World Toilet Day and the perilous poo platform

In the latest dispatch of Portnoy’s Stammtisch, The Local’s column about life in Germany, Portnoy tackles the touchy subject of the German loo shelf on World Toilet Day.

World Toilet Day and the perilous poo platform
One of the many uses of the dreaded platform. Photo: DPA

The German platform toilet might seem like too obvious a target for a column like this. The odious device is to expat conversation what airplane food is to comedy routines – a well-worn subject usually only revisited by the desperate.

But it’s World Toilet Day. Really.

Several years ago, a collection of 17 global toilet associations declared November 19 World Toilet Day – trust me, I’m not clever enough to make this up. Which makes one wonder how to celebrate this grand porcelain holiday. Do the same thing we do every day, I suppose.

Or, discuss the German platform toilet.

To most newcomers to this fine country, the contraption is an enigma. Who would want a shelf, just inches from your backside, that collects your business while allowing you to revel in your own stench? Not even a mercy flush is much help with this thing. And, to make matters worse, it’s almost impossible to get rid of what you want to get rid of without the manual assistance of a toilet brush.

Germans, perhaps tired of having to defend this terrible device to perplexed outsiders, usually just shrug if you bring it up.

It wasn’t until I’d lived here for several years that I finally found one who I believed would give me a straight answer. In a newsroom of mixed nationalities, we were blessed with a German colleague of questionably fervent patriotism (let’s not use the adjective “brown” in this context, okay?) with an amazing knowledge and love of Teutonic culture. I would never have managed to squeeze out a question about the platform on my own but emboldened by my other English-tongued colleagues, I let it fly.

“It’s so you can inspect your poo. You can tell if you’re eating right,” he told us in all seriousness. Rolf (name changed) was über-German – I’ve only ever met Dutch or Swiss who can speak with less irony. Actually, I’m being too kind. What he really said was: “It’s so you can inspect your Wurst.”

Wurst. Sausage.

You can’t fight it. As a foreigner in Germany, you just have to live with the platform toilet. I’m fine dealing with this country’s often treacherous bureaucracy, Bayern Munich dominating the Bundesliga and the omnipresent pop-culture clown Dieter Bohlen. But I’m never inspecting any of my sausages.

Still, I’m a little surprised 21st-century Germans still rely on this apparatus to dowse their health.

I’m actually convinced the thing has become yet another tool in the quest to emasculate German men. I’m talking about those ridiculous signs demanding men sit while peeing. I dogmatically ignore them even though I understand why German women think it’s imperative – launching a stream onto the perilous platform from a metre away causes the kind of backsplash reminiscent of really good, um, log rides at an amusement park.

This all could be avoided with a proper toilet with some water down at the bottom. Why aren’t German men fighting against platform toilets so we can be rid of peeing stickmen with red Verboten lines crossing them out?

We renovated our apartment several years ago and at the time I found myself standing in our small, unfinished guest bath with three large construction workers. When the plumber suggested he install a run-of-the-mill toilet, I replied: “Not if it has a platform.” At that point, the three burly men looked at me as if I had no idea how to truly void my bowels.

I refused to budge and the plumber’s wife, who runs an upscale bathroom shop, called that evening. “But Mr. Portnoy, you have small children. It will be really useful.” Tired of talking crap, I told her I wasn’t planning on looking at any pint-sized sausages either. I gave her a model number for what I considered to be a normal Klo and my bank details.

At home, at least, I am now platform-free.

The good people at the World Toilet Organization (again, I’m not making this up) seem to understand my suffering. Just take a look Toilet Day’s theme this year: “We Deserve Better.”

Perhaps I should donate to their cause.

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Germany’s Scheffelbrücke: Everything you need to know about the ‘world’s most expensive bridge’

Germany's Scheffelbrücke might not seem like much to look at, but by some accounts it is the most expensive bridge in the world. Here’s what you need to know.

Germany's Scheffelbrücke: Everything you need to know about the ‘world’s most expensive bridge’
The Scheffelbrücke in Baden-Württemburg isn't known for its astounding beauty or engineering prowess - but it is known for its price tag. Photo: Heinz Seehagel, Creative Commons.

If you’re travelling near the Swiss border, you might come across the Scheffelbrücke – a quiet, two-lane bridge over the Radolfzeller Aach in Baden-Württemburg. 

By bridge standards, the 20-metre concrete construction seems relatively unremarkable – until you take a look at the engraved sign on the side which quotes the price tag. 

A sign on the bridge references the incredible price of the bridge: 1,520,940,901,926,024 Deutschmarks. 

That’s 1,500 trillion marks. 

Why is the Scheffelbrücke Germany’s most expensive bridge – and why is it so drab?

While Germany has the money and the landscape to have some expensive bridges, that over the Aach hardly rivals the Golden Gate, London Bridge or Sydney Harbour for elegance or ingenuity. 

The bridge, completed in 1923, takes the name of Joseph Victor von Scheffel, a German writer who will forever be associated with the glorified concrete slab. 

While one might suspect pork barrelling or crafty accounting as a reason for the astonishing cost – or perhaps a trick to reel in the tourists to the otherwise unassuming village of Singen – the cost is in fact real.

The high price is a consequence of the out of control post-World War One inflation which hit Germany, where money almost completely lost its value. 

A sign for the bridge reveals its extortionate building costs. Photo: Heinz Seehagel, Creative Commons.

Local authorities, wanting to boost the economy, signed off on the bridge as an infrastructure project. 

As a consequence, some local workers presumably became millionaires as a consequence – although there was perhaps little meaning to the idea of being a millionaire when a billion would only buy you a concrete bridge. 

Fortunately, Germany was able to bring inflation under control and wheelbarrows full of money were no longer required to purchase basic things.

And almost a century later, when not taking wacky inflation into account, Germany’s ‘most expensive bridge in the world’ no longer has that title. 

That goes to the Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco (no, not the Golden Gate but the other one), which cost 6.3 billion US dollars – or roughly 5.2 billion euro  – to build. 

The Oakland Bay Bridge however goes for eight kilometres and possesses some of the aesthetic qualities which one would expect from the most expensive bridge in the world.