So German, So TMI

Asking a friend how their weekend with annoying houseguests actually played out, I got this email reply:

Wasn’t as bad as expected, had a pretty good visit, but I had diarrhea the whole time.

This was, even now, more information than I was hoping to get, but what follows may really be too much for you. Beware the apple of knowledge, prepare to learn about German poopers if you read further.

Germans are fascinated with the digestive tract and all that ails it. Many of you may have heard about the toilets with the ‘shelf’ inside. Instead of a straight drop you get this shelf with a small depression, it’s far enough below for normal needs (but watch out if you had a particularly high fiber day!) but instead of everything falling into a watery abyss it’s all held back on display for one last look/goodbye. The party concerned can poop, look and then flush.

Can is sort of a nice way of saying that you really have no choice. I’ve used these toilets and tried not to see, but it’s so framed, so obvious, so put on display that you cannot – outside of closing your eyes and feeling for the handle – avoid seeing something. And that in the end is the point*.

The idea is to stay on top of changes from the ‘normal’, and be able to report to the doc the minute something goes wrong with the plumbing.

With poop playing such an obvious role in the daily life, it should come as no surprise that Germans more easily discuss this particular function, in fact everything with the bathroom and toilet comes inside the realm of acceptable conversation. No one will bat an eye to tell you they’d been on the toilet all night with the runs or that they couldn’t manage to go at all, or that they had to go, yet again.

In the US if I was experiencing such a problem and had to stay home from work, I would claim either to have the flu or a bad stomachache. Most would ascertain what’s up and ask no more. Problem communicated, sensibilities preserved.

Not here.

A German will tell anyone that they’d eaten something bad and been on the toilet all night. One of the most common excuses I’ve heard for missing work has been Magen-Darm – stomach flu / gastrointestinal disorder – and no one lifts an eyebrow or bats an eye at the war story that usually follows the declaration of illness. It’s almost like a fish story (“I’m telling you it was this big!”) and everyone just acts interested.

So much surrounds successful digestion. The television is packed with commercials for yogurts and drinks that help the digestion and with all the bread and meat the people have in their diets I’m not surprised. Certain liquors are acknowledged as a digestiv, or digestive aids, and used to help along digestion after a particularly heavy meal (my mother would call this behavior alcoholism).

Looking to eat a salad just before going to bed? Not if you want to digest it. Want to drink some carrot juice? Not without a shot of olive oil to help you digest it you won’t. Everyone is ready to give advice. You’ll find a huge array of yogurts and yogurt drinks in the dairy section, all of which will have digestion as a selling point. The evidence is everywhere, all except the actual signs, those you would have a harder time ‘tracking’ down.

Woe to he who forgets to use the toilet brush.

Growing up I may have actually seen a toilet brush in a household. I never really knew about them being used, until I came here. I quickly realized why. If the American toilet had half of the water it does now, the whole country would be using it.

When Oliver first came for his year abroad in high school, he thought the toilet was broken or backed up. Not having the vocabulary to explain, he snuck out and waited until someone else successfully went and then went in after they left to find the problem the same. Deciding to chance it, he quickly learned that the ‘American poop soup’ was the norm and that flushing was different too.

It just went around and around and around and around,” he said, rotating his head over and over in a circle, “the whole time I was wondering if it would go down or if this would be the first long topic of conversation I was going to have with my host family.”

Upon arrival for my first visit with Oliver, totally in the first flush of inflatuation, one of the first things we did was instruct me on proper Deutsch toilet manners. Major social faux pas committed by visiting Americans in Germany are not using the brush after pooping to remove all trace of activity and – for the men – not sitting when peeing. Since he had roommates this was one of the first things we had to get down, and fast. Germans may love to talk about it, but they don’t want to see anything not their own.

*Think about this shelf and the prank of putting plastic wrap on the toilet and you start to understand while most men learn to sit and not stand to pee, at least when they’re home or with friends. At public places the standing is then allowed but not lifting the seat is severely looked down upon. My friends and family all get the warning when they come over: if you’re in a private home – including mine – make yourself comfortable.


7 responses to “So German, So TMI

  1. Dude, I think this a Portuguese thing too.

    Make that a male thing.

    Where the Germans are concerned…do you think this has to do with their meat/potato heavy diet?

  2. Ha! That was great – you should submit it to the Spiegel Online thing. The first thing I made my husband do when I moved over here was rip out the ‘Flachspüler” and replace it with a ‘Tiefspüler’. Even with decent toilets, all the men in our house have been trained as ‘Sitzpinkler’.

  3. Sarah – you have a point. I feel I have to add that, having spent my first college year in a co-ed dorm, American men are strangely comfortable or even proud of what they can produce.

    But this general talk of digestion is distinctly German or at least non-American (maybe the rest of the world just like to talk potty). I think for Germans it must have something to do with the diet, there’s just so much that can either block you or open the flood gates. Pair that with their practical, straightforward nature and you’ve got the lower inntestinal tract as prime fodder for conversation.

    Christina – We have a new toilet too (check the link below). I’m happy to say that these days the only shelf toilets I run into are in the apartment we rent each winter in Austria for vacation. Everything in it is 45 years old. 🙂 I can handle it once year though, it reminds me of how good I’ve got it. But I too will still insist that the North American relatives sit and not stand.


  4. Ok… lol, ‘sitzpinkler’ is my new favorite word.

  5. Hey B!

    You should keep your eyes peeled in drugstores and markets. Often by the cash register I’ll see signs for sale with a standing man in front of a toilet and a big slash through it. “No standing to pee” 🙂

  6. I did not realize until seeing the comments that being a Sitzpinkler is not simply a demand of the Partnerin and a narrow circle of her friends, but that it is indeed a nation-wide phenomena. Oh my! This goes a long way to better understanding the German male psyche.

  7. I have always been amazed at the shelf.

    But those toilets are better than the hole-in-the-ground that is common in Kenya.