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Newcomer to Vancouver: Toilets, the biggest culture shock of them all

In this regular column, North Shore News reporter Mina Kerr-Lazenby shares the ups and downs of moving to Metro Vancouver, and all it entails.
Public washrooms are a scary place for a Brit abroad. | Sandor Gyarmati/Delta Optimist

Something horrific happened to me recently.

There I was, sitting on the loo. I’m doing my business, minding my own business, when I glance upwards mid tinkle … only to be met with the startled and unwavering stare of a stranger.

I had been sitting in the presumed private space of a public restroom cubicle when I had inadvertently peeped through the gap between the door and the stall's wall at the same moment a woman, washing her hands at the sink in front, had glanced up into the mirror and locked eyes with my own. 

My stomach dropped (lucky I was on the toilet).

I recoiled and prayed for the ground to swallow me whole, at which point the earth split open and my porcelain throne and I descended to the depths of embarrassment hell where I would relive The Terribly Awkward Incident until the end of time.

Sure, this was a scene that had played out only in my own mind. But it could have happened. It really could have, and it’s a fear I’ve had ever since I moved to Canada last year.

A trip to any washroom that isn’t within the safe confines of your own home is already an uncomfortable experience, why do public stalls here make it so much more unnerving by having colossal gaps either side of the door? Under the door? Above the door?!

In the name of wholly serious journalism I decided to conduct some research. I furiously typed “North Vancouver toilet expert” into Google. A list of plumbing companies came up. Makes sense. I called a few.

“… sorry, what’s the question?” replied one nonplussed receptionist.

I said, Julie, why the big gaps? Moments in the lavatory that should be ones of quiet solitude are instead being thwarted by fears of having to swat away small children’s grubby fingers or, God forbid, having to gently boot one back into its own stall after it’s slithered along the floor into mine. 

As a relatively tall woman, when in stalls with walls exceptionally low from the ceiling I am forever terrified that I will wind up making eye contact with the neighbourino preparing to relieve themselves next door. What does one do in that situation? Laugh? Nod? Salute? I am living in a constant state of washroom induced fear, Julie!

“…Julie?” The receptionist was gone. Maybe she needed to use the little girls room.  

After a number of similarly awkward calls I stumbled across one North Vancouver plumber who was so eager to talk on the subject I wasn’t sure whether to be elated or unnerved. His toilet spiel was like a United Nations speech. He didn’t want to be named. We’ll call him… John.

“Those dividers are built that way partially to show obvious occupancy,” – (a locked door clearly does not suffice) – “and partially for airflow.”

John says that those fully bricked-in, wonderfully private individual cubicles that he has seen in “high end restaurants and stuff” are great … until they aren’t.

When I press him further he says he isn’t sure “how to put it PC,” but what I took it to mean is that those airflow gaps are seriously vital to ensuring that no matter what absolute Oppenheimer is released in there, the space is still (relatively) usable for those who come after. Can't argue with that. 

Plus, he points out, it’s cheaper. Rather than building individual stalls it’s far more cost efficient for a company to order four-foot high slabs of “privacy screening,” pop them together like LEGO pieces and be done with it.

Smaller, cheaper stalls are easier to clean and maintain, John says, and thus a more appropriate option for a public bathroom that is only destined to be defaced by phallic marker pen sketchings and “your mum woz here” messages anyway.

For that reason alone, he adds, it should make sense that privacy is supposed to be compromised. The gaps provide enough visibility that whomever is indoors would be less tempted to scribble on public property, or take part in any other sort of sinful activity.

It also means that, should anyone fall prey to injury, accident or some Elvis-style demise, it shouldn’t take too long for someone to notice.

Me and John shoot the breeze for a while. We laugh about the social faux pas that have occurred from me referring to what you call a washroom a "toilet." (I'm British, "toilet" isn't just the toilet but the entire room. Everything and the bathroom sink, if you will.)

I question why there are so few public restrooms on motorways and whinge about how stressful that is for someone who drinks a lot of water and as a result spends an abnormal amount of time needing ‘to go.’ (He isn’t sure, but is sympathetic to my situation.)

He talks about the toilets he has experienced on his travels. He makes a few crude toilet humour jokes. I laugh. Then things turn a little solemn as he explains how using the toilet … just isn’t what it used to be.

“You know, at the end of the day, you’re in there to get it done. The days of, you know, the guy in there with the colognes and the towel and stuff, where it was a sort of leisurely half hour, they are gone.”

Using the washroom is “a job now” he says. You “go in there, get it done, and get out.” It is not, he says, “a health club anymore.” Whatever that means.

John’s departing words left me with two thoughts. Mainly, what in the hell sort of luxurious defecating experience had he once been accustomed to? But also, and I think this is what he was really trying to say, perhaps I should just get over my fear and embrace this new if not slightly uncomfortable facet of Canada living.

It is the way that it is. Get over it, go in there, get it done, and get out. Or something like that.

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