The brain is an amazing blob of goo. It remembers, it stores, it draws up memories while you are walking down the street about the time you were in 7th grade and lost your voice while trying to talk to a girl you thought was pretty, and as we age it starts to betray us. Like all the bits and pieces of the human body there are ways to lengthen the longevity of your brain until the inevitable day when you fall in the kitchen and break a hip.
One of the best ways to keep the old noggin fresh is to experience new things. Your brain can get lazy if you do the same thing everyday, new experiences create mileposts in your mind. For example, think about what you ate for breakfast last Tuesday; now try to remember what you ate for breakfast when you were in Oslo three years ago. That Oslo breakfast is stashed in there because you hadn’t realized salmon could be served in 12 different ways, or that salmon was one of the cornerstones of a good breakfast. It was a new thing and your brain made a little marker so the next time you experienced it you wouldn’t stand there staring at the salmon wondering what the hell to do. (This probably has something to do with evolution and preventing you from getting eaten by a Wooly Mammoth, but I don’t want to stash too much science into my blog, because we all know science is boring.)
The brain can also get worn out when it has too much new stuff to milepost. Reading something challenging can make your brain tired. (I have officially given up on Infinite Jest and am currently seeing other books after dedicating myself to reading it over the summer…my Kindle says I made it 10% of the way through and have 44 hours left. Pathetic.) Doing difficult math, memorizing the periodic table, and learning a new computer program are all ways to stretch your gray matter so it remains alive and kicking, but the best way to pump your brain up is travel.
Travel bombards your brain with new experiences, unless the travel you are doing is to see all the Wal-Marts in the USA. A new city is full of new experiences and your brain is alive with activity, it is one of the reasons why travel is exhausting and it is one of the reasons why travel can push your date with the kitchen floor off for a few years.
There are some things that I believe we should all agree to keep exactly the same everywhere in the world because I am done learning about toilets, showers, public restrooms, and cutting in line.
The European toilet is something I have spent too much time thinking about. Maybe because I had lots of alone time to consider why the toilet engineer decided that designing it like this was the way to go. In Austria there was a dry porcelain platform in the toilet for some unknown reason. In other countries there were toilets with two buttons, one button, a lever, infrared sensors, and various levels of water in the bowl.
These differences might seem minor and easy to navigate, but after a long day walking all over Prague the last place you want to make a mistake is in the bathroom of St. Vitus’ Cathedral. I’m not asking for too much, I just want a standardized toilet for the world to use. (Bill Gates has also spent a lot of time thinking about toilets, so I’m in good company. http://www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/Global-Development/Reinvent-the-Toilet-Challenge)
Think about how many directions there are for using a toilet in an airplane, and people still get it wrong. Some idiot threw a diaper in the toilet on my flight from Stockholm to NYC. The diaper got stuck in the metal flapper that opens to allow the waste to get sucked into plane’s belly and created a real moral dilemma for those of us who like to leave things better than we found them.
I don’t care what type of toilet we agree to use, but please don’t choose the Austrian toilet.
I took three cold showers in Amsterdam. I didn’t take them because I had been out wandering through the red light district; I took them because I couldn’t figure out how to turn the temperature up from where the last person using the shower left it. (I stayed at one of those places with a shared bathroom.) In Copenhagen, the shower was like a tiny bathtub with an upper and lower area. The person who designed this shower must not have been Danish because form did not follow function. I couldn’t stand in either area because it wasn’t flat and I didn’t want to be rushed to a hospital in Copenhagen naked and half covered in frothy soap. Maybe if I was as athletic and as small as Simone Biles I could stand in one of the levels and have a shower, but I’m not an elf sized sprite, so I spent two days trying different showering techniques. Nothing worked well. I felt like a baby in one of those plastic baby bathtubs parents use for the first six months of a child’s life except I am not a tiny baby and nobody was pouring cups of warm water through my soapy hair saying, “That’s a good boy.”
In Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Munich the showers were all similar so I know that Europe can get a standard shower method together. It really isn’t that difficult.
In Prague, next to the Astrological Clock —one of the busiest places in the city—I saw a young girl (6 or 7, I’d guess) squatting to pee into a gutter. The look on her mother’s face is what I noticed…the mom’s face said it all, “We tried to find a bathroom, but no one would let us use it so here we are peeing in a gutter.” I’ve been there. I’ve been there with kids, kids who say they don’t need to pee and then two minutes later have to pee so bad that you believe they are going to explode. I’ve been there myself, looking for 20 minutes for a public restroom and then having to decide if a night in a Hungarian prison is worth peeing under an overpass.
I know there are lots of places with public restrooms, but almost all of them require some form of payment. Why? To pay the attendant? For cleaning? To pay for the water being used? Whatever, we have these same costs in the USA but we don’t charge to use the bathroom 95% of the time. If you guys in Europe don’t figure this out, I’m going to start selling disposable, biodegradable urine bladders to tourists so they can pee in a dark corner and then toss the waste in a garbage bin. #EuroPeeBag™
Most people do not cut in line in the USA because we know our fellow Americans: We are violent, short tempered, and packing heat. Standing in line for an extra two minutes is okay if you know you might get shot, but in Europe where the risk of getting shot for slipping into a line is minimized by strict gun control (also known as rational thinking) people do cut in line. At one time, I thought the cutting was limited to Italians because they were the boldest line cutters but it isn’t just the Italians who seem to believe that anyone who starts standing in a line at the end of it is a sucker, most Europeans operate on the understanding that a line a type of suggestion, “You could stand here, or here, or up here. You decide.” (Germans do not cut in line. If there is one group who are stricter about lines than Americans it is the German people. You might not get shot, but getting yelled at by someone speaking German is almost as violent.)
I don’t know how to solve this problem but here’s a suggestion, how about putting the rules for lining up in more than one language. I realize that English is the universal language, the language of business, the only language I can speak and understand, but I started to get the feeling that most of the signs in Europe were there for Americans and Brits to follow. Why not explain how to line up in English and Italian? In museums, a few signs about flash photography in Japanese might help. If you don’t want kids jumping on your holocaust memorial put the signs in Swedish. Don’t want little packets of chewing tobacco littering the world; maybe some instructions about not sliding those into the airplane seat pouch in Norwegian would cut down on that kind of thing. Don’t want drunks sleeping in their own vomit in a gutter? Okay, that sign should be in English, but the British kind with words like centre and colour.
Standardizing a few things doesn’t take away from the culture of the place, for example, if Sweden wanted to keep their toilets in those little unisex rooms that would be fine. I certainly don’t want to make more places like the USA we have enough influence on music, movies, and other forms of mindless entertainment, but it would be nice if we could agree on the basics. I don’t need biscuits and gravy in Prague (for the record, I don’t eat biscuits and gravy because it looks like somebody barfed on a plate) but I would like to see a sign by the central square that has an arrow pointing to a public restroom. If not for me, then how about for all the families with young kids who don’t need to be peeing into a gutter by the astrological clock.