Can I Buy You A Pee?

On my very first night in Prague in 1992, friends took me to the U vejvodů pub to celebrate my arrival. After what must have been 80 beers, I got up to find the restroom.

At this, my friend Karen sprung up, punched me on the shoulder and said, “hey, let me buy you a pee.”

I was surprised at first, and she must have seen it on my face. “Here you have to pay to use the bathroom,” she explained. Then I was relieved, because I realized that I hadn’t yet changed money and had no Czech crowns at my disposal.

I walked toward the restroom expecting to find the small coin-operated lockboxes that you sometimes find in better locations in the US, but instead was surprised to find my way to relief blocked by a small, wizened Czech woman insisting on two crowns. Not in her hand, I found out, as she gave the coin back to me and pointed to a basket on a meticulously-arranged table. The she perfunctorily counted out four sheets of a toilet paper that can only be described as “whole wheat” and handed them to me.

As I returned to my friends waiting for me at the table expectantly, Karen said with a grin: “Welcome to Prague.”

Over time, I came to learn the Czech slang word for bathroom attendants, hajzlbaba, which in itself is a mishmash of German and Slavic – “hajzl” being the slang for the toilet – apparently from a German word meaning the same thing – “baba” coming from the Slavic word for an old crone.

I’ve never stopped wondering where and how these women – and they are always women – made enough money to support themselves, let alone pay for the operation of the restroom.

As with everything, prices for a trip to the restroom have gone up, but thankfully it hasn’t degenerated into a situation where admittance is sold to the highest bidder; I’ve read about soft drink vending machines that adjust their price according to the temperature. How much would you really pay, after all? In most places, the going rate for a trip to the restroom is five crowns.

The number of places where you have to pay to use a restroom is rapidly diminishing. Restaurant and pub owners have gotten the message that it isn’t “Western” to charge someone for the restroom, and the only places I know of that still charge for admittance are in metro stations or the McDonald’s downtown.

Yes, you read correctly: the McDonald’s on Václavské náměstí charges to use its restrooms downtown, sort of. They give you a voucher that you can use for a purchase, which of course is great if you remember to go before you order.

There are still places in the “Western” world where you have to pay for restrooms – autobahn gas stations being an example that comes to mind – and it’s inevitable that your need to go is always compounded by your lack of change.

A couple of years ago, on a trip to Las Vegas, I was at the Mirage Hotel and needed to use the restroom. I walked in to find a bathroom attendant. As I was flat broke, the only money I had in my wallet was a 50-crown coin. So I gave it to him, and he asked, “what’s this?”

I thought about this for a while, then said, “it’s money from the Czech Republic. Hardest currency in the world.” The bathroom attendant said, “in that case, I’m a rich man.”

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