floor post-shower before one thinks, “there’s got to be a better way”?