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European toilets stink!

I learned a lot during my first trip to Europe last month. Like how to raid vending machines to quickly use spare foreign currency before leaving for another country, and how to walk for miles with all of my belongings precariously strapped to my body.

But as my plane returned to Dulles International Airport, I found myself with immense new knowledge on a topic that I had never previously bothered to explore - the bathroom.

After experiencing European public bathrooms, I have a strange new sense of American pride.

When I first decided to take a class in Bath, England, I meticulously budgeted out money for food, drinks, shopping and other necessities. But I didn't even think about bathroom money.

That's right. You have to pay to pee in most European public bathrooms.

I discovered this most unpleasantly at the Brussels train station in Belgium upon our class's arrival from London.

A friend and I frantically bolted to a unisex bathroom guarded by a grungy man who maintained a scary resemblance to Al Bundy from "Married With Children." Beside him on a table was a plate filled with coins and bills.

"We have to pay for this?" I asked my friend, my voice squeaking with bladder-induced panic.

After using the bathroom's sparse supply of toilet paper, we found dirty sinks and no soap. As we tried to leave, the Al Bundy man yelled something in what I guessed to be French or Flemish and held out his hand. We offered him 40 British pence, roughly 75 American cents, but the man sneered and tried to demand more money in the correct currency.

We nervously threw whatever change we had on the plate and rushed out the door.

And that was when it sank in. I had just paid actual money to go to the bathroom. As common as this apparently is in Europe, I was dumbfounded and slightly offended. How could anyone expect me to pay for a natural bodily function? I can understand charging or leaving tips for nice fluffy towels or scented soaps, but not for Al Bundy and a dirty toilet.

Meanwhile, how on earth does one end up with the job of a bathroom toll collector? I mean no disrespect to the men and women employed in public washrooms, but how can anyone bear to just sit in a bathroom all day, every day?

Of course, they may be in it for the money. They have an absolutely huge market; everyone has to pee and when you gotta go, you gotta go, whatever the cost. So maybe bathroom toll collecting is where the big money is in this world.

London's Victoria Coach Station has a very elaborate bathroom system complete with a turnstile and toll worker. As the woman in the "bathroom booth" watched me drop my 20 pence into the coin slot, I found myself expecting to embark on an amusement park thrill ride.

But there was no roller coaster. And no soap.

During a late night visit to the Easy Everything Internet Cafe in Amsterdam, my class discovered that the toll table had closed. Overjoyed at the rare prospect of a free public bathroom, we went in even though no one really had to pee.

But the thrill of the free toilet caught me off guard, and I managed to get myself locked into the airtight bathroom stall. My friends had already gone ahead to the computers at the front of the store, and in a claustrophobic panic I began shouting for rescue. Finally, an employee came and freed me.

The next day, after I had recovered from my bathroom scare, I was at the Amsterdam train station getting ready for a solo overnight train to Paris. I rushed to the bathroom at the last minute, only to discover I had spent the last of my Dutch coins in a vending machine during a frantic round of the "spend the currency" game. I panicked and resorted to my natural charm, asking the attendant if he accepted American coins.

"No coins. Just currency," he replied with a knowing smirk. So I managed to spend an entire dollar just to pee in the barely sanitary Amsterdam train station.

By the time our class got to Paris, we were running out of money but had the bathroom game figured out. We obsessively took advantage of the bathrooms in the restaurants or museums we went to.

We were overjoyed when the cost of our ticket to the Louvre included a free trip to the bathroom. The Mona Lisa and a trip to the toilet for the price of one - what more could you ask for?

But the most amazing bathroom toll attraction was surely at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The Parisian Port-a-Potty is a wonder of modern technology. It cleans itself. That's right, no toilet paper shreds or suspicious wet spots.

We watched in awe as each person dropped the French equivalent of 30 cents in a slot on the door, enabling them to slide the door open and enter the refrigerator-sized capsule. Inside, the intense aroma of lemon disinfectant was almost overpowering. But there was a little sink and oh, wow! Soap!

When you were done, the door slowly slides back by itself and the fun begins. The Port-a-Potty whooshes and whirs like a crazy contraption out of a Dr. Seuss tale, locking the door and drenching the entire bathroom in sanitizer.

Despite this miracle toilet, I was relieved to get back to the gloriously free bathrooms of America. Don't get me wrong, I loved Europe and plan to go back - as soon as I have saved up enough bathroom money for the next trip.

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