P is for Privilege

CW (Content Warning).  Please stop right now if you’re expecting a lofty essay on privilege in our culture.  This essay contains a few more thoughts and observations from our recently concluded extended expedition through part of Europe. Regarding privilege, see note [1].

The musical Urinetown must have one of the most unlikely plots – and titles! – to ever go on-stage and  be regarded as a critical success. [2]

My short version of the plot set up.  At some dark time and dismal place in the future there has been a decade’s long drought so severe that there is virtually no water for almost any use. So bad, in fact that the government creates a preposterous scheme to limit water consumption. In fact, it’s cockamamie: They make it illegal to urinate anywhere except at a public facility operated by a company that possesses a government sanctioned monopoly (called Urine Good Company, or UGC).

Facilities are few and the cost to use them are high.  Any infraction gets the violator immediately sentenced to serve an infinite term in penal colony called Urinetown.  It’s not really described what Urinetown is, or what it’s like until late in the play.  But you’re led to believe it is very, very bad.

One of the key songs in the Tony Award winning score is “It’s a Privilege to Pee”, for obvious reasons.

The reason I recalled all of this is that it’s what came to mind while on tour almost anywhere in our tour through Europe (primarily Germany, Austria, and Netherlands, with small side trips to Belgium, France and Luxembourg).

My advice for American travelers is (1) practice peeing when you think you can’t (2) practice not peeing when you think you absolutely must (3) and always keep some coins in your pocket in the event that you do manage to find a WC/toilette and it requires either a fee to enter, or an implied tip to the person who cleans them and sits immediately outside (as quite often is the case).

As a last resort, you can usually duck into a pub or coffee shop … as long as you buy a pint or a kaffee. They might very well run you out if you don’t.

Toward the end of the 7-week trip I did find myself unconsciously slipping into a European habit (confirmed by unscientific poll by discussing this with several) of reducing liquid consumption from morning to mid-afternoon.

This was a big change for me (I suppose it happened gradually), and I wondered if it didn’t have health consequences; namely, kidney stones. I did find some evidence that Germans suffer from a much higher rate of stones than do Americans.  [4]

Still, there were many positive experiences, even the worst of times, such as traffic jams on the Autobahn, when the observed max speeds quite often drop from close to 200 kph (about 120 mph) to essentially zero.  The Germans have such a useful word for “really horribly bad traffic jam”; it’s “Stau” (sort of stick an “h” between the “s” and “t” and it rhymes “how”: shtow).

Also, you can easily find interesting history almost anywhere in western Germany and this region, extending all the way back to the Romans, and beyond. Also, German wines sold locally are mostly quite spectacular … and often spectacularly inexpensive.

Don’t expect many pleasant surprises in navigation in Europe, which most Americans would regard as very, very unfriendly toward automobiles.  For starters, it’s also a privilege to park. For many cities it’s probably best to save time and frustration by parking at the edge of town, and then getting to the sites by walking, taking bus or tram.

Address numbers are so different from America that one can regard them as almost unusable.

Numbers are assigned sequentially, beginning from the beginning of a street.  So on one side they are usually 2, 4, 6 … etc; and on the other 1, 3, 5 …  If a new building is built then it might need an address like 21a, which of course is between 21 and 23, … unless there is a 21b.

Grid systems are virtually non-existent, so it’s pointless to think, for example that addresses with 200 are about one block past those with 100. Addresses are generally from center to out, and clockwise.

They simply don’t like big address numbers, like 2101 or 1508 (which would be one block beyond 2001 and 1408 in the US).  If and when a number gets too big, like close to 100 or 200, then they simply change the name of the street where there’s an intersection or a slight bend.  They have so many historical figures to name streets after that, even with this puzzle of seemingly never-ending street name changes, they will never run out of possible street names. I think the main ring around Aachen has seven names.

Also, it is quite likely that address #55 is nowhere near 54 or 56.  A few much larger or much smaller lots on one side of the street might lead 55 to be across from 15 (which of course could be ½, 1 or even 3 blocks away). One place this was not true was in Dutch towns with a canal on one side of the street.  Obviously there is no building in the canal, so – unless the street on the opposite side of the canal has the same name – these house numbers are indeed exactly sequential on one side of the street … 1, 2, 3 …

All of this means you could be at the very edge of a city and encounter an address number 1 or 2.

Confused?  Well, there’s more. These oddities, and a near blackout of visible street name signs near intersections in many cities at critical intersections, will leave you grateful for your satellite navigation system. Grateful that is, provided it doesn’t direct you to a pedestrian area such as a city square (Platz in Germany, Plein in Netherlands), down a one way street, onto an apparent farm road, or onto a side street that’s two-way, but is only about 10 feet wide with parking on both sides – all of which unfortunately happens unnervingly often.  We also experienced a major construction on a country road with no hope of deciphering an alternate route without also having a very detailed map of the area available.

And the GPS navigation warning finale: SatNat receiver programmed with an English speaking voice (or worse, an actual English accent) will absolutely butcher the pronunciation of many streets and city names, so that you’ll really want a competent co-pilot to help decipher where the heck you are supposed to go.

Back to numbering, this time on the Autobahn system. The exits are also always numbered sequentially.  Exit 25 (or Ausfahrt 25) is the next exit past 24 – or past 26, depending on your direction of travel.  It could be 1, 5 or 30 kilometers away, but the exit number increment is always one.  Americans are spoiled by the numbering (in most states); Exit 200 is one hundred miles from Exit 100.  Easy-peasey.

Is there a new exit added to the Autobahn?  It will be numbered 25A.

One unexpected and very agreeable thing about the Autobahn: pre-programmed detours.  There can be frequent experiences of a Stau, whether due to volume (usually near larger cities), construction or crashes.  That said, the Germans are prepared.  Most exits are marked with a “U” and a number, like U-22.  U stands for Umleitung (Detour): if you leave the Autobahn at that exit and U-number due to a Stau, then you simply follow the pre-arranged detour (U-x) signs through the city or countryside several kilometers down the road to where there is, hopefully, no more Stau.  I think this is very clever.

Bathroom talk. One concluding warning and tidbit on the European bathroom experience regarding the (usually very tiny) one-person shower stall.  They are elevated by several inches and usually sport a significant “lip” that you must step over; the lip is generally 7-8 inches above the main bathroom floor level.  You can imagine how carefully this naked and barefoot exit must be performed when you consider that none of the shower floors we experienced (I think 22 of them) had a significant anti-slip surface and there is no safety handle to secure yourself to.

End on the positive. One more positive part of the European Experience: we didn’t have to follow US politics at all, unless we wanted to.  And what kind of masochist would do THAT?

Probably more travel thoughts to come …


Joe Girard ©  2016



[1] Regarding privilege. The greatest privilege you can have is to be well-reared such that you have appreciation for values that include respect for others, the inherent values of hard work and delayed gratification, the beauty of self-respect, patience, grace and fortitude.

[2] Even more unlikely, the “hero”, Bobby Strong, gets killed off midway through Act 2.

Awards, besides multiple nominations.

2002 Tonys: Best Book from a Musical; Best Original Score; Best Musical Direction; and Best Musical Actor.

[3] a good way to improve your “performance” on “holding it” is to practice the Kegel exercise.  http://www.healthline.com/health/kegel-exercises#Overview1

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2931286/table/T2/

From this report: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2931286/

One thought on “P is for Privilege”

  1. Dave Zinn

    Your address & street experiences sound a lot like the east coast. You will be traveling along “Haverhill” Rd in a town called “Amesbury” until Haverhill Rd enters into a town called Haverhill and then the street name changes to something else; and there’s no warning about the name change.

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