One thing I love about the Europe in which I lived is the practicality of concepts and mentalities. The main example of this which comes to mind right now is that of toilets. Public toilets, specifically, I mean.
At my campus in Toulouse, France, was my first experience of the idea of one set of sinks for toilets of both genders. There were the individual stalls, as in any US bathroom, though with doors and walls that closed off each stall more effectively from outsiders’ views. However, each stall was labelled as for male or female users. Then, over to the side, was the countertop sink area. Just one sink area for everyone to use. It was practical, efficient, and sufficient. It was odd, at first, walking into the same bathroom as the guys, and even talking with them while in line in the bathroom and at the sinks. But I never felt uncomfortable, because I still got my own, private little space to do my private business. The privacy part was kept even more private than the stalls in the US, where we have nonsense structures that require us to avert our eyes whenever we enter the bathroom, because we get that one-inch-wide view all along the length of either side of every stall door, and, whether we like it or not, leaves us knowledgeable of the color of everyone’s underwear. (No joke here. We totally have trained ourselves to look away as fast as possible, and also not to remember what we see, but it doesn’t change the fact that we totally see it and on a regular basis.) (Also, the urinals were still kept for the men, the private trash bins by the toilet were kept for the women’s stalls, and girls didn’t have to worry about guys urinating on the seats or floors around where we’re dropping our pants.)
When I was in Germany most recently, I was using the toilet in the airport just before my flight. When I walked out of the stall to go to the sink (in the women’s bathroom), a male cleaner walked into the bathroom with an indifference nonchalance. He walked to the trash bin and emptied it to his cart outside the bathroom, and refreshed the bag. Then he swept the floor a bit and wiped down the sinks, checking the soap and paper towels. Not one person flinched during this process. No one was embarrassed. But there were other women in the bathroom, coming and going as though all was well and normal. And, for some reason, I was delighted and warmed at that fact. I think I even giggled when I left the bathroom, because I was imagining how people back in the US might have responded (and, potentially, panicked like no other). Again, just like in France, he wasn’t in the actual privacy portion of the bathroom, so it didn’t really matter so much that he was there. He was only passing through – it wasn’t like he was hanging out in there all day or anything. He cleaned up and got out, just as he probably did in the men’s restroom. So what that he was a man?
In the US, our restrooms are shut down from use whenever someone of the opposite gender cleans them. And that really sucks at times. Really. Because, sometimes, you’ve just got to go.
However, one restaurant in Houston gives me hope for our city (if not quite our country yet). It has regular-looking entrances for the men’s and women’s restrooms, on opposite ends of this one wall. Upon entering either of those doors, one will discover a beautiful wall of sinks between those two entrance doors. That is, both doors lead to the same room of sinks. From that room, continuing in the initial direction, there is a second door, which will lead into the separate-gendered toilet rooms (men’s and women’s). And, in those, the individual stalls are like their own little rooms, with real privacy to handle one’s business. (None of that eye-averting necessary.) It’s wonderful. I ate at this restaurant with my dad once, and he and I specifically left the restroom from the opposite doors – he went through the women’s and I through the men’s – so that we might surprise the person with us at dinner. She didn’t notice, of course, but we had fun being rebellious in a way that didn’t actually matter. 😛
Anyway, I really like that kind of bathroom, and I really like the general mentality of efficiency I have found wherever I have lived (and visited) in Europe.