Recently, I paid a visit to my alma mater and learned that they're putting in "eco toilets," with little signs next to the handles that say, "Up for #1, Down for #2."
Oh God, I thought.
I headed straight for my dad's office. My dad emigrated from the Soviet Union almost 40 years ago, and teaches physics at my old university. I asked him if he knows what "Up for #1, Down for #2" means. He looked at me for a long time and said, "Does that mean they're installing automatic toilet seats?"
Cultural misunderstandings are a lot more high-stakes in the lav. Back when I was a singer and touring Italy, I remember confronting a bathroom with a gleaming bidet, and no toilet paper in sight.
"So what's the drill," I asked my host, trying to be casual. "What happens…after the bidet?"
He seemed confused by the question: "You use a towel" -- as in, everyone uses the same towel.
For people who feel like sharing a toilet seat is Shakespeare-level tragic, the Communal Toilet Towel takes things to a new level.
On the other hand, Italians consider our dependence on toilet paper far from ideal.
Just ask Martina Rossi, lead singer of the band You Me and the Coffin.
“When I've been traveling by myself or touring, staying at people's houses, I really, really missed it,” she says.
Martina is talking about my arch-nemesis, the bidet.
“In Italy, where I live, it’s just something that everybody has. It's like regular furniture in Italian people's houses,” Martina says. “You have not much time and you can't take a shower, so it's just like, very fast and very useful.”
Okay, so how does she manage when she's touring the US?
“We have something that I find very, very useful: wet tissues, like for the babies? Wipes. I think that wipes can be a solution.”
Apparently, a lot of us feel that way about wipes, so much so, that wipes are wreaking havoc on sewage systems from Los Angeles to London. Last year, the Thames Water Authority had to blast through a 15-ton mass made of wipes and congealed fat. They called it the "fatberg."
Forget what the package says -- don't flush wipes.
Personally, I've had a lot more experience with really lo-fi toilets abroad; I'm talking about latrines, outhouses, roadside weeds. A hole in the ground isn't always the aesthetically pleasing way to go, but hey, at least you know what to do. That's not always the case with the high-end options.
“So I walk in and I see this thing that looks like a spaceship.”
Here’s my dad again, talking about encountering another alien bathroom presence -- the Japanese "washlet.”
“I tried pushing at random some of these buttons, but then the water started coming out from some random directions,” he says. “I don't know. I was totally bewildered by this machine.”
To be fair, this is a complicated model, and all those buttons were labeled in Japanese.
My hopes, though, of encountering a toilet-sized spaceship are dashed when I visit the New York showroom of Toto, the company that invented the washlet. Everything looks pretty normal and labeled in clear English.
Oh, but Dad? This is where you'll find automatic toilet seats.
It also turns out the washlet does all the heavy-lifting for you.
“There's a dryer, and with the combination of the wash and the dry, there's really no need for a paper product,” says Leonora Campos, the US spokeswoman for Toto. Her enthusiasm for the washlet is infectious.
“When you have a dinner party in your home, for example, the bathroom with the washlet becomes a focal point. The way people generally gather in the kitchen to talk, people end up, everyone congregated around the toilet to talk about the washlet.”
In Japan, an estimated 75 percent of homes have washlet-style toilets. And I have to say, I left the Toto showroom a believer. The remote-control powered washlet will warm your seat and remember your preferences, just like a laptop.
It even cleans itself. Toilet paper just seems totally analog now.
So do old-school bidets, which reminds me of the question that's nagged me ever since that first encounter: Is the communal toilet towel really a longstanding Italian tradition?
“Are you kidding me? No, really?” says Martina.
“That's really weird,” she says. "Italians are weird.