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Seymour Gris: The German toilet crisis

You have to pay to crap?! Seymour Gris on how the City Toilette is emblematic of the German toilet crisis and a sign of our (barbaric) times...

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Photo by Merker Berlin (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m sitting inside the Wall City Toilette on Straße des 17. Juni, a few dozen metres from the Brandenburg Gate. Inside it feels like a wheelchair-friendly Soyuz capsule except with gravity (thank god) and quite loud, moving, cinematic music that lulls you into a sense of security. You feel like not even the NSA or BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst) could surveil you in this windowless metal box. What’s nice is that the City Toilette is exceptionally clean. It gets automatically hosed down and sanitised after every customer. After 20 minutes the doors automatically slide open. You can get another 20 minutes by pressing the big button with a clock on it. Forty minutes of privacy for 50 cents. It’s quite the deal, if you think about it. 

The problem is that the beautiful, technically superior City Toilette is emblematic of the German toilet crisis. You have to pay to crap. That really bothers me. Even though I’m more or less German myself and have lived here for nearly a decade and half, I’ll never get used to that. I get angry every time I’m expected to give a “donation” at a toilet in the mall, in the airport or in the train station. Granted, sometimes there’s a charming Klofrau who smiles when you place your coin on her little plate (money she doesn’t actually get to keep herself). 

At an Autobahn rest stop, I’ve witnessed the dreadful sight of a busload of possibly weak-bladdered pensioners fumbling for change in front of the toilet-turnstiles. In Berlin, desperate, clueless tourists, with any a public loo in sight, are forced to go into cafes, where they’re welcomed by “no toilets for non-guests – 50 cents for use.” If you go off the paths in Berlin’s parks you’ll find little piles of toilet paper everywhere, because there’s no where else to go but outside. Is this civilised?

The City Toilette is part of privatisation pact that the city entered with the highly successful local outdoor advertising company Wall back in the 1990s. Wall provides “street furniture” like bus shelters, info-panels, rubbish bins and toilets for free. The city saves heaps of money. Wall makes heaps of money on advertising on the “furniture”. The sprinkling of City Toilettes across town is a little bonus thrown in so they can say a public service is being provided. I doubt they make a lot of money on those 50 cents per customers. But the fee probably keeps out the homeless, junkies and other undesirables. 

Paying to crap is barbaric, if you think about it. It’s not the worst of problems out there of course. We have poverty, racism, sexism and all the rest of it. But it’s still an issue of human dignity. Once in a while I get a press release from the German Toilet Organisation. For a second I thought this NGO is going to address the public toilet problem in Germany, but then I realise it’s all about sanitation in developing countries.

In this respect, though, Germany is a bit of a developing country. A free, clean public loo on every major square and in every park should be something the capital of Europe’s richest country should be able to provide. It would be a nice little signal to the city’s burghers and visitors alike. While we wait for that there is a little hope here: Gratis Pinkeln (pee for free) offers a handy crowd-sourced map of free toilets that aren’t immediately apparent from the street.