It’s the worst part of the Austrian experience in my opinion: the lack of free, public restrooms in Europe’s cities.
I’ve heard students here say that the thing they are most excited for upon the return to the United States is the phenomena of a free bathroom. Europe has not caught on that people should not have to pay to perform a natural bodily function.
We can’t help when nature calls. Yet, when we need it most, after following signs for the WC in metro stations, shopping centers and even rest stops, we come to the door of the bathroom and, with sinking hearts, realize that we do not have 10 10-cent coins to put in the machine to enter.
Yes, there are machines with turnstiles blocking the entrance to most bathrooms in Europe. You have to put a certain amount of change into the machine to be allowed entry to do your business.
It has gotten to the point where I have a stock of 10- and 20-cent coins saved in a special pocket in my wallet just for the bathroom. Unfortunately, in some places I have had to use euro coins instead, as bathrooms in France are more expensive than bathrooms in Austria. Who would have thought that you would have to spend 2 euros to use the bathroom?
I had the experience over 10-day in a bus station in Ireland, where I needed to go, knowing that praying for a free bathroom was useless. When I got to the door and realized that the bathroom was only 20 cents, it was such a victory that I ran down to my friends to tell them the news.
In another episode of trying to find the cheapest bathroom, in Lisieux, we walked up to the basilica, praying that God would provide for our natural bodily needs. He did in the best way; when we reached the base of the basilica, we found a free bathroom. We all started cheering, so excited to not have to pay. It was the biggest miracle of the day.
It’s one of those strange aspects of culture shock that we all faced when we arrived in Europe. Honestly, I’m surprised that the United States has not started doing the same; it must provide great revenue for the government and businesses. However, I’m very glad that we have not stooped to that level.
In missing the free bathrooms, I suddenly realize all of the benefits of public restrooms. It’s very convenient to not have to run into a Starbucks and sneak to the WC, hoping that an employee won’t notice you didn’t buy anything. And yes — I’ve done that multiple times now.
Despite the inconveniences of having to pay for a bathroom, it’s all a part of the Austrian experience. I can’t imagine the trips I’ve been on without having to sneak into restaurants and fish through my wallet for loose change in public areas. It’s also how I’ve become close to some people — passing coins around to students in need.
Am I going to miss it? No. But it’s been a cultural experience for sure.