I’ve stayed in a lot of hostels over the years and that means that I’ve experienced many shared bathrooms. Most were pretty forgettable, some were grim, a couple were downright horrible and there were a few that were just plain puzzling. Like the one in Singapore that was sort of on a roof terrace outside the main building. The shower stalls had these metal doors that left about a foot of open space at the top and bottom which meant you could gaze out over the rooftops of the city as you washed your hair. Or the one in an outbuilding in New Zealand that had a crack in the corrugated plastic wall and a quite significant sized climbing plant growing into the room.
But one of the most confusing communal washrooms I ever encountered also yielded one of my funniest travel memories. It was in an amazing youth hostel in the town of Bacharach in the Rhine Valley of Germany. Now German youth hostels tend to have pretty high standards. The youth hostel movement was founded in Germany and in the Hostelling International locations I always found sparkling clean dorms and bathrooms, crisp white sheets and firm mattresses and good quality breakfasts. They can be a little sterile and boring, but they know how to run a tight ship.
The Bacharach hostel, however was definitely not boring. It was located in a real castle that stood on a hill over the town and the rooms were constructed of heavy grey stone with towers and turrets and winding stone stairways. Inside, however, the rooms were bright and modern with new, built in bunks with individual reading lights and big modern bathrooms. I was lucky enough to be assigned a room in the very top floor under a high, sloping ceiling with gabled windows overlooking the castle courtyard.
The part that was a little confusing, however, was that the bathroom was across the hall from the dorm at the top of the landing and had a co-ed sign on it, with a male and female figure. Okay, fine, you may say, but when you got in you could see that it definitely was not meant to be used by both genders. The shower stalls opened right into the main room in that delightful, “we’re all comfortable with our own nudity here and you should be too” attitude that you find in many parts of Europe and knowing how strict the hostelling association usually was with gender separation I was pretty sure that if we weren’t allowed to be in the same dorm together, we certainly weren’t expected to shower together.
Most of the other girls in the dorm found this odd too, but we just figured that the dorm was probably used for either gender depending on capacity, so the bathroom was expected to be whatever gender the dorm was since there were no other rooms on that floor. Okay then, no worries, right?
Well, that evening, I was getting ready for bed when an Australian girl poked her head out of the shower and asked me if I could just watch the door for her while she got out of the shower. Like me, she was 99% sure that it wasn’t supposed to be a co-ed bathroom, but she was just a bit nervous and wanted someone to keep an eye out. I said no problem and after she was dressed, we started talking. It turned out that we were travelling to a lot of the same places and had many shared interests and pretty soon we were chatting away like old friends in that sort of instant comaraderie that tends to happen amongst fellow travelers. Soon we were joined by an American girl who joined the conversation and I’m pretty sure we had been talking for nearly an hour when a timid voice suddenly piped up from the bathroom stall at the very end.
It turns out that some poor guy had walked his girlfriend up to the top floor dorm and had then decided to make use of the facilities across the hall. He had then heard the Australian girl call out and ask me to watch the door, followed by our conversation about how we were pretty sure that guys weren’t supposed to be going in, but it was a bit unclear from the sign. Rather than making his presence known, he then probably decided that he would wait us out and slip out after we left to avoid embarrassment. After all, how long could it possibly take a girl to get dressed after a shower and leave the room? (That was probably his first mistake right there.)
Maybe it wasn’t very nice of us, but after the red faced young man blurted out his story and made a beeline for the door, the three of us looked at each other and burst out laughing as soon as he was out of the room. Just the thought of him waiting and waiting and waiting in that bathroom stall as we talked about our travels and our studies and our hobbies and who knows what else all evening and wondering when we were ever going to just shut up and leave left us laughing so hard we almost cried. To this day I still wonder if he tells the travel story of the time he got trapped in a bathroom stall in Germany with the girls who wouldn’t stop talking.
So, the moral of this story is that when you travel, you should always be careful of the co-ed bathrooms. And never try to wait out a group of girls who are having a good conversation. You’ll lose every time.