17 November 2007

Wie sagt Man "plunger" auf Deutsch?

So my long toilet saga has finally ended. In Obi, a chain store kinda like and and yet kinda unlike Home Depot , I found what I had been looking for unsuccessfully for the last two weeks -- something I could have gone out at 2AM in the US and found at any one of a dozen stores -- a toilet plunger. (I'd tell you what they're called in German but it turns out that even the Germans don't know the word for them. Of course, I only asked German women -- maybe all German men would know the word for it. But how many American women do you know who wouldn't know the word for "plunger"?)

I thought perhaps my experience was unique, but when I IMd a friend back home when my frustration with the toilet issue was peaking (on that day not just one but BOTH of our two toilets were backed-up), he quickly Googled and found half a dozen MetaFilter threads on the topic. Apparently German toilets are notoriously finicky, yet plungers are nearly unheard of. Go figure.

Interestingly, toilet brushes ("WC bürste" -- every German knows the word for this!) are ubiquitous. This is because the German toilets are designed to be environmentally friendly in theory but are in my limited experience extremely wasteful in practice. German toilets, unlike American toilets, are not full of water in-between flushings. They are for all intents and purposes empty, with only perhaps a cup and a half of water at the very bottom until you flush, when water rushes out from beneath the rim and flushes whatever is in the toilet away. German toilets offer a continuously-variable flush volume, which works great when you pee because how much water does one need to flush away half a cup of pee? Right, not much.

On the other hand -- and I apologize if any of my imaginary readers are eating while reading this, but if you have your own
five-year-old you will understand that I have gotten very comfortable talking about this -- the continuously-variable "low-flush" toilet does not work so well with on poop. I'm sorry, but there's no delicate way to put this: with no water in the toilet, one's poop sticks to the porcelain. Flushing sends water pouring down the sides of the bowl, which removes most of it but never fails to leave smudges of poop here and there which cannot be dislodged regardless of how frequently or vigorously one flushes.

The ubiquity of the toilet brush in Germany is thereby explained. The typical home improvement store has nearly an entire aisle devoted to this single item, from the cheap and pedestrian plastic WC bürste in a variety of cheerful colors to expensive sleek modernist nickel-plated white ceramic wall-mounted versions. I was able to justify the purchase of a stylish Day-Glo green ceramic WC bürste holder for my bathroom and an equally striking Day-Glo orange ceramic brush holder for the guest bathroom (aka my son's bathroom) on the grounds that we use the freaking things every single day. If I am going to have to use a stupid toilet brush every goddamned day I at least want it to be pleasing to the eye.

The very nature of German toilets forces one to be all too familiar with the ever-changing quality of one's poop and, if one has a five-year-old, of the ever-changing quality of one's five-year-old's poop. I never knew, before, just how sticky one's poop becomes when one eats too much chocolate, as one is apt to do when one is five years old.

However, it could be worse. Hours of research on German toilets have made me grateful that I live in NEW Germany rather than OLD Germany, when the typical German toilet still had an "inspection shelf." I'll let you Google that one for the gory details but suffice it to say that Germans of yore apparently had an unhealthy interest in the quality of their own poop.

Anyway, Godspeed, inventor of the toilet plunger, whoever you are. Three Euros and two minutes later, my two-week odyssey ended with a sparkling clean, flushable fully-functional toilet. Sure, it probably seems strange to put up with a clogged toilet for two weeks, but I'd be damned if I was going to spend 50€ on a plumber when I knew full well a 3€ plunger would do the trick. (Luckily we are a two-bathroom household. I probably wouldn't have been quite so sanguine about a backed-up toilet if it were the only one in the house.)

Other curiosities of German life I may post about next: Autobahn etiquette. Civil liberties. Liberal horn-use among German drivers. What do we mean when we say someone is "very German"? German fashion sense (or lack thereof). Tchotchkes and the Bauhaus, which came first? Germany: A crackerless culture. The Tischtennis craze.

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