Saturday, November 21, 2009

In the Lõõtsa Cathedral

I once read a magazine article instructing what to do if you were dining out wearing khaki pants and inadvertently dripped on your trousers while urinating. Those few drops, the author was convinced, would be spotted by everyone in the restaurant, and as you returned to your table all eyes would turn to you and your crotch. The solution? Turn on the bathroom faucet and throw water all over the front of your pants. Return confidently to your table and lay the blame on water pressure due to faulty plumbing.

This story came to mind recently when I was doing some freelance writing for a client in an office on Lõõtsa street. This is one of those Ülemiste Technopark buildings, beautifully renovated to impart both modern and warm feelings. There’s a wonderful cafeteria in the building, too, which looks a lot like some expensive Old Town restaurants. It’s an ideal place to grab a bowl of soup and do a little work on the laptop.

The cafeteria bathroom is behind transparent glass, a unisex wonder salon right out of the TV series, Ally McBeal. I always feel a bit uneasy entering these type bathrooms, mostly because I’m unsure of the etiquette. In the men’s bathroom things are clear: When possible, put one empty urinal between you and the next guy, and always look straight ahead, as if there were something terribly fascinating on the wall-tiles in front of you. But in an Ally McBeal bathroom in a building clearly representing the best of e-stonia, did that rule hold true? What if I entered and saw a woman washing her hands at the sink? Should I nod hello? Or should I brush brusquely by her and attend to my business? And were the toilet stalls on one side of the room for men and those on the other for women? And if all the toilets were occupied, where should I stand to wait for someone to exit? Would the person exiting expect that subtle nod of recognition or and ‘excuse me’ muttered under the breath—like on a transatlantic flight—the tacit regulations for two people moving past each other in a crowded space? Or should I wait on the other side of the glass—it was indeed transparent—and wait until a stall became free?

The bathroom, however, was empty. I could hear my footsteps echo off the marble walls. One of the stall doors was open, and I moved quickly to occupy it and finish my business. Exiting the stall, a row of sinks stood in front of me. The place was as empty and peaceful as a church on a weekday, would have been ideal for quiet contemplation, and I paused a moment to appreciate the majesty of this Estonian bathroom. It was nicer even than those which I’d seen in the restaurant Pegasus. This was the cathedral of Estonian toilets.

I placed my hands underneath the faucet. Nothing. I moved them back and forth. Nothing. I moved them in a wider arc. Still nothing. Was the motion sensor broken? Or were the architects of the Lõõtsa toilets having a bit of fun with me? Had they built the most modern and beautiful bathroom in Europe with manual faucets? I reached up and tweaked a knob. No, that was the soap dispenser. But good, I needed soap. There was another strangely shaped object on the wall behind the faucet. Perhaps that was the sensor and I had not passed my hands close enough to it. I moved my hands in every conceivable motion around this silver object. Nothing.

At this point, I began to look around. Partly, it was a subtle cry for help—me hoping to find another human being at a faucet several paces away cheerfully washing her hands. Partly, I was looking around to see if anyone was watching. This was becoming embarrassing. I have a university education and am a member of one of the world’s most technologically advanced cultures. How was it that I could not get water from a tap? Perhaps someone had turned off the building’s water? But, then, the toilet had flushed.

This was not a completely new experience. Once, while traveling, I stayed in a hotel which had installed the most modern shower facility, and I could not figure out how to operate it. A phone call to the front desk had only complicated things, me having to run from the phone to the bathroom, each time trying to tug the little ring under the tub faucet that the clerk had described. Finally, the hotel dispatched its “engineer” to solve the problem via personal demonstration.
Standing in the Lõõtsa cathedral, there was no one to call. Ekspress Hotline did not deal with these affairs. I was too young to get away with dialing 911, not that they would help. I wondered if I wasn’t going to have to leave, soap on my hands, and ask the soup server to show me how to extract water from the tap.

I began to explore the strange button on the wall. It was shaped like an oblong bar of soap, quite beautiful actually. It might have been a control aboard the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, though there was no Mr. Sulu around to drive it. I pushed it left and right. Nothing. Frustrated, feeling as if I’d spent half the day in this bathroom with only soap on my hands to show for it, I slapped the device hard and water exploded from the tap. The high-pressure stream bounced off the shallow designer-sinks, and the front of my khaki pants were completely soaked with water.

My mind did not immediately revert to the previously mentioned magazine article concerning how to deal with wet pants. Had it, I would have seen that I had bypassed the problem and proceeded directly to the solution of being in the position to blame the faulty plumbing. Rather, I recalled a tasteless joke told after the tragic explosion of the American space shuttle: What were the last words heard aboard the Challenger? “Hey, what’s this button for?”

But I’d been as careful as possible. I’d approached the problem from all angles, as methodically as one of the software engineers I was due to meet and write about that day. I felt cheated, the object of a joke. Had there been someone around to laugh at me, I might have even felt better. Instead, I suffered humiliation silently. I cursed the Ally McBeal bathrooms and e-stonia, a nation I deemed so eager to prove its modernity that it would buy any new fangled apparatus from a plumbing salesman in a sharkskin suit.

I removed my coat and folded it over my arm. Carried in front of me, it concealed all. I walked through the cafeteria and back to the office where I was to have my meeting. The software engineer was waiting. “I’ll take your coat for you,” he said, nodding to a closet.

It was then I thought of the magazine article. I confidently handed the man my coat. As he put it on a hanger I saw him look down. He politely looked away, but it was too late. “You probably need to have someone call the building management,” I said with stentorian voice. “The bathroom plumbing downstairs exploded all over me.”

“I guess so,” he noted, my remark having given him permission to publicly acknowledge the spot covering my fly and half the rest of my trousers. “That happened to me once, too,” he said. “Except my girlfriend spilled a drink on me.”

“Well, uh, sure,” I stammered, stunned by the engineer’s perfect manners in putting me at ease, but more so by his explanation for wet trousers, which was far more plausible than what the magazine article offered. Without thinking too much, I lifted my briefcase from the floor, held it directly in front of me, and followed closely behind the man down the hall toward the conference room.

In the News:
Read Baltic news in English daily in The Livonian Chronicle.
Baltic Features reviews Inherit the Family: "Book Him, Vello."
And the end-all-be-all of Christmas gifts here.