Mention Amsterdam to anyone and they will likely think of one of two places; either a city marked by legal drugs and window-shopping for women, or a place of majestic canals lined with quaint buildings and tulips. While both visions can accurately depict the city (depending what you’re in to), I found the city’s greatest appeal in a more functionally pleasing sense – Amsterdam is by far the finest European city to take a leak in.
Having the bladder of an 85-year old man doesn’t contend well with world traveling. Long car rides, busses without toilets and window seats on airplanes all pose significant problems for me. But, I face the largest and most uncomfortable adversity in the midst of some of the world’s most celebrated urban centers.
This is quite possibly the real reason I prefer nature to dense civilization. Clean air, grand views and escaping updates on Lady Gaga are only added bonuses of the outdoors. Ultimately, the ease of urination is what draws me to the wilderness, where stopping to pee is an after thought. It’s routine. It requires no more mental capacity than is needed to decide which way the wind is blowing. In a city, however, particularly those in the old world, relieving oneself is almost always a taxing ordeal.
The problem is most metropolitan centers seem to ignore that in a given day all the people wandering the streets will eventually have to use a bathroom. This fact has apparently escaped the attention of city planners from Paris to Barcelona to Berlin. I once spent a solid hour dashing through the streets of London looking for anywhere—a porta potty, a public toilet, a privacy hedge—to urinate. At length, I was forced to walk into a pub and feign interest in ordering before slipping into the restroom unnoticed. On the way out I got shot the looks one would give a convicted pedophile. What a terrible sensation it is to feel guilty about having to perform one of life’s simple requirements.
Most cities try to compromise by providing toll toilets. There are a lot of ridiculous things in this world I’m willing to pay for; taking a piss isn’t one of them. Every visitor to European cities is already paying exorbitant fees for lodging, food & drink and transportation. Is it really necessary to further stick to them for bathroom privileges?
These places do get what’s coming to them. They get the not so unique fortune of becoming one giant toilet. And, admittedly, hunting for a secluded spot to urinate in the heart of a major city can be an invigorating challenge. But, it shouldn’t have to be—a point best illustrated by the city of Amsterdam.
This famous Dutch city has embraced the logic that, indeed, people have to pee from time to time. They have done so with the simple addition to discreet free urinals in many of the town’s most public places. My Scottish friend Kat, Andrew (the 6 ft. 5 inch self-described forest monster I travled Europe with) and I first learned of this mystifying concept from an Australian guy in our hostel. “Oh yeah, there’s heaps of them, right near the canal bridges and next to sidewalks. You can see people walking right by you and they can see your legs.” We thought, as they say, he was taking the piss. “Are you serious?” we said. “Dead set mate, you’ll see em.”
Still suspicious, we hit the town that night. I hoped, with all my miniscule bladder capacity, that he wasn’t kidding us. And then we spotted something near a bridge that fit the description. Approaching the structure, I kept my eyes fixed on it, fearing if I looked away it might vanish (this was Amsterdam mind you, a place where you could never completely trust your senses).
But, alas, it wasn’t an illusion. It was real, oh so real, and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Not surprisingly, I had to go at the time. My inaugural pee began the fantastic four-day relationship that can only be formed between man and street urinal.
Not only was the idea wonderful, these urinals were designed with the perfect blend of functionality, aesthetics and subtleness. Most were open-roofed cylindrical metal structures. Others were brick built and even had a little artistic flair in the form of toilet gargoyles perched atop the roofs. They weren’t particularly arresting to look at, but they were far from being eyesores. Commendably, these structures also balanced privacy with safety. No one from the outside could see your business, but they were treated to views of your legs from the knee down, thus preventing them from turning into rape shacks. And, as an added bonus to the user, you could see through metal screen siding that started at chest level. This gave you the novel feeling of peeing in a crowd of people. Incredible.
There are, notably, a few downfalls to these pinnacles of modern society. Like any public toilet, they get icky. However, at least this grossness is concentrated and can be easily hosed down. The most obvious flaw in the Amsterdam stall is that they offer no concessions to women. Ladies, I am truly sorry. For the record, I dream of a future where people of any gender, race or bladder size can urinate free of cost and hassle in all cities—one day perhaps.
For now, I’m happy to see Amsterdam heading in the right direction. I realize there are many problems to remedy in this world; most are a great deal more concerning than finding a place to pee. But before Western Civilization can tackle the more formidable issues, we need to first get the fundamentals down.