Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Happy toilet boy

How well can a person know a city? Some people can tell you where you can find the best coffee places, Thai restaurants or techno clubs in their chosen municipality. Others can bore you with the history of the local castle, stretching back a few hundred years. And there's always the guy who's on a back-slapping basis with, seemingly, everyone in a strategic downtown bar or restaurant. Let's also not forgot those Rain Man types that have somehow memorized the name of every city street and alleyway.

But for me, probably the key barometer of city knowledge is a person's ability to locate free toilets. All that other stuff isn't particularly useful if you can't quickly locate a convenient place to piss. And this is deep, deep knowledge. Not only do the toilet kings have a feel for the streets and structures of a city, they have experienced them on an intimate basis. Their knowledge is as inside as it gets.

And I'm not counting the easy places - everybody knows (or should), for example, that fast food restaurants almost always have open-bathroom door policies. But what about that second-floor movie theater, for example, or the basement restaurant with toilets just inside the entrance, away from the spying eyes of wait staff and management? Those are the locales permanently fixed in the psychic street index of the true toilet king. The places where no one notices or cares enough to say no; the places that don't charge a few crowns for the privilege of relieving yourself. The places where you can void peacefully and keep your pocket change.

I'll never be Super Prague Experienced Street Guy, but I'm proud to say I've developed a fair degree of local toilet expertise. Try me. The Wenceslas Square area? No sweat. The Marks & Spencer flagship store, second floor, discreetly tucked away behind the top-floor cafe. The Lucerna complex's Cerny kun restaurant, one of those magic places where the bathrooms are closer to the entrance than to the diners. Boulevard, the sandwich place on Vodickova, a busy joint with bathrooms downstairs, although it's a f--- of a long walk to get there (but we can't be picky when it's free, eh?).

For the tourists: the Old Town Square area. Bohemia Bagel on Masna, loose, casual, not particularly mindful of toilet access. On the opposite side, La Bodeguita on Kaprova, too cool and busy to watch out for bathroom interlopers. The Coffee Heaven branch on Parizska, delivering us from incontinent Hell with WCs at the foot of the basement stairs.

Na Prikope street, Prague's shopping core. All that traipsing around and bag lugging makes a bladder full and a change purse empty. What to do? Well, there are the public toilets half-hidden and unadvertised in the courtyard of Slovansky dum shopping center (on the right as you enter, a few doors past the sushi place). Obecni dum, in addition to being a breathtakingly beautiful example of rare Art Nouveau architecture and design, is also a magnificent place to urinate. Walk in the ground floor bistro, look like you're meeting someone, and sail right into the bathrooms to do your thing.

It has to be said that Praguers are generally pretty nonchalant about toilet needs. Most of the time, if asked where their toilets are and whether they can be used, they'll point in the right direction and shrug a yes. But that ruins the fun and accomplishment of discovery, doesn't it?

I probably have some way to go towards full toilet coverage, or to put it another way, there are chunks of the downtown area where I have little or no idea where an accessible WC might be. Additionally, my knowledge of some of the downtown satellite districts - my current home of Karlin, New Town, and even to some degree my fixed address of Vinohrady - is still lacking. So if anybody knows about quality bathrooms in these 'hoods, do drop me a line. I'll let you in on a few more locales of my own.

In London, aspiring black cab drivers spend months, if not years, riding around on scooters and studying street maps to gain "The Knowledge" of their city. When they get their cabs, they are familiar with any street you'd care to name.

That's an accomplishment, but I have to say I'd be more impressed if they could just as easily answer the following question, no matter the location:

"Where's the best free toilet in this neighborhood?"