Pardon Me, Can You Point Me to the Toilet?

Twenty something years ago I sat in an Italian restaurant in England with my then boyfriend’s family and asked where the bathroom was.

My future in-laws looked at me with the kind of blank confusion I can only assume my face resembles when my children talk to me about FortNite, leaving me–cross-legged and full-bladdered–in a linguistic black hole.

Oh! You meant the toilet.

Yes, yes, I insisted, the bathroom.

They shook their heads in that Americans are so quaint way. How extraordinary! (Ok, they didn’t really say ‘how extraordinary’, but they could have. And they probably didn’t shake their heads. But they could have. It was that kind of moment.)

Fast forward to this summer, sitting in a little cafe in Stockbridge, MA. I’d downed a large glass of ice water and asked our waitress, “Do you have a toilet?”

The woman looked at me, eyebrow cocked, in utter confusion. It took me a full minute before I realized OhI don’t actually call it the toilet. I call it the restroom or the bathroom and clearly this lovely, college town waitress can’t fathom why I’m asking if she has a toilet, because beyond the linguistic element, even though I’ve been in countless places throughout Europe which actually don’t in fact have a toilet, a restroom, or a place to sit and pee but instead simply direct you across a street or down a dark alley, that’s never the case in American eateries and no wonder she’s looking at me like I am crazy.

So there I was, circle complete. Yet instead of giving me some sort of closure, what I felt was disoriented. Neither fully here nor there, left, cross-legged and full-bladdered, doubting my own instincts.

I guess that’s what ten years of living in Europe plus another ten with a “not bathroom, sweetheart, water closet” Brit will do to a gal, muddy the waters until you don’t know your toilet from your bathroom.

Of course, the great toilet/bathroom conundrum is not the first time this has happened. I once wrote a blog post and referred to a wash bag. An American friend asked me quizzically what a wash bag was.

Do we not call it that? I asked in confusion. How extraordinary! Er…what do we call it? It took me several concentrated moments and Google to come up with cosmetics/toiletries bag.

Even more recently I found myself in a mini-panic when talking about the school fundraising gala because I did not know if I naturally said the word as gah-la or gay-la. Is that fragrant herb I like with my tomatoes base-il or baz-uhl?? And oh my lord, did I just say toe-mah-toe?

How extraordinary!

Language, slang, terminology–it ties you to a place. Growing up in Massachusetts, drinking fountains were bubblers and those chocolate sprinkles you put on ice cream were called Jimmies for some reason I still don’t understand. My Italian grandmother called the red sauce you put on pasta gravy, much to the disgust of non Italians who only use gravy on a Thanksgiving turkey.

As an American living in Europe, out of necessity and pragmatism I’ve adopted more European and British English terminology, but usually when I plant my feet back onto home soil or more familiar ground, there’s an invisible switch that flips.

But increasingly the switch is getting stuck. What happens when toilet becomes more familiar than restroom or bathroom, or when driving on the right becomes more familiar than driving on the left? When you find yourself standing on a sidewalk, head swinging in both directions wildly because for a full minute, you don’t remember from which way the traffic is coming instinctively?

In the large scheme of life it may not seem important. Not the driving on the correct side of the road, obviously. But you know what I mean.

Right? (Or left. Or which way are the cars coming????)

 

I remember a friend saying ten years was make or break time for many expats. A kind of Mason-Dixon/Maginot line for going home. Much longer and you risk feeling like a foreigner in your own culture; an expat when you should just be a pat.

I think it’s because the auto-go-to for your brain alters. And not just for things like toilet vs. bathroom. It’s being overwhelmed in Target because of the sheer size and choice. It’s feeling strangled in the city of your heart because you’ve been outside of its embrace for too long. Its getting lost in places you should know, gone long enough that the breadcrumb trail has dried up and blown away, long enough that the muscle memory has atrophied and you panic you’re going need to use the GPS to find your way home.

A decade is a long time. Not long enough to feel completely at home wherever you are, but long enough that sometimes you don’t feel completely at home in the place where you come from either.

It’s wearing a pair of glasses you didn’t actually need in the first place for so long that you now need them to see. And when you take them off, things are fuzzy.

How long before your eyes don’t refocus at all?

Or maybe, I’m just jet-lagged and making too big a thing about asking a waitress if there was a toilet.

It’s hard to tell.

How extraordinary.

 

19 thoughts on “Pardon Me, Can You Point Me to the Toilet?

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      1. Ooh, that’s a good one — except in British held territories, where it’s much safer to look right, look left, and then look right again.

        His Lordship: “Well, didn’t you look twice to the right, as would any rational adult?”

        Us (miserably): “No,your Lordship, Sir, you see, I was confused between left and right…”

        Ooh. Credibility buster, right there 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I so relate to this! 15 years away from the US this time, and find myself feeling more and more like a stranger when I do go back to visit. And I forget who spells words with a z and who with an s…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh don’t get me started on loo roll for toilet paper! Or kitchen roll for paper towel. Or my personal favorite ‘joined up writing’ for cursive script. Joined up writing. Jeesh!

      Like

    1. I just wrote the sentence “stranger in a known land”. I think that probably sums it up. Home is where I used to live is a nice way to put it. Thanks for linking the piece, looking forward to checking it out!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll hit 10 years in Chile in a couple of months. I still speak and spell in British English, but I never know whether to ask for the loo, the toilet, baños, or just do that “where is the…” shrug shoulders look helpless thing.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I love this!!! I am caught between Australian and American English and often I simply don’t know which word is which anymore. I have learned to notice that slight moment of blank face that indicates I’ve said a word which is unfamiliar to the person I’m addressing – to mentally replay my previous sentence and double check what I said. Sometimes I just have to ask. The “auto-go” (great phrase, btw!) has changed so many times I don’t have one most of the time. I’ve had to take time to process the way this affects my identity, and to learn to be okay with it. Being in-between dialects/accents is part of who I am, and always will be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely ‘code’ switch, depending on who I”m with at any given time. Its when I forget that always stuns me. I do wonder how it affects our identity, or, if as I suspect, a more fluid identity is something we will see more and more as the distance between us all closes. Interesting stuff!

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      1. Yes every Country is somehow diffrent depends on their culture or the past. When I am in Europe I tend to seek first the “toilet” or their native language of it before I stay longer in that place, from where I originally came from toilet or bathroom is understandable but in NZ they also have a special old word which is the “loo” perhaps same in Britain? and yes I also driven to both left and right lane of the road and mind you my right hand have a mind of its own when trying to put a signal on that supposed to be my left hand are the one doing it haha!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. As the mother of an ex-pat , I’m glad I found your blog.
    My son moved to Chile three years to teach English. In March, he and his new Chiléan wife, move to China. Again to teach.
    Your mention of ten years away being a kind of tipping .. point of no return has me sobbing on the couch.
    I’d already feared that he may not return to El Norté.
    I may never really know my future grandchildren. And to boot, his younger sister lives in Hawaii and talks of moving to New Zealand.
    Hate those long ass flights from Baltimore.
    Looking forward to reading more.
    Peace.

    Like

    1. Oh, don’t sob on the couch! I promise you find ways to make it work, and sometimes, those ways are even better. My two boys are the only grandchildren on my side and my Mom only gets to see them 2x a year. BUT….she sees them for an extended period of time. Usually 10 days at Xmas and 4-5 weeks in the summer. Sometimes I think my kids know her better than they would if we visited for a weekend every few months. Oh, there are things you miss out on for sure, but there are great things too!

      I promise it will be ok!

      Like

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