Forgive the indelicate topic this week, but one of the burning issues confronting travellers from time to time - and more frequently as one gets older - is where to find the nearest toilet when on the road.
Whether you call it a restroom, bathroom, toilette or "the facilities", sourcing the humble loo when you're away from the comfort zone of home can be a leg-crossing nightmare. "Toilet trauma" sounds like something out of a John Waters movie, but it's a real thing if you're stuck on a bus with the next toilet stop three hours away or hiking through a Berber village with no public facilities or handy McDonald's to dash into.
Public facilities are few and far between, even in large urban centres, and those that do exist are frequently unattractive. I'm dubious about public toilet blocks and I'm no fan of those self-cleaning outdoor booths, having once been stuck in a malfunctioning one that started to clean itself before I was off the seat.
I thought about this frequently on a recent tour of Sicily, where constant feasting and drinking meant a lot of the trip had to be strategised around bathroom pit stops. Even in a civilised place such as Italy, where the toilets are Western, there are few public restrooms, so the kindness of strangers, notably cafe proprietors, has to be relied upon.
Finding a loo in a bar or cafe is the first resort of the desperate when there are no public facilities or petrol stations. Lining up for a customer-only toilet in one cafe, I was accosted by a grumpy cashier who was only partly mollified when I promised I would buy a gelato as soon as I'd had my relief. Her sharp eyes stayed on me the whole time I waited at the counter. It was summer and it took such a long time, I almost needed to go again once I'd finally been handed my cone.
I've followed some very scruffy tourists into cafe toilets to find that they've used the facilities for their weekly sponge bath, to wash out their picnic dishes or to trim their toenails.
By the way, I think it's fair enough if you're asked to pay for the privilege. The owners have to service the toilets after all. I've followed some very scruffy tourists into cafe toilets to find that they've used the facilities for their weekly sponge bath, to wash out their picnic dishes or to trim their toenails.
My preference, when caught in a potentially embarrassing situation, is to rush to the nearest department store. No one ever questions your right to be there. In fact, the stores encourage you to go in search of the restrooms, as it will take you on a meandering path through tempting racks of goods on sale. But in a country such as China, certainly outside of Beijing and Shanghai, there's, naturally, a lack of Western toilets, even in big stores. I've been raised to sit, not squat, and I do find this a challenge, especially in the colder months, when I'm trailing a long coat and scarf, and the toilet floor is hygienically compromised. Faced with the grim option, I've overcome the feeling that I'm sinning if I use the disabled loo, which generally has Western porcelain.
Smart travellers plan carefully for this eventuality, always carrying antiseptic wipes and coins for pay toilets and attendants. Others go further, bringing slippers, tiger balm for the nose to block odours and folding umbrellas that can be used to shield your body when there are no stall doors. (Clever, that one.)
Not to put a fine point on it, this is not just a female problem. Sometimes men have to squat too. There's a handy free app called SitOrSquat, sponsored by an American toilet tissue company, that will establish your location and find the nearest clean toilet, rated by users. Trust the Americans, always obsessive about hygiene, to think of this.
But I think there's room for the Luxe City Guides, or similar high- end destination guides, to publish, along with their reviews of shops and restaurants, lists of the most luxurious free restrooms for people caught on the hop, such as the Ladies Powder Room in Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue, which is as big and well-furnished as a Vanderbilt bedroom.
All it needs is a do-not-disturb sign for the doorknob and you could stay all day. I don't think they do room service, though.
When you gotta go, you may as well go in style.