Letter from Prague


Those of you of a delicate disposition might like to turn off the radio for a few minutes - but do please turn on again for Daniela's From the Weeklies - she'd never forgive me if she found out I was putting people off her show. This week I want to talk to you about toilets. Yes, toilets. Czech toilets. Don't worry - I'm not going to get too graphic here, this is a family programme after all. But there is a glaring idiosyncrasy about Czech toilets which, in my opinion at least, is well worth three minutes of deconstruction on the radio.

This striking oddity about the humble Czech toilet hits you well before you enter it. And for those listeners who hadn't turned off but are now seriously considering the idea - please, bear with me for a minute - for what I'm about to say has nothing to do with water closet odour or hygiene. No, the toiletry aspect to which I refer is unrelated to smell. It concerns something far more alarming, something which first drew my attention about three years ago, and which has gripped my fevered imagination ever since.

Go to any bar, restaurant or pub in Prague, from the hippest, highest-class hangout in Hradcany to the dingiest, darkest dive in Dablice, and you will discover the following remarkable fact: the door to the gents is almost always open, and the door to the ladies is almost always closed.

I have spent much of the last three years visiting pubs and restaurants testing this theory and trying to figure out a possible explanation. My initial research, usually conducted in a fog of alcohol, has confirmed the assumption beyond reasonable doubt - I found only a handful of toilets which confounded my expectations. As for a scientific explanation, there are, according to my carefully documented findings, only two: (a) Czech bar and restaurant staff deliberately leave the door to the gents open - for reasons to be elaborated upon in a moment. Or, (b) Czech men never close the door on their way out. This too deserves further examination.

The first explanation is hard to justify. Why, after all, should Czech men be inherently less capable of opening a toilet door than members of the fairer sex? Are they so addled by cheap beer that they are unable to grip a simple handle? Surely not. Is it necessary, perhaps, to lure the Czech male to the porcelain altar with the scent of toilet cleaner and the faint glow of fluorescent light? Hardly. Why then is the door always left open?

Or there's explanation (b). The bar staff themselves dutifully close the door to the gents' toilet, but Homo Czechus leaves it open every time. This is more plausible, for a multitude of social and cultural factors, but is still inconclusive. Czech men are not, by nature, rebellious or contemptuous of social convention. They tend to stick to the rules.

So what's it to be? I must say I'm stumped. I can find no reasonable explanation for the practice. I've tried asking Czech friends, but they look at me as if I were mad. I once tried asking a barman, but he took it as a criticism of his establishment and stalked off in a huff. I am no nearer to finding the solution.

So I turn now to you for help. Judging from the letters, Radio Prague has listeners all over the world. If the door to the gents is always open in your country, whether it be Bulgaria or Belize, please drop me a line. The address is: Toilet Door Research, Radio Prague, 12099 Prague. All tips gratefully received.