In today’s age, bathrooms can speak for our sense of style and especially our imaginings. For example, a family in South Dakota has guest towels with rustic sail boats and sea shells. Their vanity is scattered with displaced coastal knick-knacks, while on the walls hang pasty children in starched knickers building a sandcastle.
Interior decorators refer to the bathroom as a potential sanctuary and retreat. That is a lot of pressure to put on a room that began conception as an outhouse. My Georgia grandma never tired of telling us what it was like to get up in the frigid air of January to brave the sharp winds just to use the potty. My North Carolina grandma lived in the city limits but she still had to use the outhouse when visiting family on the farm. I bet you have a nostalgic grandma who told you about using the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue as “toilet paper.” I hope you have a grandma like that.
I know what ya’ll are thinking- didn’t this lady already write about Twelve Rolls of Toilet Paper? Yes, I did. The bathroom is on my mind a lot because it’s the annex to my office, which is the rest of the house. I have three kids; my brood includes a toddler and a pre-schooler who still need technical assistance in the wiping department. Ya’ll might also be thinking – what does bathroom decor have to do with a Collard Green-Arab, family?
In all the homes I’ve visited in Morocco, and I’ve visited a lot, the bathroom serves a strictly utilitarian function, much like in my grandma’s generation and every generation before that. I’d wager that the majority of Moroccans are not going to spend a lot of time, thought, and resources into concealing the true purpose of a bathroom. Everybody knows that you go in there to do the stuff that nobody wants to be around- not even your mama, which is why she toilet-trained you in the first place! Depending on the socio-economic status of the hostess it might be a hole in the ground or a shiny porcelain throne. It will not say anything about the hostess, and you better not saying anything either!
In Morocco, no one walks out of the toilet and says: I just love what you’ve done in there! Heck no! She will: a) think you are trying to insult her, and/or, b) wonder whether one of her kids forgot to flush the toilet.
Moroccan women are a lot like Collard Green women, so at that point, she’s going to serve you cake and tea while praying under her breath that you will get pulled away by an important phone call, which is such a shame, because, it would be lovely if you could stay, because, she always enjoys your company and especially your conversation, and do come again!
Here’s another piece of advice to save you a lot of embarrassment – there are a pair of cheap sandals next to the bathroom door. Those are for you. Wear them!
Let me explain. Moroccans will clean all day long, with that bald-headed mascot of disinfection, Mr. Clean, and they would be horrified to let the soles of their feet, or anyone else’s slide across that clean floor. Moroccans wear flip-flops in the bathroom because they leave their walking shoes at the front door. I didn’t know this and no one told me so my first trip to the little girl’s room went something like this:
We stopped at a friend of the family’s home on the road to my husband’s small town. Everyone’s shoes came off at the entrance; next, came the customary Islamic greeting, Peace be upon you, before we were seated in the family room. Trays of sweets and pots of tea were brought out by the mother, her teenage daughters and several of their female cousins. After a while, I had to go the bathroom very badly on account of having swallowed so many glasses of sweet, hot mint tea. In Moroccan culture, and this is also true for most of the Arab world, if you empty your tea glass, the hostess is obliged and happy to fill it back up for you. Leaving an ounce at the bottom is a polite way of saying enough.
I didn’t know that and no one told me. Every time I finished a cup the hostess would touch the mouth of the teapot to the rim of my glass as if to dribble its contents inside. Then, as is customary, but surprised me- she swiftly leveraged it up until her arm could reach no higher, in a sublimely extravagant effort that betrayed no concealment of pretension. This produced a golden fountain which, though high, emptied only into the narrow cavern of my petite, brightly tinted-blue glass- its façade rimmed with silver, geometric repeating patterns.
The force of this lava-hot stream made a rim of thick foam swell up, almost to the mouth of my glass. Rising from the foam was a concentrated vapor of fresh mint which filled the space in front of me. I was intoxicated by an unfamiliar yearning to abandon all my earthly affairs and never return home. Through the haze of steam, my eyes fixated on my hostess’s expression of joyful ease, made even more ornate by a charcoal-colored tattoo, perfectly aligned along the center of her chin; extending from its base to the underbelly of her bottom lip- illuminating the perfect symmetry of her smile.
I might have given into the siren’s call, if not for the sharp pain emanating from my full bladder. I needed to use the restroom badly, but it’s not like I could discreetly saunter up to my hostess and ask if she would kindly show me to the powder room. Who needs a tour-guide book filled with useful, everyday expressions when you are being escorted by a native speaker? That’s for tourist. I was practically Moroccan, right? Or, at least, I was married to one. My husband used to translate everything. Not cool. There is nothing more humiliating than having someone announce that you need to take a trip to the john, and no better motivation for becoming a student of the local language.
After my husband announced my predicament, all the ladies of the house sprung up, downright giddy, to help me navigate my first trip to the toilet. It was quite an entourage. Since I eloped and never walked properly down the aisle- that is probably the closest thing to a formal procession I’m ever going to get while I’m alive. They ever so carefully led me around the corner, through a sparsely furnished square room, down a steep step, through a corridor, around another corner, down a short hallway and then- voila! There was the door of the bathroom and I rushed to it feeling that my time was short.
I was almost home-free when I heard a cacophony of shouts erupt- La!, which, in Arabic, means no. I turned around and those not biting their lips, or cupping their mouths, were just plain laughing. I wanted to laugh too. I love to laugh, but I didn’t get it. One of the girls sprinted to my side; she bent down and produced a pair of bright orange sandals about two sizes too big for me. I still didn’t get it. Are we going to the dang boardwalk? Never mind, I thought, they can laugh, but I’m going in.
I turned to enter, but that girl pulled me back as if she were saving me from a certain death. She put the flip flops on her own feet, and then passed through the dark room and out again to demonstrate how it’s done. Alright. They want me to wear their flip flops in the bathroom, I said to myself, fine, I’ll wear a dead possum on my head if it’ll get me into that toilet. I dashed in with the proper foot wear and closed the door. There, on the floor, was a wide, dark, deep hole with two foot rest on either side. I didn’t think twice. I knew what to do. I’m Collard-Green; when you are out somewhere and there is no porcelain throne for miles- you simply adapt.
Later, I emerged flapping like a penguin, made-in-China, in my oversized orange flip flops. Everyone was where I left them, crowded around the door, still smiling. Maybe they thought I wasn’t coming out and were drawing straws to see who should have to go in.
So, that was my ‘Intro to Toilet’ seminar and since then I’ve worn all manner of plastic flip-flops to go to the bathroom there. Over the years, I somehow adopted the Moroccan notion of what a bathroom should and shouldn’t do. It should serve a necessary purpose- not express your good taste and unique expression. It doesn’t have to be your grandma’s outhouse, but good gosh don’t try to make it your sanctuary with a toilet; the master bedroom will work just fine for a retreat. As for the bathroom -get in, get out, disinfect it regularly, and don’t look back.
Well, that all changed last year when my good friend, raised in New England and Colorado, planned a visit to spend a week with us. I asked myself why our bathroom didn’t speak to our sense of taste and imaginings. We didn’t even have a nice set of guest towels. How was I going to make her feel really welcome? I felt ashamed. Here I was, all grown up and the mama to three, yet my bathroom looked like a glorified outhouse, when it was supposed to look like a vacation destination. I didn’t even have miniature lilac soap bars, shaped like oyster shells, for guests to admire (and not use). I wasn’t going to go out of the world this way. Heck no! I made up my mind.
I drove straight away to Home Goods and headed for the double wide aisle which shelved the towels. It was overwhelming, really. I should have brought reinforcements. I didn’t even have a strategy. I gave up my lofty ideal to have a bathroom that communicated something about me and just decided to acquire anything nice. My only other requirement was that they look like a proper set – useless.
I finally narrowed in on a teal and cappuccino colored ensemble. For just $3.99 you could get a non-utilitarian accent piece with matching tassels and beads on the end to drape over the arrangement, like a corsage on a sparkly debutante. That made its useless value skyrocket in my opinion, and thus even more fitting to accomplish my mission. I arrived back home to my husband and kids and set to work like a master florist.
Next, my very Arab husband came in and asked:
“What are those?”
“Guest towels. It was hard work picking them out, so say they’re nice,” I warned him.
“They are nice,” he said.
“No, I mean say something really nice about my good taste,” I explained.
“You have good, nice taste,” he said.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“How much did they cost?” He asked.
“A thousand dollars and fifty cents -so don’t use them, alright? Their guest towels.”
He leaned past me to feel the fabric.
“Huh…kind of coarse. Do you think guests will want to use them?” he cautioned.
“No,” I replied.
“Why?” he asked.
“’Cause they’re guest towels!”
“Wa’kha,” he said.
I bought those towels a week before my friend arrived, and in that time my Collard Green-Arab kids had already pulled them off to use in the shower. I kept reiterating that: “Those are guest towels!” I had almost given up because it was a headache and I seriously doubted that they inherited my particular strand of post-modern American, guest-towel DNA.
I picked up my friend from the airport and got her settled in. I was so happy to see her, I forgot about the trauma of trying to convert my kids to the idea of having useless things in the bathroom. It’s a good thing my friend reminded me. I was tickled pink when she walked into that bathroom and commented on what a nice set of guest towels I had, which of course she didn’t use.
That was last year. Since then, our bathroom has struck a kind of compromise. It’s in potty-purgatory. I grew weary of washing and re-arranging the towels my kids couldn’t remember not to use. So, the towel racks are now all stocked with clean rounds of fluffy white towels. However, the walls are adorned with Frenchy-inspired pictures and we have a sleek shower curtain, found on clearance at Marshalls for just $9.99! Would my great-grandmother have imagined that I would put art on the bathroom walls or devote the cost of a pot roast to a shower curtain? I think they were on the right track. There are plenty of other corners in a home to fuss over and pamper– why dawdle in the bathroom unless you have another toilet-training tour to fulfill?
Here’s to bathrooms that don’t compromise. To bathrooms that don’t inspire! To bathrooms that don’t express anything! To bathrooms that call you in, and then hustle you right back out! To my old bathroom, dang-it!
Raise a glass (of sweet tea)!