Saturday, November 24, 2012

Luxury and Necessity

Not long after I arrived in Astana—who are we kidding, even six months in I can talk about the present as “not long after I arrived”—I decided to take a shower.  I shower every day, of course, but this day is mentioned as, well, noteworthy.  (On a side note noteworthy as a descriptor for events has also undergone quite a change in the past six months).

This shower happened in the dormitory in which I was living for my first month in Astana.  I had basically the room in which you would expect to spend the next nine months with a complete stranger if you were a freshman at a mid-size state university in the United States.  Plus a private bathroom.  I’m led to believe that in some university dorm rooms private bathrooms are standard.  In my state university, alas, this was not so.  But anyway, it was a dorm room—large, angular (read: lots of corners, ouch!),modular furniture, littler leftover floor space, and a window that didn’t always open and close the way it should have.  Oh, and no curtain.  Not even a curtain rod to hang a sheet over.  I saw many windows in that building with newspapers taped to them to block out the daily frown of the sun. 

I lived on the sixth floor.  Though there was an elevator, a passcard was required to operate it, which you were required to purchase, and which “ran out” after a certain number of rides, and you had to pay more money to use again.  My American sensibilities—what, you have to pay for an elevator, a basic service to which I’ve grown accustomed?  What about the disabled?—of course, precluded my from purchasing said elevator card.  (I’ve since revised my opinion of elevators and cards, but I’ll get to that another time).

At any rate, on the day in question, which was likely about three days after I arrived, I decided to take a shower, which is generally accepted as a good thing to do before heading off to work.  So out of my clothes I went and into the shower I stepped.  Before getting into the specifics of that adventure, though, I feel it’s worth mentioning the rest of the bathroom.  It was a small space, as seems logical in a dorm room, but not really as small as you might expect.  Now, I’ve watched enough home remodeling shows on basic cable DIY channels to know that a room with such Spartan accoutrements could be laid out in a much more space-saving way, thus freeing up more space in the actual dorm “room.”  There was, simply, a sink, a three-foot-square shower—I’ll call it a stall, for lack of a better descriptor at this point—and a toilet.

A word about toilets:  One’s feelings about toilets can really set the tone for a lot of one’s subsequent life.  There are some people who seem absolutely fastidious in their outward appearance, general cleanliness, and the way in which they organize their lives.  You work with these people, maybe even share an office or cubicle.  You regularly have lunch, even drinks after work, together, and in every aspect they seem to exhibit the proper amount of regard for sanitation and cleanliness.

Then something happens.  They’re fumigating your apartment building, or a water main breaks, or something else that otherwise forces you to decamp from home for a few days.  And this co-worker offers you a place to stay.  And of course  you accept, because this person is someone you’ve come to rely upon for cleanliness, punctuality, and overall lack of being an ax-murderer.

Everything is great.  Clean place, nice guest-room, or at the very least a well-made-up sofa bed, reasonable expectations for cooking or cleaning or whatever it is you need to agree upon for whatever period of time your stay will last.  Everything is great, until you get to the bathroom.

What do you do?  What do you say?  Should you say anything?  How do you deal with someone else’s toilet?  I suppose you could raise the point that any time you are a guest at someone else’s home this is an issue, though plenty of people have been know to get through a three-hour dinner party without using a strange toilet.  When you are a house guest, you are at the mercy of your host.  People who are generally lax about cleanliness in their own homes can freeze up completely when asked to use someone else’s toilet.

I’ve also found that this houseguest-toilet-syndrome is specific to personal toilets.  People who have issues at someone’s house or apartment seem to have no problem using a public toilet (I suppose I should qualify this.  No one likes using a truly public toilet.  Even those few who have no compunctions with squatting over a hole in the ground can’t use a truly public toilet without a little shiver of distaste, if not disgust.  In this case, by public I mean the kind of toilet you use at a workplace or other familiar yet not-home environment.  Even the toilet in a department store holds less fear than the toilet of a dear friend in whose home you are not a frequent guest).  Why?  Perhaps it’s a transferal of responsibility:  This company has 150 employees and manages to turn a profit every year.  Obviously they‘ve got the simple process of cleaning a toilet figured out.

Me, I’m typically pretty phlegmatic when it comes to the rigors of cleaning.  It needs doing, I get it done, end of story.  But this toilet, my toilet, I should say, had me completely at a loss.  It turns out that familiarity is just as important with toilets as it is with say, street signs.  No clear directions and I’m completely at sea.  When one of the first things you have to do on your first day in a place worlds away from the one with which you are familiar is clean the toilet (a toilet that looks and works quite different than the one in your own previous bathroom), well, it can be a little daunting.  Do these cleaning products clean the same way as the ones I’m used to?  What are these words I don’t recognize?  Do any of them say antibacterial?  And let’s not even get started on the actual physics of toilets from one country to another.

Is this symptomatic of how I will spend the rest of my time in Astana?  I suppose we'll find out.  Does how I felt about my toilet necessarily effect how I felt about my shower?  More on that later.

Wondering when I'm going to get to that shower?  Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion to In No Sense Abroad: Luxury and Necessity.

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