Sunday, 25 July 2010

Differences in the small things. Number One. (Literally)

Sometimes, the most striking cultural differences reveal themselves in the most mundane moments of daily life, those things you take for granted, like going for a pee or paying at the supermarket.

Every year when I arrive in the UK for the holidays, my "I've arrived" moment always occurs in the loo. I never fail to be surprised by the goose-down cushiness of the toilet paper in British homes. When I lived in London I never once gave thanks for the preferential wipe my nether-regions enjoyed, with their mulit-ply, decoratively embossed papers. They get nothing of that sort in Brazil, just (and excuse the pun) bog-standard one-ply stuff.

I can't say I have ever noticed the difference, and in fact the flimsy Brazilian paper is a God-send in my book, and not just for the environment: In fact, it lets me get away with repeatedly committing a grave bathroom felony. You see, in the UK you can flush fancy paper down the loo with carefree disdain, but in Brazil it is a mortal sin to drop paper into the toilet bowl once you are done. I don't really know why...something to do with antiquated plumbing systems or septic tanks or something? Most public loos have unmissably huge signs in each cubicle reminding you not to. Instead, you put it in a convenient little bin provided. Or, in my case, you don't.

It's just that after thirty five years of dropping the soiled paper into the water, I just can't break the habit. I have to admit that sometimes, even if I do remember what I'm supposed to do, I consciously choose to forget. It's something to do with my not wanting to believe that, or admit to myself that, I live in a place that is incapable of dealing with such a basic waste product. I usually have a pang of guilt at my misdemeanour just when I'm about to flush. For a milli-second my hand hovers above the flush button as I consider the practicalities of fishing the stuff out, but of course I never do. Instead, I scarper out, head hung low, imagining a tide of sewage from a blocked-up toilet chasing at my heels like my bad conscience.

It would be a stretch to claim any intellectual insight from this observation could redeem the banality of this post, but it is interesting to think about how, in "sophisticated" countries, people can be convinced that they really, really need something that they really, really don't, like puppy-soft paper that wipes their arses clean, but which cleans out the rainforest in the process.

In Brazil there are actually other options for washing the low-hanging fruits besides the paper. Bidets are commonplace, as are mini shower-heads mounted on a long, flexible hose attachment beside the loo. It took me years to figure what to do with those without spraying the entire bathroom but now I've got it that's sophisticated...and that's Brazilian.


  1. Wow, so I'm not alone. Even when I REMEMBER that I'm supposed to put the paper in the bin, I just can't allow myself to do it.
    Actually, my reason is that I would rather not contribute to the smell that accompanies the pee-soaked paper which comes with being thrown into an enclosed space.
    I just don't want to hurt others that way. ;)

  2. In Canada, the toilet paper is so plush that I wonder how come I don't clog up the toilet each time I use it... But once in a while, for saudade's sake, I put my plush paper in the bin.

  3. I'm with you on the whole smelly bin overflowing with soiled paper thing Linda...gross!! Isa you are too don't seriously do that do you???

  4. I can't believe I just read this eating my pain au chocolate and drinking my tea!!

    I just couldn't stop myself reading.

    You are so brave to go to a public loo I will not here in South west France, just not that brave!! keep writing I love it.

  5. Linds and Tasha,

    the author here might have mentioned it before, but we don't have that problem of smell or overflowing at all in Brazil because... Well... We're all addicted to cleaning and keep our houses spotless! My mom switches all the bins in the bathrooms once a day.

  6. I have an uncle who works in the paper industry (not here in Brazil), who, when I was complaining about having to get used to a habit I consider pretty gross, asked me to do an experiment; take 3 or 4 squares of your loo roll and put them in a glass of water (not previously used), after a minute stir and see if the paper literally disintegrates.
    So I tried that here, and the paper barely breaks, abroad it disintegrates into little pieces, this to avoid creating blockages and to degrade quicker.
    What I don't understand then is, with such an amazing paper industry, why does Brazil not make this other tipe of TP?
    And, BTW, as much as I clean out the bins every day, I still have a feeling that they smell a bit by the end of the day and cringe at the notion of what there might be inside.