January 6, 2010

Mug Shots: When you gotta go ...

Any farm boy can tell you what happens in winter when hot liquid hits the frozen ground and steam is produced, and so my youthful reveries tending our livestock came back to me after I made my way from the toasty upholstered interior of the beer café, through the entry door, across a corridor, through a second door, and outside to where the restrooms were located just off the snowy, arched passageway leading from the street.

They were unheated, with a predictable temperature differential, and I was in and out in a flash to reclaim cool, smoked lager in a warm room. 

At least there was plumbing, albeit frigid fixtures.

In 1999, while drinking draft beer from St. Petersburg at a small bar located on the ground floor of a towering modern concrete housing block in Moscow, my fumbling water closet query in deficient Russian was met with a shrug and a gesture in the direction of what proved to be a slippery collection of shrubs around the darkened corner.

It may have been Archie Bunker who observed, “You don’t buy beer, you rent it,” and your humble columnist has gleaned a fair amount of experience in such matters in his career as a professional beer drinker, most recently while enjoying a Christmas holiday in Bamberg, Germany. Many things about Europe’s beer and brewing cultures have changed since my first visit to the continent, but none more so than a steady elevation in the cleanliness and comfort of facilities at the typical watering hole.

Whether good, bad or indifferent, my personal theory is that such improvements owe more to the course of the women’s liberation movement than the interest of most males of the species in topics like hygiene. In all likelihood, publicans continued pointing to the bushes until modernity brought changes in migratory patterns in the form of female patronage.

Beer and Bamberg are gloriously intertwined, which is why I became a regular visitor so long ago. During the most recent trip, it suddenly dawned on me that the pleasant modern urinals in the men’s room of Spezial (founded in 1536) weren’t there until the late 1990s. Before that, men urinated into trenches running along the floor. These trenches presumably emptied into the sewer system, although sometimes it’s best to take nothing for granted.

I can hardly attest to how it was done during the Middle Ages, or even as recently as the 1970s. My impression is that the process of waste disposal always has differed little from the scenario in Moscow, or this one in Albania, circa 1994: a lovely, contemporary wood-lined room with a spotless, modern, stainless steel urinal, connected to PVC pipe leading outside to a position just shy of the town’s riverbank.

Unscientifically speaking, you can look at the many centuries-old brewery taps and public houses in Bamberg and see that the restrooms weren’t included in the original architectural designs. They were added later, away from the seating areas, and often tacked onto the interior courtyards that are a familiar feature of older buildings.

The facet of European waste disposal that I miss the least is the institution of the fearsome female restroom attendants, sometimes ensconced behind sliding glass windows, but more often seated at rickety wooden tables in front of the battery of stained tiles, guarding ceramic plates intended for loudly smacking coins into, indicating you’d paid the required tariff and qualified for a square of toilet paper (if necessary).

In theory, the women were there to keep the area clean, and surprisingly, they often did just that, sometimes while you were otherwise engaged. It made for initial embarrassment, but after all, they were professionals and only doing their jobs.

Male toilet attendants invariably were less reliable than the elderly ladies, especially as the geography passed eastward from capitalism to communism. When I was teaching English in Slovakia, I was a frequent customer of a venerable drinking establishment where the restrooms were in the basement (not uncommon), and my brand of beer was also the preferred beverage of the subterranean lavatory commandant.

Whenever his plate contained the requisite number of coins, he would climb the stairs for another pint of pay package, and by closing time, he could be found unconscious at his post, snoring in the fetid air. 

Now that’s motion-activated.

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit potablecurmudgeon.blogspot.com for more beer.